Zero-Waste Restaurants: Is It Possible?

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The food service industry is notoriously waste-intensive, from piles of packaging to mountains of food waste. So, why aren’t more restaurants giving zero-waste a go? What are the challenges holding them back, and is such a lofty ambition even possible?

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Founded by German-born entrepreneur Florian Pfahler, Hannah's Bretzel is out to do the unthinkable at its four Chicago locations - go entirely zero-waste. Photo courtesy of Hannah's Bretzel

Even with recycling programs in place, high volumes of food scraps and other organics make it next to impossible for restaurants to obtain zero-waste goals without composting. Unfortunately, the high costs of composting in urban areas often keep it from becoming a feasible option for many businesses. As a result, most composting eateries are high-end restaurants where visitors pay more than $30 per meal.

Though composting may seem out of reach for smaller, quick-service restaurants, one organic sandwich shop is paving the way, and proving that quick, healthy and responsible can merge.

Founded by former advertising executive Florian Pfahler, local sandwich chain Hannah’s Bretzel is making significant steps towards zero-waste at its four downtown Chicago locations. Earth911 spoke with the German-born entrepreneur to find out what makes a zero-waste restaurant and if low-impact goals are possible in the food service industry.

Organic ingredients

Usually, fast casual restaurants aren’t the most likely places to find local and organic eats. But to Pfahler, it just made sense to bring healthy and eco-friendly options to diners on-the-go.

“That’s the way I would like to eat,” the restaurateur said simply, remembering days of munching on ultra-fresh fare at his grandparents’ farm in Stuttgart, Germany. “Food can critically contribute to how you live your life… if you treat yourself well, I think you you feel freer and purer in your ability to move in a healthy way.”

Hannah’s Bretzel posts all-organic commitments on the walls of its eateries, assuring diners that the ingredients listed are 100 percent organic, 100 percent of the time. The local chain now serves only organic fruit, bread, eggs, tofu and meat, and posts updated commitments as other organic ingredients become available.

While choosing ingredients that are healthy for customers and have minimal impact on the environment was high on Pfahler’s list of priorities, he wanted to do more to lighten the footprint of his business. So, a year after opening his first restaurant in downtown Chicago, the entrepreneur set his sights on zero-waste.

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Going zero-waste

“[The restaurant] industry is very packaging-heavy, very much waste is created when it comes to packaging,” Pfahler told Earth911.

With that idea in mind, Pfahler zoned in smarter packaging solutions to reduce waste. In 2005, Hannah’s Bretzel became the first fast casual restaurant in Chicago to switch to 100 percent biodegradable packaging, eliminating a huge chunk of the chain’s everyday waste stream.

But even with smarter packaging choices, restaurants produce a whole lot of waste. Pfahler implemented in-house recycling programs at each of his restaurants as they opened their doors, which cut back on a great deal of shipping and packing waste, he told Earth911.

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While many business owners would pat themselves on the back for a job well done, Pfahler knew there was more he could do to keep trash cans empty. So, last year, he dared to go where few restaurants have gone before – composting.

After contracting with local door-to-door compost pick-up service Collective Resources, Pfahler instituted a pilot composting program at his highest-volume location. He had high hopes for the program but was met with challenges right away, which he shared with Earth911.

“When it comes to composting, that was a big challenge,” he said. “It’s not so much whether a restaurant wants to compost, it’s about having places to put the compost.”

“Because there is no composting facility close-by, [Collective Resources] needs to transport the compostable waste to Indiana, which is probably a 45 minute ride from here, and that increases expenses.”

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With few composting options in the area, Pfahler saw a 1,000 percent increase in waste removal costs when he started the program – a significant sum for the slim profit margins of a fast casual restaurant. While higher costs and limited resources presented an obvious problem, Pfahler was pleasantly surprised by how empty restaurant waste bins became.

“The funny thing is that when you [compost] there’s not a whole lot left over for traditional waste,” he said. “Landfills will be kept kind of empty if you’re composting on a larger scale. For the food industry, there would be very little traditional waste left.”

Pfahler estimates that about 10 percent of Hannah’s Bretzel’s internal waste is recycled and a whopping 80 percent is composted, putting the restaurant enticingly close to its zero-waste goals. Despite limited composting options, Pfahler said he is optimistic that the market will catch up to the demand and plans to implement composting at a second location next year.

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Energy efficiency

Composting proved to be more expensive than Pfahler expected, but the creative restaurateur managed to make up for the added cost in a somewhat surprising way – by switching to alternative energy.

“We went to 100 percent solar and wind power at all locations about a year and a half ago,” he said. “And we’re paying less for that than for traditional electricity.”

The chain’s most recent location, at 233 N. Michigan Ave., became the first fast casual restaurant in Chicago to meet LEED-certified standards, further reducing wasted energy and improving efficiency.

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Can It Be Done?

With a staggering 90 percent waste diversion rate at his composting pilot location, Pfahler is well on his way to obtaining his zero-waste goals – an achievement he hopes will inspire other entrepreneurs to reduce their own waste.

“I want to showcase in a way that being modern and being progressive doesn’t mean we have to lose our tradition, being healthy doesn’t mean we have to lose taste, and being healthy doesn’t mean we have to lose fun or pleasure,” he told Earth911.

“In doing that, hopefully it will inspire other restaurateurs and entrepreneurs, or maybe even existing restaurant chains, to unlock that efficiency potential and move to systems that are environmentally more progressive.”

If you live in the Chicago area, head to one of these four Hannah’s Bretzel locations to find out what a zero-waste sandwich tastes like. And if you don’t, keep your eyes peeled. A zero-waste restaurant could soon be coming to a Main Street near you.

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Homepage Image courtesy of Hannah’s Bretzel

Mary Mazzoni

Mary Mazzoni

Based in the Phoenix metro area, Mary is a lifelong vegetarian and enjoys outdoor activities like hiking, biking and relaxing in the park. When she’s not outside, she’s probably watching baseball. She is a former assistant editor for Earth911.

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