Chicago Restaurant Generates Zero Waste … Literally

In just over two years of being in business, Sandwich Me In has not sent anything to the landfill.

Nate Clark
BioCycle July 2014, Vol. 55, No. 6, p. 28

Justin Vrany, owner of Sandwich Me In (left)), educates customers about sustainable food systems and waste reduction strategies to promote protecting resources for future generations.

Justin Vrany, owner of Sandwich Me In (left), educates customers about sustainable food systems and waste reduction strategies to promote protecting resources for future generations.

From the time Justin Vrany opened the doors of Sandwich Me In in Chicago in May 2012, he set out to be different than any restaurant where he had previously worked. “I have always been passionate about the environment, and what my employers are doing with waste and where the food is coming from,” notes Vrany. “I never worked at a restaurant that practiced sustainable waste management, and this was always hard for me. At Sandwich Me In, our zero waste philosophy applies to everything.”

And when Vrany says everything, he means everything. In just over two years of being in business, Sandwich Me In has not sent anything to the landfill. “Everything that we use is compostable or recyclable,” he explains. “When customers eat in the restaurant, they get everything on a tray with real silverware, soup bowls and glasses, all of which we wash and reuse. We also do to-go and delivery orders. For these we use all compostable packaging, including plastic ware, cups and straws, to-go containers, paper bags, etc.” Receipts are given to customers only if they request one, and Vrany mentions this does not happen often.

All of the food served at Sandwich Me In is sourced from regional farmers. Vrany tries to make as much as he can in-house to reduce food costs and waste.

All of the food served at Sandwich Me In is sourced from regional farmers. Vrany tries to make as much as he can in-house to reduce food costs and waste.

Conscious procurement of both food and serviceware has been necessary for Sandwich Me In’s zero waste success. The restaurant where Vrany worked prior to opening Sandwich Me In sourced 75 percent of its food from local farms, and it is here that Vrany formed relationships with the farmers he utilizes today. “The number of farmers we source our food from is always changing, but I would say right now it is between 7 to 10 different regional farmers,” he says. “Sourcing everything locally on a continual basis from the same farmers allows us to keep reusing packaging and containers. When they bring food, they will bring it in cases, carts, or even plastic bags. We give everything right back to them, they reuse it, and the cycle continues.”

As far as food serviceware, Vrany notes that in the beginning it was difficult to convey the restaurant’s sustainable principles to vendors. “The first year was a nightmare trying to explain to companies that we are a zero waste restaurant, so you can’t be sending me ‘X-Y-and Z’ because I can’t do anything to dispose of it,” he explains. Since the grand opening in 2012, Sandwich Me In has generated 8 gallons of nonrecyclable trash, which an artist picked up to make into a sculpture. “I would say close to 75 percent of that 8 gallons was outside trash [both that customers brought in and companies sent], and the rest was disposable coffee cups,” Vrany states.

Food Scraps Diversion

In just two years, Sandwich Me In generated only 8 gallons of nonrecyclable waste, which an artist is using to create a sculpture.

In just two years, Sandwich Me In generated only 8 gallons of nonrecyclable waste, which an artist is using to create a sculpture.

Sandwich Me In diverts all of its organic waste through three different avenues. Collective Resource, a food waste hauling service in Chicago, collects the majority of the food waste, including meat and bones, compostable food serviceware and parchment paper. Collective Resource provides a 32-gallon tote that it services once per week. Plant-based waste, like fruits and vegetables, is sent to either one of two farmers for processing — Urban Canopy, an urban farm located 15 miles from the restaurant that supplies 80 percent of the produce used in the restaurant, and the chicken farm that Vrany purchases from. Sandwich Me In does not use a recycling company for blue-bin recyclables. Instead, Vrany collects and hauls all recyclables to three processing facilities in the region.

Two months ago, Vrany began a food scraps diversion initiative with community members, allowing households to collect their food scraps in reused condiment containers that he provides, which they bring back to the restaurant once per week and receive an empty container in return. Vrany is excited about the response to the program, as well as the educational opportunities it is providing. “Our customers who are participating are realizing that, through source separating and diverting their food scraps, they are seeing how much food they are wasting,” explains Vrany. “In the beginning of the program, customers would bring in two full containers each week. Just two months later, the same customers are bringing in three-quarters of a container for the week. They are not only helping the environment, but they are also saving money because they are not wasting food.”

Reflecting on the success of Sandwich Me In’s garbageless operations, Vrany offers three pieces of advice for restaurant owners who want to do something similar. “(1) Get to know your farmers and source locally. (2) Utilize all of the products that you bring into the house. If you are making chicken, use every part of that chicken, both to prevent waste, but also to save food and product costs. (3) Think about what you are buying, and make whatever you can in house.” Whatever the recipe, Vrany has shown that zero waste can really mean zero waste.

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