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Going Green Without Going Broke

Local restaurateurs put their heads together to make takeout eco-friendly.

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Dan Rosenthal was vacationing on Saint Barth's last year when a dead loggerhead sea turtle washed up on the beach. The loggerhead is a threatened species, and when the local paper reported that this one had swallowed a plastic bag, Rosenthal had a crisis of conscience. His Loop-based casual-Italian minichain Sopraffina Marketcaffe went through 400,000 nonbiodegradable petroleum-based plastic bags a year. And his 89-year-old mother was a sea turtle activist on Longboat Key, Florida.

"I figured I've got to start somewhere," he says. "I cannot allow my mother to be launching thousands of baby turtles while I'm up here trying to kill them with plastic bags."

The problem, he discovered, was that he could easily go broke going green. The printed takeout bags he was using at the time cost about three cents apiece, compared to ten cents for biodegradable corn-based bags. "That's a seven-cent differential on 400,000—$28,000 a year," he says. Rosenthal, who also owns the Loop restaurants Trattoria No. 10 and Poag Mahone's, decided to make the switch anyway. But the prices on other green disposable wares—plates, utensils, takeout containers, toilet paper—were similarly prohibitive, and in many cases the products weren't even available in the midwest.

Rosenthal contacted several organizations for advice—the city's Department of Environment, Boston's Green Restaurant Association, and the local Delta Institute, a nonprofit devoted to sustainable development—and quickly learned that the solution was one of basic economics. If more area restaurateurs demanded green products, suppliers would have more incentive to stock them.

He envisioned a local restaurant co-op whose combined buying power might help lower prices as well. But how to find members? "We went to the Pied Piper of hospitality in Chicagoland, who knows everybody and knows all things—Ina Pinkney," Rosenthal says. The owner of Ina's, a homey restaurant in the market district, and a consummate networker, Pinkney assembled an e-mail list of her industry contacts and other potentially interested parties. In late October she hosted an exploratory meeting for the group, which Rosenthal had named the Green Chicago Restaurant Co-op. More than 100 people showed up, including representatives from big corporations Lettuce Entertain You and Levy Restaurants as well as from usual suspects like North Pond and Lula Cafe.

Bringing other restaurateurs and industry professionals on board turned out to be the easy part. The new co-op had to negotiate complicated pricing structures with a hierarchy of manufacturers, brokers, distributors, and redistributors just to make green products available in the Chicago market at all. One of its first successes was landing a line of corn-based containers, cups, plates, and cutlery manufactured by a Boulder company called Eco-Products.

"We had to give forecasts to Eco-Products as to what we thought the co-op would buy," says Rosenthal. "Then we had to make those forecasts available to the distributors. And the distributors had to determine what their order would be—then they had to place the order and the manufacturer had to create the product and ship it from China."

Rosenthal understands the irony of buying green products from a country with an environmental record as abysmal as China's—to say nothing of the energy spent getting them here. "I'm not sure at the end of the day that we're really doing as much good as we think we're doing. Are we doing good by substituting compostable biodegradable stuff for number six polystyrene plastic? I think so. Could I be wrong? You bet. But like Mao says, 'The walk of a thousand miles starts with a single step.'"

There may be more hurdles. For one, green products remain more costly than conventional ones. "We will always spend more on these things," Pinkney says. "There's a savings from the original prices, but they're still more expensive than the bad things." For another, conventional distributors may put up a fight. When Rosenthal informed his current source of plastic cups that he was switching to the co-op's distributor, he says he was told, "'Oh, too bad, so sad. We're just getting ready to ship to you a sufficient supply of this cup—based on your usage—to last until April of 2009.'" Rosenthal says he has no contractual obligation to buy those cups (which still haven't turned up), "so we're about to go to war."

The co-op currently is a loose federation. There's no membership fee, and those who join aren't required to buy green. But Rosenthal sees even good-faith commitment as contributing to momentum. The group plans to add more eco-friendly products—toilet paper is next. Other future projects include a joint recycling program. And on February 1 one of the co-op's allies, Hilton Chicago purchasing manager Mary Ohnemus, is organizing a free trade show for hospitality professionals featuring more than 100 green manufacturers and suppliers.

Rosenthal may quote Mao, but he believes capitalism is ultimately what's going to turn the restaurant industry green. "The good news is that in the free-market economy this is what competition is all about," he says. "When all of a sudden Sweetheart Cup sees that because they have a polymer-lined paper cup people are getting off of it, and the pricing structure has gotten to the point where people are creating sufficient demand for alternative products, they will either see the light or go out of business."   

For more on food and drink, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.

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