A Brooklyn-based eatery has begun operating under a zero-waste ethos, meaning they do not send any trash or food waste that enters their business to a landfill
By Matthew Sedacca
Published: Jan 4, 2020
Dishes served at Rhodora in Brooklyn, Nov. 21, 2019. The Brooklyn wine bar and restaurant is one of a handful of establishments in different cities that is trying to totally eliminate waste from its premises. (Winnie Au/The New York Times)
NEW YORK — Garbage is inevitable in the restaurant and bar business. Kitchen employees toss onion skins and meat fat into the wastebasket almost instinctively. Once-used plastic wrap and slips guarding the linens find their way into black bags for trash-day pickup. Plastic bags are ordered by the bundle and then often discarded after customers use them to take leftovers home.
At the Brooklyn natural wine bar and restaurant Rhodora, however, taking out the trash works a little differently.
The new eatery is one of a handful of establishments in various cities that have begun to operate under a zero-waste ethos, meaning they do not send any trash or food waste that enters their business to a landfill. There is not even a traditional trash can on the premises.
The aim is to lessen the restaurants’ environmental effect while running a profitable venture — with a possible added benefit of solidifying their eco-conscious bona fides among discerning clientele. Such radical idealism comes with challenges, including finding producers and distributors who can accommodate requests like compostable packaging and figuring out how to recycle broken appliances.
“We’re in the business of serving people,” said Henry Rich, a co-owner of Rhodora. “And it feels incongruent to take care of somebody for an evening and try to show them a great time, and then externalize the waste and carbon footprint of that evening onto people.”
A recent report from ReFED, a nonprofit organization focused on food waste reduction, found that restaurants in the United States generate about 11.4 million tons of food waste annually, or $25.1 billion in costs. The Environmental Protection Agency has reported that food waste and packaging account for nearly 45% of the materials sent to landfills in the United States.
The reason zero-waste “is not a mainstream concept, that you don’t see it in gastronomy or hospitality in mainstream ways, is because we’re just waking up to it,” said the chef Douglas McMaster, who runs the waste-free London restaurant Silo and advised the owners of Rhodora. “We’re just seeing the reality of wasting as much as we do.”
Rich and Halley Chambers, the deputy director of his Oberon restaurant group and co-owner of Rhodora, spent almost 10 months and $50,000 researching and transforming their Fort Greene space into a neighborhood joint that could operate without any trash pickup.
Halley Chambers and Henry Rich, co-owners of Rhodora, at their restaurant in Brooklyn, Nov. 21, 2019. The Brooklyn wine bar and restaurant is one of a handful of establishments in different cities that is trying to totally eliminate waste from its premises. (Winnie Au/The New York Times)
Out went many of their regular vendors who wrapped deliveries in single-use plastic. In came tools to aid their waste-reduction efforts: a cardboard shredder to turn wine boxes into composting material, a dishwashing setup that converts salt into soap, beeswax wrap in lieu of plastic wrap.
“It’s not arcane secret knowledge,” Rich said. “It’s just a couple things that are very specific, and you need to kind of reengineer how you think about” operating a restaurant or bar.
Much of the planning time was spent searching for distributors and producers who could adhere to Rhodora’s mission. One cheesemaker offered to remove the plastic wrapping before delivery — and then throw it in the garbage.
A handful of companies were able to accommodate the unorthodox restrictions, including She Wolf Bakery and its sister butcher shop, Marlow & Daughters, which deliver reusable plastic bins full of fresh-baked breads and jars of pickled vegetables and eggs via Cargo Bike Collective riders. Another company, A Priori Distribution, switched to using compostable packaging and paper tape when dropping off aluminum tins of fish.
“It certainly is unique, and that is new for us,” said Caroline Fidanza, culinary director of the Marlow Collective, which includes She Wolf and Marlow & Daughters. “There’s a certain amount of that that’s very doable. It’s harder to package things than to not package them on some level.”
Alongside limiting the amount of spoilable inventory Rhodora orders, Rich said, the bar eliminated any sort of chef position, partly to avoid creating “a top-down kind of vibe, where there were things being considered other than being zero waste.”
Rhodora’s staff members, who rotate duties like waiting on customers and popping sardine tins to plate food orders, congregate weekly to generate simple menu ideas based on what’s available from the bar’s dozen or so approved vendors. Cheese boards and mushroom broth are staples.
“Having a small staff playing a central role, we can be more nimble than a normal restaurant,” Chambers said.
The paper menus, which feature a miniessay on the restaurant’s green mission, are fed to the compost pile when they become outdated or tattered. Anything left on customers’ plates is dumped into collection bins in the kitchen, which are fed into the commercial-grade composter tucked inside hutches adjacent to the bar. (Rhodora does not serve meat, which is more difficult to compost, although its composter does process any fish that is left over.)
Natural wine bottles and most other noncompostable containers are removed for recycling via Royal Waste Services, which the restaurant said also accepted broken glass. Corks are donated to ReCork, a recycling program that repurposes the material for shoe soles and yoga blocks.
There are financial incentives for restaurants to invest in these zero-waste practices, with one study finding that restaurants save on average $7 for every $1 invested in kitchen food waste-reduction practices. The National Restaurant Association found that around half of diners say they are beginning to consider establishments’ efforts to recycle and reduce food waste when choosing where to eat.
A bag of scarps for composting at Rhodora in Brooklyn, Nov. 21, 2019. The Brooklyn wine bar and restaurant is one of a handful of establishments in different cities that is trying to totally eliminate waste from its premises. (Winnie Au/The New York Times)
But many establishments operate on slim profit margins, and it is not always immediately obvious how programs to reduce food waste can translate into financial gains, said Angel Veza, director of the Hospitality Advisory at First Principle Group, a global advisory firm. Many chefs and restaurant owners see little incentive in pursuing more environmentally friendly ways to order ingredients, much less pay an extra $800 as Rhodora does for a bin from TerraCycle. The company turns hard-to-recycle trash left behind by customers, like gum or plastic wrapping, into new goods. (Rhodora has a second bin placed in the bathroom for used hygiene products.)
“If they’re thriving, making money, they don’t have a reason to change,” said Veza. “Restaurants close all the time, too, so the last thing they’re going to think about is, ‘Am I going to use single-use plastic?’”
Though Rhodora is striving to ensure its space is zero waste, the system isn’t perfect. It hasn’t been determined, for example, what the landfill-eschewing answer is to disposing of a dishwasher beyond repair.
“I don’t want to pretend we have everything figured out,” Rich said.
The first batch of compost will be used to fertilize its minigardens on top of hutches outside the wine bar, and possibly the Brooklyn Grange’s rooftop farm at the Navy Yard. A Rhodora spokeswoman also said that compared with Rich’s previous Brooklyn restaurant venture Mettā, the business had saved an average of $300 a month in part by eliminating its trash pickup. (Chambers estimated that Mettā, which promoted itself as being a carbon-neutral and low-waste restaurant, produced 7,000 pounds of trash per month.)
“We’re at one pivot point,” Rich said. “The hope is that maybe we can influence and inspire some people above and below to learn what zero waste is, because it’s so beautifully simple not having a trash and not sending it to the landfill.”