Adding Green to the Garden

| Scene Reporter

Jean Ponzi, program manager at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Earthways Center, says,“It’s always nice to be a first.” The sentiment rings true for Sassafras, the Garden’s restaurant.

A large green banner with the tag “Certified Green Restaurant” practically blocks the entrance. This title is a trademark that only the Green Restaurant Association (GRA) can award. Don’t look for that banner anywhere else: Sassafras is the first GRA-certified restaurant in the state of Missouri.

Ponzi thinks that Sassafras’s environmental commitment is important to customers.

“For us at the Missouri Botanical Garden, we’re marketing the garden,” she said. “So it is definitely to our advantage to offer [environmental conservation] as an attraction.”

This drive for conservation is not new. Many of the restaurant’s endeavors in sustainability, including natural lighting and prominent recycling bins, were in place long before the certification process began.

Some people still doubt, however. One woman, whose husband lectures on environmental issues, could not understand why the restaurant did not serve organic foods, especially juices, which, she said, are easy to make.

“If you have a salad you have a slice of ham,” she said, pointing to the menu. “Ham is [just about] the worst thing you can eat.” Ponzi, however, emphasizes that environmental change is a process.

“There’s plenty more we can do,” she said. “[Certification] is definitely not a be-all and end-all, but it’s definitely something we’re committed to as an institution.”

There are certain obstacles to sustainability. Lynn Heermann, the head chef, tries to buy only local vegetables. He uses organic lettuce and spinach, and he cooked with Missouri tomatoes for about two weeks. But such purchases rely on close relationships with growers which take time and money to maintain.

“The other thing you have to think of is, what will people pay?” he said. “If someone wants a free-range chicken, do they want to pay double the price?”

The restaurant has derived some creative solutions. Heermann was worried about the polystyrene containers that all of his flatbread came in. Instead of throwing them away, he started washing them out and giving them away as extra small to-go containers.

Ponzi and Heermann have worked together since February in the push to become certified. The GRA certifies anything from restaurants to stores to cultural institutions. As well as having the first certified restaurant in the state, the Garden is only the second museum in the country with the distinction.

In return for a variable fee, the GRA recommends four changes to an institution per year. The recommendations derive from a detailed survey which covers everything from the restaurant’s construction to the model numbers for each piece of equipment. Sassafras has committed to a three-year membership.

For Sassafras, the GRA recommended using recycled chlorine-free cups and napkins, incorporating environmental education for guests—including detailed advice for customers at www.mobot.com—and installing aerators for kitchen and bathroom sinks. These devices inject air into the water stream, thus maintaining water pressure while reducing waste.

Heermann took charge of the project, even adding a suggestion of his own. The restaurant already used paper to-go boxes in place of polystyrene, but Heermann took another step by introducing 100 percent recycled paper boxes. Paper takes 20 to 60 days to degrade in a landfill, as opposed to polystyrene which exists almost forever.

“I have kids, and you start thinking about what’s going to happen to your grandkids,” Heermann said. “[Going green] is not going to make a huge difference in the huge scope of things, but it’s definitely going to make a difference.”

The newest changes have had mixed results so far. The new napkins have still not arrived, but the aerators, which reduce water usage from five gallons to 1.2 gallons per minute, are popular with the staff.

“To a man, they said it works better than the old [nozzles],” she said.

Like organic foods and other green purchases, the new equipment can run a high price tag, but Heermann thinks it is are worth the cash. For instance, he chose to ditch Styrofoam cups in favor of paper, even though paper costs slightly more per unit.

“I’ve said that to people before, at least go one step toward green. If you think of every soda you sell, one penny isn’t going to kill your profits.” Because Sassafras has long practiced many sustainable business methods, the GRA improvements were relatively easy.

According to employee Lachelle Shearer, “They were always into recycling, they just got better.”

The restaurant has always recycled. It has always used environmentally-safe products. In 2005, Sassafrass used sustainable materials to renovate the building, like walls made of cork, tabletops made of alfalfa, and paint with low volatile organic compound (VOC) content.

“We came in with some of the really easy low-hanging fruit already done,” Ponzi said.

Nobody is exactly sure what the next step is. One cook has recommended removing all the fryers from the kitchen.

“It’s a big new overhaul, but it’s something we might think about,” Ponzi said. But ultimately, to create significant change, Ponzi knows that she will have to teach customers to make changes of their own. She hopes Sassafras will set an example.

“I think that the more people hear about these principles and practices,” she said, “the more they will take them seriously, and the more they will take them into their homes.”