Classic dishes and world class restaurants make up an important part of New Orleans’ economy and culture. Each year, millions of tourists come to sample it. The food is stellar, but New Orleans lags behind other major coastal American cities in sustainability. Growing, transporting, processing, preparing, distributing, and discarding food has a tremendous but necessary impact on our environment. It presents a huge challenge and opportunity to increase sustainability. Restaurants sustain New Orleans, but are they sustaining our planet? Seed, Ancora Pizzeria, The High Hat Cafe, Parkway Bakery and Tavern, and Dat Dog agreed to share their conservation successes and challenges.
A common misconception is that food easily decomposes in a landfill due to its organic nature. Rather, the lack of air creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and leachate, a toxic water pollutant. This can be avoided through composting which uses air, time, and dry matter such as leaves or hay to create fertilizing, plant feeding soil. New Orleans city municipality does not offer food waste pick up. The only commercial options are two private companies that charge a small fee: Schmelly’s Dirt Farm and The Composting Network. Seed, a local vegan restaurant, is a customer of Schmelly’s. They are able to discard paper products as well.
High Hat Cafe, Parkway, and Ancora had informal, no-charge agreements with local gardens. All of the gardens eventually became overwhelmed with the amount of food waste and the partnerships were discontinued.
CEO Paul Tuennerman shared that Dat Dog tried to donate food scraps to a local school’s composting project. It became too difficult with staff turnover. “For us, it’s a matter of having the ability to do it with some degree of ease so it’s not so burdensome on the organization and doesn’t cause too big of a disruption.”
Other cities are ahead of New Orleans in this area. Austin, Texas passed a law in 2018 that bans restaurants from throwing away food waste. Instead, they must compost and donate it.
Edible Food Waste
Due to the nature of food cooked to order, Dat Dog, Parkway, and Ancora waste little to no food. They all get multiple shipments of food weekly and are able to tweak the orders each night to fit their exact needs. Ancora’s menu is market-driven and often changes. Bigger menus and pre-cooked food are more prone to wastage.
Parkway finds itself with excess food after catering parties. They use the Meal Connect app from Second Harvest to partner with nonprofits looking for food. The app asks for the weight, type of item, pick up time, and even provides an automatic tax deduction calculation. Parkway used to call organizations and the logistics were hard to coordinate. This app has made the process much easier and smoother. Second Harvest is a branch of the national organization Feeding America. Feeding America diverts 2.6 billion pounds of food from landfills each year.
A common misconception about food donation is that donors can be held liable for food poisoning. In fact, they are protected by the 1997 federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act. This law suspends liability for the donor – and the non-profit food distributor – for donations made in good faith. Louisiana also has a law to protect food donors as well. Donated food is needed – 23% of Orleans parish residents are food insecure, which means they are not always able to afford food for themselves and their families.
Other restaurant owners were open to donating, but concerned over logistics such as pick up time and transportation. A little known tip is that The New Orleans Mission – a homeless shelter – picks up extra edible food. This organization currently receives food from the dining halls of Loyola, Dillard, and Tulane Universities. NOLA Mission serves 38,000 hot meals a month.
Most chefs are familiar with the concept of cross-utilization: using different parts of a single ingredient in multiple menu items and repurposing food prep trim. The effort restaurants spend to cross-utilize varies.
Head Chef Dan Causgrove tells his staff at Seed to creatively to make use of everything. One procedure they have in place is to use oft-neglected parts of carrots. The carrot tops are soaked in ice water to reduce bitterness and are used to garnish three of Seed’s dishes as well as their carrot pesto. The carrot skins are put into their carrot cake. There is a strong motivator for Seed to reduce food waste: profit margins for plant-based food are small. Dan says that cross-utilization is the most effective way to keep food costs down and even found this emphasized at other restaurants.
Parkway receives shipments of long loaves which they cut to make individual sandwiches. The ends are too short, so they use them to make bread pudding. Dat Dog uses the ends of tomatoes to make their pico de gallo.
The chefs at High Hat use shrimp shells to make the base of their BBQ shrimp and shrimp creole. They use chicken bones to make stock for the base of their gumbo.
Head Chef of Ancora, Adrian Chelette, does everything he can to “put new life into food”. He sautés the stems of greens. He pickles broccoli and cauliflower stems to serve on their meat boards. They receive whole pigs and use the scraps to make lard. Ginger scraps are used to make wine, then fermented again to ultimately make vinegar. Wine and beer close to expiration are turned into vinegar as well. Adrian finds it is worth the time because he already paid for the food. He learned how to repurpose food through his own research.
Adrian co-owns Ancora which gives him lots of control over managing inventory. When he worked for establishments in the fine dining and buffet sectors the situation was much different. “In fine dining they would only serve the center of food, for example, and the rest would be thrown in the trash. It was eye opening. Some vegetables could have had a second life, but they had no time or knowledge to process them.”
Phoenix Recycling is the only option for New Orleans commercial businesses. Some interviewees thought they were reasonably priced; most thought it was too expensive. New Orleans could use some competition in this area, and several people thought they were running close to capacity. Many restaurants don’t recycle.
Co-owner of High Hat, Chip Anderson, found adding recycling reduced their trash bill by a quarter. This cost reduction did not fully offset the cost of recycling, but Chip says it’s worth it because “it is the right thing to do”. He doesn’t find it to be a financial burden because their restaurant is profitable.
Ancora is dedicated to recycling everything, even their trash bags are recyclable.
Parkway pays to recycle paper, plastic, and glass. They fill up several bins each week with their root beer bottles – a classic pairing with po’ boys. Parkway’s parking lot is made of recycled plastic and retains up to four inches of rain water. This reduces flooding in the area and takes a burden off the overloaded city sewage.
Dan from Seed had experience with the oyster recycling program at Seaworthy. Phoenix recycling takes the shells to a cleaning facility. Then they are transported to the marshes to help reefs grow faster and healthier because they protect the wetlands. The wetlands reduce storm surges and are currently lost at an alarming rate.
Single Use Disposables
Recycling has become significantly harder and more expensive since China stopped accepting recyclables. The production process and disposal of plastic, paper and styrofoam are not pretty. Reduction is better than recycling. Restaurants tend to have a lot of single use items such as plastic bags, deli paper, and takeout containers. Straw and plastic bag bans have swept the country with the most recent happening in Orange County of Florida. They banned food service from using all plastic and styrofoam products. Another solution lies in reusable take out containers. West coast companies GO Box, GreenGrub Box, and Rouge To Go allow customers to drop off their take out container at several locations. They are washed and reused by other program participants. Tulane recently launched a similar program for their on campus dining locations.
Seed has a large takeout business. They use biodegradable sugarcane clamshells. They are made out of bagasse fiber – a byproduct of sugar cane processing that would normally be thrown away or incinerated. At the bar they serve drinks with metal straws.
Parkway serves their food in to-go ware. They follow the 1930s tradition of wrapping po’ boys in paper. Much of their business is to-go anyways. They switched their styrofoam drinking cups and clamshells to paper. Paper takes a couple of weeks to break down in a landfill compared to the 500+ years it takes styrofoam. They are still using styrofoam cups for gumbo though because paper cups cannot withstand the wetness.
Dat Dog food comes on top of paper in reusable baskets. They made the switch to non-bleached, which reduces toxic chemicals. The paper is compostable. However, the paper is thrown away and would need to be sent to a composting facility to break down. They switch to paper baskets when they’re really busy. They have moved away from styrofoam and plastic as much as possible.
When High Hat takes to-go orders, they check if the patron wants plasticware. They know that person is likely going home where they will not need it. This prevents waste, while saving money. They use compostable straws and only give them out on request. Chip joked that the straws “practically start composting in the drink”. Although to truly compost they would also need to be sent to a facility. Several NOLA restaurants have switched to compostable products, but the Greater New Orleans area still lacks an industrial composting facility. The closest site is located in Mississippi. There are over 4000 facilities in the U.S.
At High Hat they prefer to put lids on kids’ drinks to prevent spillage and used to use two disposable cups per drink as kids would squeeze their cups. A few years ago Chip was visiting a family member at the hospital and noticed a uniquely sized reusable plastic cup. He found that the disposable lids that High Hat used fit on it! He contacted the manufacturer and explained his need. They typically sold to hospitals, but were willing to work with him.
Ancora uses hay straws. They avoid straws wrapped in paper because Adrian believes that is unnecessary waste as it is immediately thrown away. When suppliers are out of stock they use plastic straws without the wrapping.
One disposable item restaurants can’t get away from is using nitrile gloves in accordance with health code laws.
Need for Ease
General manager Justin Kennedy shared that Parkway joins in on sustainability trends when they become widespread because it becomes affordable and clear that it isn’t a fad. At this point suppliers have scaled up, increased efficiency, and there is competition – all leading to lower cost. “The restaurant business is a pennies game. We try to do our best for the environment though a lot more can be done. In time we will continue to move forward. Our first priority is to continue our business”. Dan agrees: “You still have to run a business. We can’t express our ideas about sustainability if Seed is out of business.”
Adrian from Ancora believes “it has to start from the top to make widespread change. Individual businesses can be as sustainable as they want, but it would be beneficial if there were sustainability incentives from the government for restaurants. That could make a big change.”
These restaurants have successfully incorporated sustainability while maintaining financial health. In a city that struggles with sustainability, we can look to them as leaders as they work on expanding practical, feasible sustainability in their restaurants.
The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act is federal law, and states cannot have a lower level of protection for donors
Food Recovery Verified Program – assistance to start a food recovery program
Food waste reduction tips from Refed as well as an analysis of the most economically beneficial changes
Tax deductions for food donation:
Louisiana Food Donation Tax Law
Commercial Composting for New Orleans:
Food Storage for Maximum Life:
Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch search portal to access sustainability information on wild caught and farmed fish