How Grand Rapids restaurants are producing less trash
By: Shandra Martinez
GRAND RAPIDS, MI -- At some restaurants, it isn't just the food left on your plates that can be composted. So can the straws, cups, napkins, forks and takeout boxes.
"In Grand Rapids, we have been able to decrease trash volume by close to 90 percent," said Autumn Sands, of Barfly Ventures, noting her company's waste is now either recycled or composted instead of heading to landfills.
Sands is the sustainability coordinator for Barfly, which includes Grand Rapids Brewing Co., Stella's Lounge, McFadden's and a growing chain of HopCat restaurants.
The transition from plastics to products made of agricultural byproducts began by switching to straws made of PLA plastic, a corn material that breaks down in 180 days. The restaurants also have stopped using tinfoil to wrap sandwiches and burritos.
One example of Barfly Venture's efforts was March's Irish on Ionia event, the largest St. Patrick's Day street festival in the state, where 12 yards of waste was composted and 35 yards was recycled.
"We had less than two yards of trash," said Sands, noting most of the trash was banners from vendors, who she plans to encourage to switch to reusable banners in the future.
Most of Barfly Ventures' compostable products are made by California-based World Centric, and distributed by Grand Rapids-based BBC Distributing.
Green products help distributor to best year
Last year, BBC Distributing had its best year in its 40-year history.
Greening up its options with compostable and other sustainable products has paid off. Sales climbed 40 percent in 2014, and are on track for a similar double-digit hike this year.
The extra revenue is creating more jobs. The restaurant supplier plans to hire eight employees in the coming year for positions such as administrative support, delivery drivers, service technicians and sales representatives.
"The growth of BBC Distributing is attributed to our full-service approach to customer service as well as our ability to understand and support our client's sustainability initiatives," said Joey Ghent, sales manager at BBC Distributing. "We take pride in partnering with our customers every step of the way, from the initial design phase to on-going weekly deliveries."
Ghent isn't just the sales manager, he is part owner. He bought in when he joined the company in August 2013, a few months after a group of silent partners bought the business from the son of founder Don Dunkleberg. Previous owners, Steve and Celeste Dunkleberg, remain part of the 18-person workforce.
Since Ghent took over, the company has expanded from a beverage distributor to a food service equipment supply company. He trains his sale force to take the time to educate customers about their sustainable options.
"BBC Distributing is one of our sustainability champions that supports our environmental business philosophies," said Hillary Fifield, assistant general manager at Bistro Bella Vita, part of Essence Restaurant Group, which also owns Grand Rapids eateries Grove and The Green Well.
More Grand Rapids area restaurants and breweries are striving for a zero waste business model, says Joshua Leffingwell, spokesman for West Michigan Environmental Action Council.
He credits Ryan Cappelletti, founder of vegetarian focused restaurants Bartertown and Cult Pizza, for raising the bar when it comes to a sustainable restaurant model.
"They were very intentional from the beginning where they source their products, down to making sure everything was thrown away very properly," Leffingwell said.
In its annual awards, WMEAC has spotlighted the efforts of brewery Founders, and given Sands its 2015 Women of Hope Award for her efforts.
Going sustainable saves money
There is a financial argument for going the sustainable route.
"I found out we could actually save money by switching to the products," said Sands, who as a bartender at Grand Rapids Brewing began looking for ways to help the brewery reduce its waste stream.
While compostable straws cost up to 15 percent more than traditional straws, to-go boxes made of plant fibers are 35 percent cheaper than non-compostable options.
"Overall, we save about 20 percent," said Sands, who began switching over to compostables in January 2013.
The challenge for Sands these days as Barfly expands into other cities is finding the local infrastructure to insure compostables don't end up in landfills.
She credits Thad Cummings, owner of My Green Michigan, for trying to fill that niche by creating compost routes in Lansing, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor and Detroit. The Grand Rapids market is served by New Soil.
A few years ago, Cummings helped fuel demand by introducing World Centric products to the West Michigan market before joining forces with BBC Distributing. Now, BBC distributes and Cummings is a regional sales rep for World Centric.
"I found I spent all my time back at the warehouse organizing boxes instead of helping companies go zero waste," said Cummings, a Grand Rapids resident.
In addition to The Essence Group, Barfly Ventures, Bartertown and Cult Pizza, Cummings has signed up the Gilmore Collection and the Brann's Steakhouse restaurants to use compostable products.
Restaurant supply giant Gordon Food Service is also seeing an uptick in demand for environmentally friendly products.
The Wyoming-based company began in 2008 offering Enviroware cutlery, which is biodegradable. In 2011, Earthchoice cutlery, created from renewable materials but not considered compostable, was added as an option.
Last year, GFS began carrying the product line Plantware with materials from renewable sources, such as Ingeo plant-based plastics PLA, made from corn, potatoes, sugarcane or soybean protein. The products are compostable over a two- to three-month timeframe.
"We have seen increased demand and interest in these products, especially from national restaurant chains, and attractions such as zoos and aquariums," said Jim Falling, GFS category manager for disposables. "As more customers demand the environmentally friendly products, more food service operators will use the products."
The tradeoff can be an additional cost for cutlery products, he said.
BBC Distributing is taking its environmentally friendly products beyond the restaurant industry to land accounts with corporations, universities and event companies across the state and in northern Indiana.
In addition to record sales, 2014 was a year of change for BBC Distributing. In November, the company moved its operations to a 68,000-square-foot facility, at 1601 Steele Ave. SW, from a 8,400-square-foot warehouse on East Paris Avenue in Grand Rapids.
The company, formerly known as Bar Beverage Control, also rebranded to a new moniker and logo.
"The brand refresh exemplifies our increased product offering and expansion into new vertical markets," Ghent said.
Photo by Joel Bissel