The Unlikely Sustainability Hero: the Restaurateur
Thanks to the “Jump Starting the New Green Economy” conference, my eyes were opened to a new sustainability hero, the independent restaurateur.
For the past 17 years, Francis Schott has been a partner in the highly successful, independent restaurant, stageleft, which sits next to the George St. Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ. What makes the restaurant special is that its management does all it can to use locally grown ingredients for the creation of its entrees and desserts. As Schott sees it, this practice of buying locally adds yet another layer to the networks that restaurants naturally create whereby the fabric of community is drawn together tighter.
Sound like a stretch? Think about it. Restaurants are among the few gathering places left in our society as the numerous civic clubs, moose lodges, and bowling leagues have faded into our cultural history. Humans are inherently social animals and they love getting together.
By purchasing food from the local farmers, restaurateurs like Schott and his partner Mark Pascal connect the network of diners to the network of farmers in the community. This connection benefits all as the dollars stay in the local economy and support local food production capability.
In addition, a restaurant is one of the few, if not only, local businesses that actually “manufactures” and sells its product on Main Street, USA, anymore. As Schott would tell you, nobody makes shoes on Main Street. Nobody makes clothes on Main Street. Nobody makes cell phones on Main Street. Nothing you buy on Main Street is made there anymore. The truth is that running a restaurant is a human capital intensive activity that keeps more people employed than any retail operation in a comparable space.
The result is a series symbiotic relationships that generate a positive reinforcing cycle. The local farmers grow the best tasting, freshest, most nutritious food that has a lower carbon footprint than foods that are highly processed and shipped in. The restaurant serves excellent and healthy food while creating a community space for families, friends and neighbors to converge and exchange ideas and information. And the workers who can’t necessarily afford a degree or specialized training can earn a decent living and develop a skill set that could ultimately lead to greater opportunities in the future — whether those opportunities are managerial or entrepreneurial in nature.
Granted, we’re not talking about restaurants like Mickey D’s or the Olive Garden. The full package requires a locally owned, independent restaurant serving up food that is locally produced. There is a tremendous opportunity for what is the last bastion of small business in America, the restaurant, as well as for the small independent farmer who needs new vibrant markets to survive. As David Grant once said, “sustainability is about connections,” and there is a connection here that can make a positive difference for many.