In the spring of last year — a lifetime ago, in other words — the city of Little Rock and the Little Rock Zoo, with the buy-in of local restaurants, were preparing to launch an initiative to certify restaurants based on their efforts to reduce waste.
This was also part of an effort to reinvigorate the Arkansas Green Restaurant Alliance, with its emphasis on sustainability and which was founded more than a decade ago.
But then the pandemic hit and restaurants throughout the United States found themselves struggling just to survive. Now, despite the onslaught of the delta variant of the coronavirus, vaccines have allowed the city to again consider beginning the Green Restaurant Certification Program.
If implemented it will be just one strategy employed by restaurants and other food-service providers in Arkansas to reduce their environmental footprint and in doing so earn the business and appreciation of like-minded diners and customers.
“We’d like for restaurants and food trucks and the hospitality industry in Little Rock to think about reducing waste, whether that’s food waste, the materials that are used for takeout or dine-in, just to really start to think about how we can lessen the impact of our wasteful society, whether that’s single-use plastic or the bags that takeout is carried away in or the food that doesn’t get eaten,” said Lennie Massanelli, the sustainability officer for the city of Little Rock.
Karen Zuccardi, the chairwoman of the Little Rock Sustainability Commission and a graduate of the Clinton School of Public Service whose school project evolved into the program, said that when she was researching her project “I identified that there are plenty of restaurants in Little Rock that already are doing whatever they can in regards to becoming greener. The problem is that the city itself has not established a strong or clear baseline on how they can do this. They want to become better, but there is no direction. There is no literature.”
Zuccardi said the certification program has three goals:
► Help restaurants to become greener in a highly public program that serves to encourage other establishments through the exertion of a kind of peer pressure, and so setting off a domino effect.
► Encourage “circular economy” startups. A circular economy emphasizes reuse, sharing, repair and recycling of resources and eliminates or limits waste. Zuccardi gave the example of an engineer developing compostable or biodegradable plastic or alternative materials for to-go containers. “The more restaurants that are involved in the green initiative, the more opportunities for entrepreneurs to flourish in the industry.”
► Incentivize tourism. Millennials and Generation Z are drawn to places that “are more in tune with the reality of the world that we live in, and so by becoming greener we also become a spot for younger generations to visit but also to move to,” she said.
Massanelli said that last year, “we were so close to launching it [the certification program] and a single-use plastic bag program that we were going to present to the city board. There were lots of things just on the cusp that came to a screeching halt once COVID hit.”
But the program is now again up for consideration. “A lot of restaurants that are still around have adapted to the times,” Massanelli said. “As you look at each tier for certification, it starts pretty easily.”
A draft of the program guidelines lists three tiers of the Green Restaurant Certification Program — Green Foundation, Super Green and Green Excellence — with each tier progressively more devoted to environmental sustainability. The Green Foundation tier, the first, would have restaurants implement an “ask first” policy about, say, drinking straws or condiment packets instead of automatically supplying a straw with every drink.
Once a business completes a tier, the GRCP will provide materials like a static cling sticker showing its certification that the restaurant can display on doors or windows, the draft guidelines state. In addition, a restaurant will be recognized by the city, zoo and Plastic Free Little Rock, a citizen advocacy group that has participated in developing the program.
That provides “social capital,” Massanelli said. “A lot of restaurants tout really their reputation of being green and being environmentally aware.”
The certification program also aligns with the environmental education efforts of the Little Rock Zoo. “And also our mission for conservation,” said Susan Altrui, director of the zoo. “A big part of what we do at the zoo is conservation education and encouraging people to respect the environment.
“Part of learning about wildlife is learning about the places where they live so the more that we can do to educate the public about how we care for our environment, it’s also how we care for animals. In the world that we live in, we are all connected.”
Among the catalysts for the program was concern over the pollution caused by plastic straws, said Capi Peck, co-owner of Trio’s Restaurant in Little Rock, a member of the Little Rock Board of Directors and board liaison to the Sustainability Commission.
Many area restaurants, like Trio’s, already employ sustainable practices, Peck said. “There are lots of restaurants that do recycle their glass, have banned plastic bags — we did that years ago — that have banned Styrofoam — we did that long, long ago.
“And then the new things coming on board are: don’t automatically give a straw, ask, and then the whole composting thing. ...
“But everything was just sort of pushed to the back burner, because honestly, restaurants are just morphing into a different business model, it seems like, every other day” because of the pandemic, Peck said.
She said about 60 restaurants had shown interest in participating in the alliance and the certification program, including those known for environmentally sustainable practices like the Root Cafe and Community Bakery, both of Little Rock.
And despite the continuing challenges — COVID-19 flare-ups, supply chain issues, increasing costs — it’s time to resurrect these efforts, Peck said.
Jack Sundell, owner of the Root Cafe and Mockingbird Bar & Tacos, noted that his businesses already source about 77% their food costs locally. “Local food is the heart and soul of what we do,” he said. “We strive to purchase everything we can from farmers and producers in Arkansas.”
And as far as reducing waste, “we never use Styrofoam. We never use disposable plastic containers. We use compostable fiber containers, compostable cups,” Sundell said.
As for straws, his businesses recently began using Phade straws, which are biodegradable in the ocean as well as compostable.
Sundell sees the Green Restaurant Alliance as “a tool for education for restaurants that are interested in making more environmentally friendly choices.”
John Brandenberger, CEO and co-owner with his wife, Juli, of Community Bakery, said the couple consider themselves part of the Green Restaurant Alliance. “My wife and I, on a personal level, are major recyclers. We compost at home. … We obviously want to bring that same kind of what I’d call moral responsibility to the brand of Community Bakery.”
Community Bakery, for example, had eliminated plastic straws and plastic utensils until pandemic supply chain issues forced it to again deploy them temporarily.
Brandenberger thinks environmentally minded restaurants that band together can use their buying power to influence vendors to offer more sustainable products at better prices. “I think if all restaurants stood together, especially in a community, and said, ‘We don’t want Styrofoam. We don’t want this. We want these biodegradable, compostable [products],’ I think you can drive down costs. And then if businesses are transparent and share who their resources are, we all can win.
“And the beauty of it is, the community wins.”