By Christopher McKinnon
I recently visited with Elliot Rubin at The Curious Palate market and kitchen at 12034 Venice Boulevard in Mar Vista 90066. He and partner Mark Cannon started the popular gourmet location in 2008. You can read all about them and the startup story on their website www.thecuriouspalate.com.
There you can also find out about green design elements utilized in the initial build out of the restaurant such as reclaimed lumber in furniture and countertops, zero V.O.C. paints for walls and flea market décor. My intent was not to eat their fine food or shop this time but to investigate the compost operation which Elliot had mentioned to me several months ago. His hope is to inspire other Mar Vista restaurants and businesses to look towards recycling, composting and conservation not only as good for the environment but potentially add to the bottom line as larger volumes lower costs.
The Curious Palate works with Athens Services, a City of Industry based waste hauler and recycling company that is reported to be the largest recycler in the County of Los Angeles. Athens is the partner with the City of Los Angeles to provide food waste and organics recycling for food service establishments. The program is subsidized by the City in a three year program which is helping the City meet its State mandated landfill diversion requirements. Elliot estimates that 80% of their waste stream can be composted by Athens. Food waste collected in Los Angeles is mixed with green waste at American Organics, a subsidiary of Athens, and after three months of curing is screened and the nutrient-rich compost is ready to be delivered to farmers and gardeners or mixed into other AO brand soil amendment or fertilizer products.
Athens provides The Curious Palate with two dumpsters; a smaller 1.5 cubic yard bin for the compostable waste collected twice a week and a larger 3 cubic yard trash bin which is shared with residential tenants on the property collected twice a week also. Elliot went through the extensive list that goes into the greener bin. It includes cardboard, light wooden crates that some food comes in, bathroom and kitchen paper towels, all other paper goods, compostable paper hot to-go cups, corn starch based cold drink ware. Waste is pre-sorted into three streams in the kitchen area. They have two green trash bins in the kitchen where chefs use one for food waste including meat and the second one near the sink to scrape customer leftovers into before washing the dishes. Paper, cardboard, light wood gets mixed in as well so it makes it very convenient for the staff to accomplish without much thought. Separate gray containers are used for the recyclable materials such as non-deposit plastic, glass, tin cans which can go in the larger regular 3 yard dumpster. Athens runs a large state of the art Materials Recycling Facility or MRF (pronounced Murf) where machines and hand labor sort recyclable material from landfill destined trash.
A third trash container in the kitchen is used for plastic and glass 5 cent deposit type items. The cleaning staff is incentivized at The Curious Palate because they get first crack at these items that can produce cash at any local commercial recycling center. I spoke with one of the apartment dwelling employees, Dominick Duhamel, who, with his bosses permission, brings his home created compostable cardboard and deposit recyclable materials weekly to add to the store’s stream. He estimates that it saves him about 50% of what he would otherwise be adding to the landfill. He also goes through the customer created trash to sort and rescue recyclable/compostable items. What ends up in the Athens smaller Compost bin is largely cardboard, milk cartons, paper, food waste, coffee grounds, wooden stirrers and the like. Athens allows plastic bags so when it gets to the depot the plastic is removed and recycled separately before composting the rest.
Elliot hopes that more restaurants get involved in the composting program because restaurants and institutions, like hospital food programs and studios that have cafeterias, create more trash then all the residences combined. He feels that, if nodes of neighborhood restaurants develop, like Mar Vista for example, then 80% of the trashed materials can be composted and diverted from the landfill. It only takes a little training to get cleaning, front and kitchen staff up to speed to embrace the program. The restaurant owners have to allocate a few dollars a month to get the smaller Compost bin picked up but this charge can be offset by fewer pickups of the larger trash bin or replacing with a smaller trash bin. Some cerebral thought is required as to where the materials are going and realizing that you’re not creating more trash but could be actually reducing it.
At peak restaurant rush hours, it does take some increased effort to implement a recycling feature that doesn’t necessarily make financial sense at first. Socially, community and environmentally wise they do pay off in the long run. Elliot thinks that it is important to market recycling/composting so that it is not considered a financial or mind drain to integrate a system into restaurant operations. The additional cost in labor for doing pre-sorting, composting, recycling of cardboard to farmers is worthy of doing and The Curious Palate owners feel strongly about doing their part. Initially Elliot thinks other restaurants may be resistant because it does require a small weekly/monthly investment and some thought to start up a composting program. If the neighborhood is made aware and embraces business recycling/composting programs, patrons may start asking the restaurants if they are participating. Customers must vocalize that it is an issue that is important to them. Owners inspired to get on board could get a lift from the community support. Elliot says frankly that most customers don’t ask (but he does tell) and the community does not yet demand that Curious Palate or other restaurants participate in a compost program. Now is the time!
Next time you’re enjoying the great food, coffee or shopping for chocolate thank the workers and owners for all they do to keep Mar Vista green and how much you appreciate their efforts.