Much has been made of the farm-to-table restaurant movement. But what happens to all the food that ends up uneaten at the table?
In what you might call a burgeoning table-to-farm movement, a small but growing number of companies are being launched around the country to answer that question, to help restaurants deal with the ecologically and economically expensive problem of food waste by composting it.
"The restaurant business is an incredibly wasteful business," says Peter Egelston, owner of Portsmouth Brewery restaurant in Portsmouth, N.H. "We generally put more food in front of people than they can eat in one sitting. If it's not going home in a doggie bag, it seems like we should send it where it will have new life."
And so two years ago Egelston's brewery began composting with the help of EcoMovement, a company that hauls food waste from about 40 restaurants in the region and takes it to be composted.
Composting — a natural process in which food and other organic scraps are decomposed into fertile soil — has long been a mainstay of farms and backyards. But few restaurants have the space or time to compost their own waste. And so they typically pay to have it disposed of in landfills along with the rest of their trash.
But as communities have struggled to reduce their waste, pressure has mounted on the restaurant industry to do its part.
"A few things changed," says Michael Oshman, CEO of the Green Restaurant Association. "Cities in California passed laws requiring some level of waste reduction. To attack waste reduction without looking at food is like having a heart patient come in to the doctor and not talk to them about exercise and diet. So cities like San Francisco begin composting. They demonstrate it's doable and others follow their lead."
San Francisco began a pilot composting program in 1996, which quickly expanded. In 2001, officials made composting available city-wide on a voluntary basis; it became mandatory in 2009, including for the city's more than 5,000 restaurants. Since 1996, the city has composted more than 835,000 tons of food scraps.
Since then, other cities — including Seattle — have passed similar laws that mandate composting. But desire isn't enough. To compost, you either need to have a place to put food waste — and the time to tend to it — or arrange for it to be taken to a farm or composting facility.
And that's where companies like EcoMovement come in. Rian Bedard was inspired to start the company when he moved from San Francisco to New Hampshire and realized no one was offering compost pickup. They began hauling food waste in November 2009.
Food-waste hauling remains a small industry, in part because the companies struggle with where to bring the waste. Few actually handle the composting themselves, instead serving as an intermediary.
Some, like Compost Cab in Washington, D.C., work with area farms. But that also can limit the volume and content of what can be picked up.
"There are two main constraints on a farm that you don't have on an industrial facility," says Jeremy Brosowsky, who started the company almost a year ago.
"When you're managing a small-scale operation on a farm in an urban environment you want to be respectful to your neighbors. People worry about smell and rodents. We ameliorate that by not being too big. The second constraint is just volume. Urban farms tend to be less than two acres. Composting takes about a half acre. You can't overwhelm them with volume because that takes attention away from the farming," he said.
Which is why most compost hauling companies work with commercial composting facilities, of which there are about 300 around the country.
San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels & Restaurant Group has encouraged all of their 53 restaurants — including those outside the Bay Area — to compost. It isn't always possible. Only 35 of their properties have programs at this time.
"The biggest challenge is finding someone who can haul it away," says Frank Kawecki, senior director of operations for Kimpton. "It's usually some guy in a truck. It's very grassroots and local."
The company's 10 restaurants in Washington use EnviRelation, a 12-person company that hauls food waste from nearly 200 offices, hotels and restaurants. Last year, the city's Kimpton properties alone composted more than 408,000 pounds of food scrap.
Despite trepidation about smell, staff training and pest nuisance, when composting is available most restaurants find that it is simple.
"It's the same waste we were putting in a dumpster," says Egelston. "It just goes in a different color bin. We've reduced our waste stream so dramatically we renegotiated our trash pickup and that offset all of the costs of the compost program. And our customers really appreciate it and that's good for business. It's not just this woolly-headed, tree-hugging idea. There's a practical use to this."
Brosowksy believes this move to compost is similar to the start of the recycling movement. In twenty years, he suspects everyone will be composting.
"Municipal composting is coming," says Brosowksy. "Farm to table is good. Farm to table back to farm is even better."