A Little Goes A Long Way
The green practices that Portland’s restaurateurs are implementing right under our carbon footprints.
STORY BY CHAD WALSH
PHOTOS BY RICH CROWDER, NOLAN CALISCH, AND RACHELLE HACMAC
Change is coming to Portland’s food scene. In fact, it’s already at a slow boil. Restaurants are going tip-free (and sometimes service-free, á la indie fast-casual joints), and the minimum wage will continue to rise, as will commercial rent.
But lately, more restaurateurs are also keeping an eye on the environment and the role that eating plays in it. A few years back, Nature magazine reported that approximately 16,900 megatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions were released into the atmosphere in 2008 — a number that takes into account the energy needed for refrigeration, as well as deforestation, which is no longer traveling in a slow, encroaching manner.
That puts restaurateurs in a tough bind. They’re already operating on profits that are so thin, you can practically see through them. Still, successful restaurant owners know that to stay competitive while attempting to eke out a profit, they need to turn to sustainable business practices to stay in the game. And we should be ready to pay a little more to help keep them in it.
Sourcing locally has always been a good place to start. Many, if not most, restaurants already name-drop their purveyors on their menus, but other things are being done behind the scenes that don’t get recognized unless you ask.
Take, for instance, the British Isles–inspired Raven & Rose. It serves farm eggs during its Sunday brunches. You can read it right there on the menu. But what you might not know is that some of those eggs are laid by approximately 50 birds that roam the home farm that Raven & Rose owner Lisa Mygrant and her partner, Dave Shenaut, share in nearby Vancouver. Or that those eggs are laid by chickens who feed on the restaurant’s scraps. (The birds are especially fond of calcium-rich oyster and mussel shells.) And what Lisa and Dave can’t source from their own coop, they find through small-egg providers who also give their chickens the freedom to roam and peck.
This practice helps the restaurant reduce the amount of their kitchen waste. It also means they don’t have to rely on egg providers who care little about how their chickens are treated, so long as they’re laying eggs. Coincidentally, the same practice applies to the bar program. Any time a bartender shakes up a fizz, the yolk is saved and delivered to the pastry department.
This closed-system ethos is something Lisa picked up on and practiced as a student at Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery School, which operates on a 100-acre farm in County Cork, Ireland, near the coast of the Celtic Sea.
Ballymaloe, in all its entirety, was Lisa’s classroom. In addition to learning cooking techniques, she and her classmates practiced farm-to-table practices. If she was going to butcher a pig, she first had to learn to care for it.
After returning stateside, where she pulled a couple of short kitchen tours—first at Chez Panisse, then at Paley’s Place—Lisa opened Raven & Rose in the old Ladd Carriage House in downtown Portland.
But her dedication to local sourcing—up to and including her own lifestyle—isn’t the only sustainability angle she practices. She and Dave think those some standards should be applied to the front of the house, and to the house itself.
If you’ve dropped by for a meal, you’d instantly see that the restaurant is tastefully decorated with a sort of stately British restraint, but you probably wouldn’t know that most of what went into that décor is reclaimed and recycled—in addition to the preserved building, itself—and that all the appliances are energy efficient.
The tables are made from reclaimed wooden crates, and the nails that hold them together are made with recycled metals. The dining room floor is reclaimed farm fencing. The hood auto-adjusts to use less energy—which is more important than it sounds when you consider that PGE still gets more than 20% of its energy capacity via coal. The cleaning products are so green that Lisa jokes you could drink them. And even the air gets recycled—Lisa and Dave installed a contraption that brings in fresh air from the outside every hour.
“Restaurants have the potential to leave huge ecological footprints and to have profound and far-reaching impacts on the environment,” she says. “Restaurateurs use tons of electricity, water, gas, and chemicals, in addition to sourcing ingredients with potentially large footprints. My dream was always to do it all with less impact. It is exactly the way I live my personal life, and I will do it no differently at my business.” In the course of implementing these policies, her science of earth systems engineering degree from Cornell University didn’t hurt, either.
And then there’s Grain & Gristle and Old Salt Marketplace’s Ben Meyer, who also believes in operating in a closed system, and when it comes to his meats, he’s taking the novel approach of knowing exactly where his meats are coming from: He became his own source.
For years, Ben worried about the fate of Oregon’s few remaining small, independent, family-run, slaughterhouses. He wondered what would happen if he had no other choice but to contract with a larger meat-packing operation that couldn’t check all the boxes on Ben’s animal treatment checklist — like making sure the animals are well cared for and that they’re given the kind of feed they’d eat if they weren’t wandering around on a ranch preparing to get eaten themselves.
“It would be a huge loss to the state if the independents closed,” he says, not just for the jobs lost, but for the small ranchers and the public who relies on them. At present, Ben says there are only a handful of small, family-run slaughterhouses. The rest are operated by bigger players who are required to do nothing beyond meeting USDA standards.
However, those worries were mitigated when, on January 1, 2017, Ben took control of Mark’s Meats — now known as Revel Meat Company — the Canby abattoir that had been run for 35 years by Kris and Joe Akin, who were finally ready to retire.
When operations are in full swing, Ben expects to process 18 sides of 100% grass-fed beef per week, 24 pigs per week, and as many as 60 to 80 sheep per week. A lot of what Revel processes will be used for Grain & Gristle and Old Salt Marketplace dishes and sold to high-volume restaurants like Lardo and Grassa. He’s also fiercely determined to keep Revel a small operation.
Ben notes that the original Pacific Northwest co-ops and purveyors—the ones name-dropped on all those menus—started small, too. They had a nice, tidy niche market to operate in. But as demand grew for more small-farm chicken and local grass-fed beef, those co-ops and purveyors were forced to look outside the Northwest for sourcing, meaning they could no longer square their original missions.
“The bigger those operations get, the more the product gets watered down,” Ben says. “We’re going to demand of ourselves that our supply dictate our market, and right now, we’re creating guidelines that we can’t sell ourselves short on, guidelines that restrict us.”
Still, Ben wants to get his products to as many people as possible. It will be good for Revel Meat Company, but it will also be good for the small ranchers he works with. And to help meet the public’s home-cooking needs, Ben plans to roll out a CSA-inspired program for Community-Supported Beef.
He asks us to imagine that instead of traveling out to your favorite farmer’s drop site for your week’s supply of vegetables, that you receive a 20-pound box in the mail filled with New York strips, two chuck steaks and two pounds of ground beef, which can be used for that night’s dinner and frozen for multiple meals down the line.
And because that meat is coming from small, nearby ranches to the Revel Meat slaughterhouse in Silverton instead of from daily fleets of trucks trekking in from Texas, it dramatically lowers Ben’s—and the buyer’s—carbon footprint.
At a time when we spend more at restaurants than we do at the grocery store, restaurants now represent a growing share of the nation’s food pie. And in a way, the people who run them are making a lot of our decisions for us—from doing their part to lower that carbon footprint through sourcing and construction to bringing the fresh air from the outside indoors. They’re increasingly trying to do right by us and our environment — one carbon footprint at a time.
Chad Walsh is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. He contributes to — and sometimes pinch-hits as editor at — Eater PDX and writes for other publications, like Edible Portland.