It Isn’t Easy Being a Green Restaurateur, But It’s Worth It
by Jessica Newens
May 20, 2010 | 2472 views | 0 0 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print
TELLURIDE – With their long histories as green-minded restaurant owners, Honga’s Lotus Petal’s Honga Im and La Cocina de Luz’s Lucas Price are more than qualified to speak about what it takes to remain true to your cause while running a successful business in an isolated mountain community. And they did just that at Friday’s Green Business Round Table, the fourth in a series of presentations hosted by The New Community Coalition and the Wilkinson Public Library.

The room was packed with interested listeners (it didn’t hurt that there were free breakfast burritos and freshly brewed coffee), who were also there to learn about the Ridgway/Ouray shop-locally campaign from Box Canyon Lodge owner Karen Avery. As part of GBRT’s format, many attendees also participated in a post-presentation round table discussion on the benefits of shopping locally.

Im, who has been in the restaurant business for more than 21 years, got her start with her Vital Foods cart on Telluride’s main street, offering a wholesome selection of quinoa salads, sushi and fresh squeezed juices. Her approach to cooking grew out of experiences she had traveling the world, visiting locations where she witnessed rainforests being clear-cut to make room for shrimp beds, and coral reefs being blasted to harvest fish.

“I realized that I was part of the problem,” Im said. “It was an almost voyeuristic way of travel.” She was also influenced by the book Foods That Heal by Jensen Bernard, and continues to be haunted by an image from the film The Corporation – that of a dairy cow with udders bigger than its head, moaning in pain.

“We can turn our heads or we can look at things head on,” she said. Im has chosen the latter, and thus makes every effort to provide her customers with fresh food that is not simply organic, but made from ingredients that are as locally, sustainably and humanely sourced as possible.

A lot of education goes into operating a restaurant this way, she said, “and that includes staff… as well as getting into your space,” such as installing energy-efficient lighting and keeping kitchen appliances in their best working order. “Restaurants don’t make a lot of money,” said Im, “especially in Telluride, being closed four months of the year,” due to shoulder seasons.

“We’re not 100 percent groovy by any means,” she said, recalling her determination to provide cloth instead of paper napkins – a choice to use water to save trees versus using paper to save water.

Honga’s recycles (although she said recycling in Telluride “sucks,” adding, “I don’t think there’s follow through here”) and composts, with one of her employees collecting veggie scraps to use for his own gardening purposes. She also does a lot of “pre-cycling” – buying in bulk, using no Styrofoam, etc. And “we source constantly,” especially fish, to determine “what’s fresh, what’s vibrant,” and what practices are used for its harvest, particularly tuna and eel.

Honga’s recycles its fryer oil for conversion into biofuel, and serves regionally raised chicken and beef, as well as produce from Telluride’s Tomten Farm.

Price echoed Im’s experience during his 13.5 years at the helm of La Cocina, stating he operates under an unconventional business model, influenced by his concern for the health of his customers, his employees and the environment. Like Honga’s, his restaurant serves minimally processed, locally sourced, organic-when-feasible food choices.

“We need our local farmers and they need us,” he said, adding that while organic food is important, organic agribusiness “can have a very negative effect,” including the environmental cost of transporting goods to far away locations like Telluride.

“I like to buy out of a pickup truck,” said Price. “As a restaurant owner, I have the opportunity to develop a relationship with my purveyors. It feels so good to serve that food,” much of which comes from the Roaring Fork Valley, including Troyer Farm chicken and Leroux Creek eggs. And while Price’s fish comes from South Africa, it’s wild caught and sustainable, he said.

Like Im, Price has made efforts to make his restaurant facility more green-minded by installing compact fluorescent light bulbs and providing to-go utensils and containers that are compostable. Of course, there is a need for a composting facility for such products, he admitted, but “it feels better” to use a plastic alternative.

Composting at La Cocina “is now real,” with Tomten Farm’s Kris Holstrom and Jonathan Greenspan’s S.U.N.R.I.S.E. Inc. picking up food scraps from La Cocina twice a week. Composting requires a lot of extra effort, explained Price, because twist ties, rubber bands and bones need to be sorted out, and in the summer they’ll need to create a bear-proof enclosure.

La Cocina also recycles its cooking oil for biofuel and is phasing out surface film in favor of reusable lids. They use non-toxic cleaning supplies, and any remodeling of the restaurant space is done with no-VOC paint, recycled wood, and recycled parts whenever possible. Such an approach can be daunting when dealing with the building and health departments, said Price, but it’s worth it.

Green Business Roundtable generally take place the first Friday of each month at the Wilkinson Library program room. For more information, call TNCC at 970/728-1340.
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