Stick a Fork in it
Project Green Fork revamps the way restaurants do business across the region.
By Margot Pera photos by Casey Hilder
Project Green Fork, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping local restaurants reduce their environmental impact, has skyrocketed in membership since its birth in 2008. With more than 50 certified restaurants and 15 board members, the organization is leading the MidSouth restaurant industry to a cleaner, greener future.
Now, environmentally concerned foodies who dine in the Magnolia State have something to rejoice about, as Project Green Fork has migrated into Hernando and word has begun to spread among the ecologically conscious.
Project Green Fork was started in 2008 by Margot McNeeley to help restaurants lower waste, decrease overhead and reduce decrease the environmental impact of daily operations. McNeeley cooked up the idea after learning that the average restaurant meal produces 1.5 pounds of waste. The majority of this waste could be minimized if restaurant owners were educated about feasible recycling and composting options.
McNeeley was born in Brookline, Massachusetts and moved to Memphis in the early 1990s. Although a food, wine and yoga enthusiast and University of Memphis alum, she holds no formal education about sustainability. McNeeley was inspired to start PGF after seeing all of the trash restaurants accumulated during the cooking process and wanted to institute a program to reduce impact on the environment in a manner that was possible for local restaurants to implement.
“I got sick of hearing myself complain about the lack of recycling in local restaurants,” McNeeley says. “So I talked to some sustainability experts and restaurant owners and discovered people wanted to do something about it but didn’t know what to do.”
McNeeley began the planning process for PGF in 2007 and it became officially recognized as a 501(c)(3) organization in 2008. She says people found out about it mainly through word-of-mouth at first. The PGF prototype was launched through Tsunami, a Midtown Memphis eatery in the Cooper-Young district. Ben Smith, Tsunami owner and former PGF board member, says that training the kitchen staff to break old, ecologically unfriendly habits is often the biggest challenge associated with the certification process.
“One of the big changes we had to make involved our process of quick-thawing shrimp,” he says. “We used to run a pound of shrimp under cold water for an hour and a half. When you think about how much water that really is, it’s frightening.”
Since the program’s genesis, PGF has grown to include 53 certified restaurants and recycled 446,866 gallons of glass, plastic and aluminum and turned 75.571 gallons of food and waste into compost. They have also diverted 3 million pounds of paper, glass, plastic, aluminum and more than 130,000 gallons of food waste from landfills in the MidSouth.
The nonprofit organization is currently comprised of 15 board members including Heather Ries, owner of Lady Bugg Bakery, Melissa Petersen, editor of Edible Memphis, and Mitch Major, Vice President of Operation Support at AutoZone and board chair of PGF.
“I became aware of what Margot was doing to help restaurants improve sustainability,“ Major says. “It was a natural fit for me to begin frequenting PGF-certified restaurants and my support grew until I was asked to join the board.”
As current chair of PGF, Major’s job duties include overseeing compliance with nonprofit charitable organization guidelines and creating strategies for fundraising and outreach efforts.
Buon Cibo and Lady Bugg Bakery are currently the only restaurants in Mississippi with a PGF status. Owners of both restaurants had already been running their facilities in an eco-friendly manner, but becoming a part of PGF helped solidify their practices.
“I was already doing things like recycling and composting,” Josh Belencia, owner of Buon Cibo and former sous chef at Interim Restaurant, says. “Why not join a force that will look out for you and put your name out there.”
Ries’ bakery has been part of PGF since August 2010.
“It is very easy to be a part of PGF in Mississippi,” Ries says. “We have a community garden at Mississippi State and the city of Hernando recycles.”
She adds that it is easier to open a restaurant in accordance with PGF guidelines than to try to become certified after opening. The cost is also lower — a restaurant that opens with PGF certification pays a starting fee of $300, while a restaurant already open but making the switch pays $500. Both pay a yearly fee of $100 afterwards, which is used to draw more restaurants into the PGF fold through advertising in Edible Memphis and The Memphis Flyer.
“The $100 per year goes right back into marketing efforts for the participating restaurants,” McNeeley says.
According to entreprenuer.com, restaurants tend to lure many environmentally conscious customers by implementing some sort of sustainability program. These restaurants also save money by using Energy Star certified appliances which operate at low energy costs and compact fluorescent bulbs which use one-third the energy of regular bulbs, low flow faucets and toilets, which cut down on water by 40 percent, and waterless urinals.
“My expenses stayed about the same when I joined PGF,” Ries says. “But I feel like my restaurant stands out to a niche of environmentally-conscious people.”
McNeeley says the amount of money saved depends on how they work their program. If the restaurants reduce the size of their Dumpster via recycling and compost, they actually save money.
“You tell Margot you want in, she sends you the guidelines that you work to meet. After that, MLGW comes and does an audit.” Belenchia says. “If you pass, you are in.”
All glass bottles, jars, paper, cardboard and aluminum are recognized as recyclable by PGF along with a multitude of plastics like salad domes, water bottles, freezer bags, crates, cling wrap, garbage bags, straws and potato chip bags. These items can be recycled back in the form of things like oil funnels, car battery cases, carpeting and building insulation.
“Project Green Fork has a thorough understanding of how restaurants work, they are emphatic toward restaurant owners’ needs,” Nevada Presley, owner of Get Fresh Memphis, a fresh food delivery service in Midtown for people on the go. “They are not going to split hairs if something isn’t done perfectly. If you encounter roadblocks, Margot will help you. She will not make it so specific you can’t do business.”
Belenchia says making the effort toward becoming greener is no easy feat. He must take his boxes and compost across town to Cedar Hill Farms and the biodegradable to-go containers cost more than the regular ones, which is pretty significant considering his restaurant recycles about 40 to 50 pounds of material a week.
Sustainability efforts elsewhere in Mississippi are somewhat scarce, with no other local entities geared toward restaurant sustainability in the state. Ries and Belenchia face a challenge in that some people are indifferent toward things like global warming, sustainability and the importance of keeping the planet clean.
“I don’t really have time to go around preaching the ‘green word.’ People around here are stuck in their ways and most are going to continue to use Styrofoam,” Belenchia says. “If you tell them it is going to raise their cost on the to-go items by 45 or 50 percent, you are not going to receive a good response.”
Restaurants receive a toolkit upon inauguration into the program. The kit provides information on ways to conserve energy and gives a list of environmentally safe cleaning products and where to find them. McNeeley also provides her green comrades with a 20-gallon trash bag and gets them connected with a composting service.
“Project Green Fork is a great asset to our community. Margot has provided a model that other cities can use,” Stacey Greenberg, local foodie and blogger for diningwithmonkeys.com, says. “People can support her effort in many ways, like urging their favorite restaurants to sign up.”
The organization enlists the help of Get Green Recycle Works to help with picking up the recycling from restaurants. The business was started by Madeline Edwards after she read about PGF and realized the need for someone to assist small businesses with recycling. Get Green provides recycling bins or will assist a business in purchasing their own, they pick recycling on a weekly or daily basis. Along with the PGF restaurants, Get Green also picks up recycling for Whole Foods, Archer-Malmo, Presbyrterian Day School and Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal School.
Margot emphasizes that caring for the environmental knows no political bounds.
“Caring for and working toward protecting our environment is about the most patriotic thing one can do, it’s not about a liberal or conservative agenda,” she says. “As Robert Redford once said, ‘I think the environment should be put in the category of our national security. Defense of our resources is just as important as defense abroad. Otherwise, what is there to defend?’”
While McNeeley does not actively recruit restaurants into the PGF way of life, Ries is passionate about informing restaurants of their ecologically-sound options.
“I believe in the cause very much,” Ries says. “If I go into a restaurant I like and see they are using Styrofoam, I will not hesitate to ask why.”
Some cities in California have banned polystyrene and Mayor Michael Bloomberg is pushing for similar changes within New York City. McNeeley remains hopeful for the MidSouth.
“The banning of polystyrene in Memphis may take a long time to pass, but I think one day it will.” McNeeley says.