Iowa City Businesses Make Moves Towards Sustainability

The Red Avocado uses 100% biodegradable and combustible to-go containers, a simple step any business can take to reduce waste.

These days, even restaurant owners know there are benefits to building a sustainable business. In Iowa City, a number of restaurants are developing strategies that are putting their businesses ahead of curve.

What does it mean to work towards having a sustainable business?

A sustainable approach means building your business to have little to no negative impact on the environment or society.

Now more than ever, local Iowa City restaurants are considering their ecological footprint on the environment. And evaluating where their food is purchased, how much waste is produced, and how materials can be reused is a path of progress they are willing to take.

“Most businesses work toward sustainability because it is a good business decision, period,” said Sheila Samuelson, a Sustainable Business Consultant for Bright Green Strategy of Iowa City, Iowa. “Developing a reputation as a socially and environmentally responsible business helps attract and retain both customers and top-level staff.”

Local Brews

Shorts Burgers and Shine, 18 S. Clinton St, Iowa City, is one restaurant that has made a step towards sustainability, by sourcing locally for their food and alcohol.

“Our burgers, our beer, and most of our vegetables all come from this community,” said Tia Tiefenthale, a long time waitress and bartender at the establishment. Shorts gets their 100% black angus beef 26 miles away from Iowa City, at Ed Smith Farms, and vegetables when they are in season from the Iowa City Farmer’s Market.

Since the restaurant has made the switch to serving all Iowa ingredients, business has picked up, especially with alcohol sales. “One thing we have also noticed is we rarely serve bottles of beer, most people only request drafts from the Iowa Craft beers,” said Tiefenthale. “I did not think it would be nearly as popular as it has been, but it has, especially during football season.

Shorts recently switched all of their beers on tap serving only Iowa breweries, including Old Man River, Peace Tree, and Millstream brews. These brewing companies rely on restaurants like Shorts for garnering interest. Their locally produced beers are creating a growing market for customers who want beer on a local level.

An Organic Menu

Deciding to make this shift in business strategy is not just about production and profits; it’s also about meeting customer demands. And David Burt, the owner of The Red Avocado, 521 E. Washington St, Iowa City, knows that customers want tasty, nutritional, well-prepared food that doesn’t come at the sacrifice of the world around them.

Their 100% organic vegan menu is why customers come to the Red Avocado.

“They come here because they understand that we are the only Iowa City restaurant that is 100% organic, and we have literally zero food waste,” said Burt. “The Red Avocado composts every item of food that is left over, from our kitchen and our customers.” The compost is then given away to various members in the community, from goat farmers to gardeners.

According to Sameulson, developing a green business is a long term process and starts with initial assessments of how a business is performing in respect to energy, waste, water, pollution, and education.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The shining star of local Iowa City restaurants undergoing a sustainable transformation may be that of Her Soup Kitchen, 625 S. Dubuque St., owned and operated by Barb Farnsworth. Since their opening over a year ago, Her Soup Kitchen stresses the importance of composting, reuse, recycling, and buying locally.

“We reused bricks from a demolished building for our patio, tables and chairs that customers have brought us, coffee mugs, plates, we’ve bought cooking appliances from auctions, almost everything here has been reused,” said Jason Farnsworth, son of Barb Farnsworth and head chef and Her Soup Kitchen.

“We compost everything we can. We’ve had more vegetables grow out of our compost this year than our own garden.”

For Barb Farnsworth, bragging about how the restaurant produces only one bag of trash a day is not something she is interested in. “I want the community to see us as environmentally conscious, sure, but the main reason we run our restaurant this way is because we believe in nourishing the neighborhood,” Farnsworth said.

Her willingness to prove that a business can significantly reduce it’s waste with little effort might make Her Soup Kitchen the most sustainable restaurant in Iowa City. Their ability to thrive on reuse has set an example, not just for other businesses in the area, but for patrons as well.

“Sustainability is just as much as a social practice as an environmental one,” said Farnsworth.

When asked if she thought her business has flourished in part because of her connection with the community in advocating sustainability, she said, “Absolutely. It’s something we’re very willing to teach people about.”

So what is the best advice for restaurants that are looking to better the environment and their community?

It’s important for businesses to understand that they do not necessarily become sustainable, they work toward sustainability in a process of continuous improvement, Samuelson says. “Sustainability is something that every type of business has an opportunity to work towards.”

And the efforts of businesses like Shorts, The Red Avocado, and Her Soup Kitchen do not go unnoticed in the community.

The City of Iowa City Environmental Coordinator, Jennifer Jordan, has nominated Her Soup Kitchen for the Iowa Recycling Association to receive an award for Best Business Recycling Program of 2010.

The city is also in the process of developing a sustainable business certification for Iowa City businesses, said Brenda Nations, Environmental Coordinator for Iowa City.

“It would be great to reward those businesses who are already doing great things and get ideas out to others who might decide to start up and join in,” Nations said.

There is a wealth of information for those interested in transforming their business to meet the growing demands of a market that is environmentally friendly. See a related post that contains tips and feedback from other bars and restaurants in Iowa.

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