Open Wed.-Sat. 11am - 8pm

Environmental concerns in retail food service: Our approach

Spring 2019

AT EL EL FRIJOLES, we've already made a choice to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Our customers have made that choice as well, or decided to come here for a visit, or to buy a vacation home or to retire. What is it about Downeast Maine that draws us all here? While we have an increasingly diverse cultural landscape, and the real estate is still relatively inexpensive, we think most of us are drawn to this place because of it's sheer, natural beauty. The landscape here, the light, the sea the forests and the fields- they have brought generations of artists here. Writers, film makers, actors and musicians have been spending time on the coast for as long as people have had the opportunity to be mobile. People have been making their living here, largely off the land (or because of it's beauty) since before the founding of our republic. Suffice it to say, that the natural landscape, the sea, the woods and the mountains are what draw us here.

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Since we all seem to have a love of, and a strong link to, our environment--it is in our interest to do what we can to protect it.

As humans, in general, and first-world residents in particular, we have done a number on the natural world. You have to be pretty clueless to ignore the fact that over the past several generations, we have done a real number on our environment. Sure, we have collectively made some terrific choices, and come together to adapt in ways that really have helped (or eased the damage caused) our environment. We got rid of leaded gas, banned DDT, passed the Clean Water and Clean Air acts and have been following CAFE standards with our automobile manufacturing for years. And we have almost universally adopted recycling as a way of life! Not too many years ago, the vary act of recycling (or talking about it) was a hippy-dippy, fringe, concept.

recycling bins
Those wacky Europeans, leading us on, again . . .

Here at EL EL FRIJOLES, we have been designing-in sustainability since our very beginning. In virtually every choice we have made in creating this business, we have been attempting to limit our environmental impact. It has not always been easy, as the foodservice industry is not particularly progressive in general. We have always had to special-order even basic supplies that are more earth-friendly. Papers and napkins that are not bleached, single-use items that are not plastic, cutlery that is reusable instead of disposable and disposable cutlery that is recyclable & compostable are all in use every day. Our whole service concept, using reusable baskets instead of washable dishes, is a way to minimize our water (and septic) usage. Each year, in our "off" season, we have a little more time to work on these initiatives. We have a little more bandwidth to research options, to hit-up our suppliers for better choices and to attempt to drive them (and the rest of our industry) towards our goal of decreased environmental impact.

lobster tacos
A nice basket of tacos (note the bleached paper liner, we did away with those!)

Since we opened 13 years ago, we have have made dozens of changes (or upgrades, really) to our process. Right from the start, we are able to grow much more of our food right here on the premises. Our greenhouse produces a bunch of tomatoes that we use in our salads, and chilies we pickle and use all year long. Our more than 500 square feet of raised beds produce fresh veggies for our daily specials, and loads of edible flowers we use in salads and as garnishes. We have been working with many local producers for years, but we rely on Horsepower Farm in neighboring Penobscot for as many black beans as they can produce (almost 1,300 pounds last year!) and we source a lot of our special proteins locally as well from our neighbors right here in Sedgwick. These initiative not only bring us higher-quality raw materials, but significantly reduce the carbon footprint generated from transportation.

glass house

And when it comes to our service items, we continue to make changes to reduce our waste stream. This year, we have again changed the portion cups we supply for our salsa bar. In years past we had made the switch from plastic cups to newer, PLA cups which are made from corn starch and are compostable and biodegradable. Even though these products are a huge step forward from petrochemical plastics, we have found a better choice. We have made the switch to lightweight, paper "soufflé Cups" for our salsa bar. They still hold the same 2oz. portion (more, actually, if you know the inflation trick!) but are made of thin, basic paper that will break down readily after use. They don't have lids, so we still use the PLA containers for To-Go orders, but these new cups are a big improvement for our in-house diners. We have also finally (after several years of searching) found a consistent source for a quality paper straw! This is big news, as we have been using quite a lot of disposable, plastic straws over the past 13 years, and we have all been shocked by the revelations of just how much plastic we have been putting into our environment. Along with the switch to paper straws, we have also made a change in our drink packaging, with our new sippy-lids! While our cups have been made from PLA for a decade (as have the Dome Lids we've been using) our new PLA lids have a built-in sip function, that makes a straw unnecessary. Since we have switched to these lids, our straw use seems to have dropped by almost 50%! The best way to conserve is by not using something in the first place, so this is really a huge step in the right direction! You will also notice that our take-away bags are also made out of a biodegradable PLA material. Our State has recently become the latest to ban the single-use plastic shopping bag (Yay!) along with the dreaded styrofoam containers that we have been railing against for so long. It remains to be seen if our "eco" bags will be allowable under the new law, but if not we'll just have to find another way.

colored straws
We've gone with basic black, for a more "formal" look.

And speaking of take-away food, we have decided that this year we will be rolling out an innovative (and daringly-foolish), new concept- We are going to be charging for excess packaging for some take-away orders! In what we hope to be a customer service triumph, we are going to be adding a small charge to the tab on our medium to larger take-away orders. While the majority of our customers enjoy our food here in the taqueria, and on our expansive grounds, there are some folks who wish to bring food back home to eat. Our Taqueria heritage is strongly based on our favorite Bay Area burrito shops, which pretty much serve every burrito in a paper bag with a handful of chips. This is where we started, and how we continue to serve the vast majority of our take-away orders. As our menu offerings have grown, however, the complexity and amount of packaging required to get our food back home in the condition we want it is increasingly difficult. The last thing we want is our food, prepared with so much love and attention to detail, to arrive at it's place of consumption in an unappetizing state. Cold, or wet or squished or combined in unplanned ways. We continue to search for better ways to ensure your take-away food is almost as good as when you eat here, and we'll keep looking for the best, most environmentally-friendly options available. But, responsible packaging isn't cheap! While many of our regular take-away customers supply their own packaging (a clean plate or a Tupperware container) a lot of our customers leave here with multiple bags full of multiple containers and a bunch of service items and salsa cups and napkins as well. So, to this end, we have added a Take-Away Packaging item to our POS system, and we'll be adding a dollar or three to these larger take-away orders. While this may seem controversial, early feedback from our customers is almost universally positive! The folks who are using this resource seem to be both understanding, and even enthusiastic about paying their share of these additional costs. We very much look forward to more dialog with our customers regarding this issue.

We continue to explore many other options for increasing our sustainability, from possible solar installations, to new water heating technology to installing EV charging infrastructure- All of these ideas and possibilities continue to percolate in our minds and will be adopted when they can be properly and reasonably utilized. We all love this place, whether we live here or are just visiting, and want it to remain as naturally beautiful and vibrant as possible. We remain firmly committed to minimizing the environmental impact of our business as much as is practicable, and we invite all of our customers to come along with us!

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segway

lobster taco

Credits: Created with images by blickpixel - "waste separation mülltonnen recycling" • Meghan Rodgers - "untitled image" • paulbr75 - "electric charge road sign sign" • PublicDomainPictures - "alternative blue cell" • Ricardo Gomez Angel - "untitled image" • PublicDomainPictures - "man woman coat" • AlexAntropov86 - "sun solar space" • maxmann - "segway motor electrically"