The Perennial restaurant under construction. (Photo: Michael Short)

What Can Restaurants Do in the Fight Against Climate Change?

San Francisco’s forthcoming The Perennial restaurant and the nonprofit ZeroFoodprint are attempting to make carbon neutral a realistic goal for the food industry.
Jun 29, 2015· 12 MIN READ
Twilight Greenaway is the managing editor of Civil Eats. She has worked as a writer and editor on the web since 2000.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz gave a tour of the construction site that will become their new restaurant, The Perennial. We stepped into the cavernous room on the first floor of a giant new apartment building in San Francisco’s rapidly gentrifying Civic Center district, and together we imagined what the finished restaurant will look like. While the couple described the way the space will take shape, they were also hinting at something larger: their vision for a new type of restaurant.

In one narrow corridor along the back, they pointed to where the state-of the art, energy-efficient kitchen will be. Just off center is where the bar will serve cocktails garnished with homegrown mint and citrus. Up along the wall, overlooking the roughly 50-seat dining room, the husband-and-wife team pointed to where they plan to put in a catwalk and “living pantry.” It’s there that the restaurant’s herbs and specialty greens will be displayed, floating in water for a few hours each night, on their way between The Perennial’s own aquaponic operation and their final destination: customers’ plates.

“And there will be Malabar spinach growing in these windows,” said Myint, pointing to where a wall of glass, covered for the duration of the construction, will look out onto Ninth Street.

Myint and Leibowitz broke into the San Francisco restaurant scene in 2008 with a $400 rented food truck, some handmade signage, and a penchant for experimentation. From there they went on to cofound an iconic guest chef pop-up, an experimental Chinese restaurant, and a fine-dining establishment that channels a portion of the cost of every meal toward hunger relief.

It is not just about getting the freshest, tastiest, or healthiest food, but about communicating the ways that diners can have a real impact on the environment through their relationship to food.

Karen Leibowitz, co-owner of The Perennial

The Perennial, slated to open later this summer, is the couple’s biggest undertaking yet—and their most ambitious. In building it, Myint and Leibowitz are asking themselves—and their industry—just how sustainable a restaurant can be. And they’ve set a largely uncharted course in order to find out. Sure, they’ll be buying local and working with small growers. But the restaurant will also grow a host of its own ingredients, and it will do so with fertilizer made from the kitchen’s own food waste. The Perennial will also incorporate a range of ingredients produced with the environment in mind—from beef raised through holistic, climate-friendly pasture management to bread made with Kernza, a much-anticipated perennial wheat variety from the Land Institute, the Kansas-based sustainable-ag research outfit. They’re looking to work with similar producers in the realm they call “progressive agriculture,” meaning they strive to use dramatically fewer resources and capture carbon in the soil. In hopes of picking up where today’s farm-to-table movement often stops, Myint and Leibowitz are on a mission to see how far they can take it.

“Farm-to-table opened the door for restaurants to talk with customers about where food comes from,” said Leibowitz. “But for us it’s not just about getting the freshest, tastiest, or healthiest food but about communicating the ways that diners can have a real impact on the environment through their relationship to food.”

The food we eat accounts for anywhere between 15 and 50 percent of global climate emissions, depending on whose figures you’re looking at. Scientists and economists arrive at their estimates by adding things like the methane emitted in meat and dairy production, as well as from food waste; the nitrous oxide emitted from synthetic fertilizer; and the carbon emissions from farm equipment, food transportation, and cooking. One often-cited 2012 study by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security puts the number at 29 percent, or nearly one-third. Ever since they heard that number, Myint and Leibowitz have been focused on creating a model restaurant that not only has less of impact but plays an active role in fighting climate change.

The couple see The Perennial as a sort of laboratory for other restaurants looking to reduce their climate impact. To that end, they’ve also teamed up with Chris Ying, editor in chief of Lucky Peach, and climate change expert Peter Freed to create ZeroFoodprint, a nonprofit aimed at giving restaurants the tools to reduce their carbon “foodprint.” How close they can help clients get to the goal implied in that ambitious name—and whether they can do so while still allowing them to grow successful businesses—may determine what the next generation of sustainable restaurants look like.

The Birth of a Partnership

Myint and Leibowitz trace ZeroFoodprint and The Perennial’s roots to a study Ying commissioned in 2013. It all started with a heated debate about food’s climate impact that was sparked at the annual MAD symposium in Copenhagen, where people from all over the world gather to discuss ideas for change in the restaurant industry.

A group of chefs and restaurateurs discussed donating a percentage of their restaurant’s budget to environmental causes, and another group, including David Chang of the iconic restaurant Momofuku in New York City, protested.

“He said it was hypocritical to suggest that restaurants could be part of the solution to environmental problems because of the inherent waste,” Leibowitz said. In 2008, for example, the industry ended up scraping nearly 20 percent of its food. But that raised the question: Are restaurants so bad for the environment that they can’t be part of the solution?

The Perennial principals Anthony Myint, Karen Leibowitz, and chef Chris Kiyuna inside the restaurant, which is under construction. (Photo: Michael Short)

Ying and Myint decided they needed to gather some data of their own. Ying approached Freed, who at that point was working for TerraPass (now Origin Climate), a company that works with individuals and companies to calculate and offset their carbon emissions. They wanted to compare the greenhouse gases emitted in the preparation of three meals: a steak dinner cooked at home, a steak dinner prepared in a restaurant (Brooklyn’s Prime Meats), and a meal one might eat at the two-Michelin-star Scandinavian restaurant Noma.

TerraPass’ targeted lifecycle analysis, which calculated the greenhouse gas emissions from ingredients, transportation gas and electricity used, waste hauling and breakdown, etc., found that the “foodprint” of the home-cooked meal and the one at Prime Meats were nearly identical, requiring 8 and 9 kilograms of carbon, respectively. The meal at Noma—with its 23-course tasting menu—was a whopping 24 kilograms.

Eating, it turns out, is the most significant interaction most of us have with the environment.

Chris Ying, cofounder of ZeroFoodprint

“No one was trying to point a finger at the Noma,” Myint said. But what happened next was noteworthy: Chef René Redzepi took a look at the sources of his restaurant’s emissions and found that nearly 30 percent of were a result of coal-fired electricity the restaurant used (a common source of energy in Copenhagen). After the study was released in 2013, Redzepi elected to spend a little more on overhead to have 100 percent renewable energy, bringing the restaurant’s emissions down to 16 kilograms virtually overnight.

But Chang’s theory was put to rest by the finding that the average restaurant meal might not be much worse for the climate than a home-cooked one. And the breakdown of the meals’ emissions, though not surprising, was a stark reminder of the role red meat plays in the climate discussion. “The ribeye in the home-cooked meal accounted for 84 percent of the ingredient-related emissions. At Prime Meats, the wagyu beef accounted for 74 percent,” Ying wrote in an article about the findings he published in Lucky Peach that year.

“Eating, it turns out, is the most significant interaction most of us have with the environment,” he surmised.

Since then, the trio has been developing a plan—and a nonprofit organization—to help reduce the industry’s environmental impact. ZeroFoodprint will give restaurants the information they need to reduce their carbon footprint; offer an official third-party certificate system to help them make their efforts public; and, once they’ve reduced what they can, help restaurants offset their remaining emissions by supporting food- and farm-related projects that are “carbon positive,” meaning that they actually capture greenhouses gases instead of emitting them.

The point is to give chefs a sense that there are things they can do—and do now—to respond to the problem.

“Having spoken to a lot of chefs who are theoretically interested in being environmentally responsible, you find that it’s frustrating and really daunting to try to address, because there are so many variables,” Ying said. “The food system is so complex, and it’s really difficult to move one piece or try to act on one aspect without having to consider six other things.” By turning attention to restaurants’ carbon footprint, he hopes, the group can help the industry focus.

“The restaurant industry is so big, it’s not like any large share of the market is going to [get certified]. But people are so food-obsessed; it seems like a good opportunity to capitalize on that,” Myint added.

How Much Can One Restaurant Do?

While ZeroFoodprint works to establish a charter group full of high-profile, Noma-level restaurants as an important next step in their process, Leibowitz said, “The Perennial is useful for trying things out, being very reflective about the outcomes and very transparent about our attempts at best practices.”

While they have yet to establish formal agreements with local farms and ranchers, The Perennial is exploring relationships with quite a few, including Singing Frogs Farm, which is a rare example of an organic farm using no-till practices; Tara Firma Farms; Mindful Meats, which sells non-GMO beef from retired organic dairy cows; and Stemple Creek Ranch.

A field at organic Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastopol, California, under cover for protection from frost. (Photo: Singing Frogs Farm/Facebook)

When it comes to balancing plant-based menu items with meat, chef and co-owner Chris Kiyuna said, “The philosophy will be to not rely on animal use but to maximize the delicious yield. Many dishes will have protein as seasoning rather than substance.”

Kiyuna is still fairly tight-lipped about the menu, but at a preview event thrown in March, he served bites that hinted at what’s to come. For example, the clam escabeche with wild fennel on a celeriac chip featured the variety of clam that will be grown in the restaurant’s aquaponic greenhouse. And the sunflower-seed mousse, chicken skin, and basil wrapped in lettuce was meant to be a play on Cobb salad that used what is often a wasted part of the bird. Leibowitz described it as “reducing the centrality of the animal protein without reducing the gratification level.”

While the ingredients and farm practices behind them are central to The Perennial, other forms of energy and resource use are also key.

The restaurant’s initial efforts at putting in a European-style, very energy-efficient induction kitchen, for instance, can stand as a lesson for others in the U.S. who might consider it. In the end, Myint and Leibowitz found that the electricity they would need for the burners was too costly, and they had no control over whether or not it came from renewable sources. But they have also been acquiring the most energy-efficient appliances possible, and they’ve discovered several programs through the Food Service Technology Center, across the bay in San Ramon, California, which subsidizes restaurants replacing old technology and buying new stoves and refrigerators and the like.

The urban farm and aquaponics facility Myint and Leibowitz are having built across the bay, in West Oakland, might also be seen as a centerpiece of the work they’ve taken on.

After raising $28,000 using Kickstarter last fall, the couple is working with Nathan Kaufman to build a 2,000-square-foot system where they’ll grow greens and herbs in water fertilized by fish and shellfish they will raise.

The Perennial’s food waste will go to feeding worms and black soldier flies (which are able to breakdown meat protein). Both will then be dehydrated and fed to the fish. Meanwhile, the worm castings will fertilize 1,500 square feet of raised beds where Kaufman plans to grow more specialty produce for the restaurant, including greens, herbs, citrus, and ground cherries. In the aquaponic pools, they’ll raise catfish, sturgeon, and freshwater clams.

Future Perennial dishes using organic and sustainable ingredients (from left): Little neck clams, Tierra Farms beans, nettle and tarragon pesto, and baby fennel; rosemary-brined asparagus with popcorn butter, toasted sunflower seed, and sunflower milk; roasted Mt. Lassen trout with smoked celeriac, horseradish, and bone marrow and Kaffir lime broth.

“We’ll be trying to show the diversity of products that one can produce in a small space,” said Kaufman. “We want to inspire other folks. They’ll say, ‘Maybe I can’t grow tomatoes for the grocery store, but I might be able to grow a specialty kumquat or something.’ ”

Unlike traditional hydroponics, which often comes under fire for replacing soil with sterile environments fed with chemical nutrient solutions, Kaufman sees a direct correlation between aquaponics and organic-soil-based gardening: “In both cases, we’re relying on trillions of organisms at one time. The health of your system is dependent on the health of your bacterial ecosystem.”

The farm’s location in the historically under-resourced West Oakland neighborhood also provides an opportunity to incorporate an educational element. Kaufman plans to work with groups like People’s Grocery, Planting Justice, and Earth Seeds—which trains recent parolees in the community to do urban farming—to teach people in the community and lead workshops.

“The great thing about aquaponics is it so directly shows the link between livestock, agriculture,” and the importance of nitrogen on farms, said Kaufman. “I was just teaching a bunch of elementary school kids, and once you talk to them about how plants can grow in the water, they say, oh, it’s not the water—it’s the poop. Soil is not just soil—it’s thousands of types of poop. So it’s a great entry point to teach people about nutrient cycling.”

Calculating and Offsetting

At the core of the challenge Myint, Leibowitz, and every restaurant owner who cares about environmental impact faces is the fact that information about carbon emissions—or lifecycle analysis—is still not readily available in a sophisticated form.

“Chris’ article was called ‘Knowing Is Half the Battle,’ ” Leibowitz said, referring to the Lucky Peach story that outlined the three-meal carbon study. “And I think that really is the case, even for people who are committed to improving their impact on the environment.”

Case in point: When Myint was doing research for a list of foods and their climate impacts—possibly to be used with a calculator on the ZeroFoodprint site down the road—he found that all cuts of each animal had been given the same value.

But because fewer people use, say, beef bones or tongue, than they do cuts like filet mignon, the choice to cook with them is seen as a responsible way to cut down on food waste. So ZFP has decided to use an economic model, basing the carbon footprint of each cut on its relative market cost.

“It’s obviously a better practice to use these off-prime cuts,” Myint said. He knew the other approach wouldn’t fly with nose-to-tail restaurants. He’ll be releasing a paper that explains the thought process behind an economic allocation method on the group’s website later this summer. The goal is to encourage more chefs who want to cut their emissions without cutting out meat to think smarter about using the whole animal.

Once a restaurant has calculated its “foodprint” and reduced what it can, there’s also the option to offset the remaining emissions.

Exterior of The Perennial restaurant at 59 Ninth St., San Francisco. (Photo: Michael Short)

Offsetting has its critics, and some companies undoubtedly use offsets as an easy way to atone for their environmental sins. But Freed, who has been working on climate issues for more than a decade, thinks they can make an important impact if done right.

“There’s this image of someone driving around in their Hummer buying offsets. But what we’ve found is that people who buy offsets tend to be environmentally conscious otherwise,” he said.

Myint and Leibowitz plan to offset what they can’t reduce at The Perennial, and they’ve already started doing something similar at their other restaurant, Mission Chinese Food. They used the restaurant for a recent ZeroFoodprint case study and found that, as with the meals TerraPass analyzed a few years ago, the restaurant’s ingredients accounted for the bulk of its emissions. In fact, beef and lamb were the most significant source of carbon emissions, accounting for 37 percent of the restaurant’s total.

“We had not even totally understood the orders of magnitude of the carbon footprint of beef and lamb,” said Myint. “I didn’t realize it was three times that of chicken, and it’s fairly easy to make the switch if you have that information. I don’t like beef three times as much as chicken.”

“We had been expecting more from deliveries and transportation in general,” said Leibowitz, “which reflects our underlying assumptions that transportation is one of the most important things we can address in reducing our climate impact, when in fact food and ingredients can be much more impactful.”

As a result of the data, the couple has added 25 cents to the price of all their beef and lamb dishes as of this April, and they’re spending the money on carbon offsets. They’re also including a note on the menu that Leibowitz said she hopes “sends a subtle message to the consumer that these costs are not externalities.”

At the moment, ZeroFoodprint works with a list of preexisting offset programs, including a methane capture in New York state, cookstoves in Africa, and biogas in Vietnam.

Ultimately, if it can get the momentum, ZFP hopes to initiate its own offset project that will likely help subsistence farmers capture farm methane for lighting their homes and cooking. “It’s a wonderful way to kill two birds with one stone,” said Freed.

Both The Perennial and ZeroFoodprint have the potential to get more people thinking about the role of the restaurant as a driver for social and environmental change.

And while a great deal has been made of the perfectly sourced, well-marketed restaurant meal as a solution to the world’s ills, Myint, Leibowitz, Freed, and Ying are keeping their expectations close to the ground for now.

“At the end of the day, people go to restaurants to eat and have a good time, and that’s the powerful thing about them,” Ying said. But at a certain level, he continued, “people who eat in restaurants have disposable income and are willing to spend a little more for the right narrative, or are willing to spend more without even thinking about it.” So why not—especially in a city like San Francisco in 2015—use that opportunity to do right by the planet when you can?

Leibowitz is similarly cautious in her vision after spending several years in a complex industry.

“When you have an idealistic business model, you are part of people’s self-conception and self-presentation, for better or worse,” she said. “In our most idealistic vision for The Perennial, it’s meant to spark conversations and further thought and change behaviors. But we vacillate between those grandiose dreams and more pragmatic sense of what we can do for the restaurant itself.”