The Milwaukee bar and restaurant scene has been making strides to adopt common green practices that everyday costumers can be proud to be a part of. More businesses are realizing the basics: recycling is good, and single use plastic is sinking us.

While big green efforts are indeed big things to be excited about (Miller Park serving cage-free eggs and recycling its own cooking oil; Fiserv Forum using only biodegradable straws), small-scale efforts made in local bars and restaurants are worth praising, too.

Changes in sustainability start with the individual. Whether that’s management, staff, or consumer, there are some choices to consider.

What’s on the menu

On average, food travels 1,500 miles before it reaches your plate as a meal. Wanting to know where your food comes from is an important question that you have the right to know, and eating at farm-to-table restaurants is a great way to better your relationship with what you eat.

While pricy portions tend to be a topic of debate for these establishments, you’re paying a little more for peace of mind. Goodkind, Bavette, The Farmer’s Wife, Morel, and Ardent are reducing their environmental impact by purchasing their produce from local vendors, offering smaller portioned meals, and by keeping their menus seasonal.

Braise, 1101 S. 2nd St., is dedicated to natural food and supporting local farming. From its rooftop garden to its culinary classes, Braise strives to educate others on the restaurant’s commitment to quality healthy food and being a resource for the community.

“Some people may enjoy heirloom vegetables and search out farm-to-table restaurants simply because it’s in vogue,” says Braise culinary school instructor Therese Thompson, “but we see more and more people who genuinely care to know more about the farms that we source from, and how they can obtain the same quality ingredients to use at home.”

Quality food and sustainable efforts cost patrons more, but these efforts don’t go unnoticed.

“Environmentally sustainable and ethically sourced food is more expensive than the items found at a less-sustainable establishment, so we value our patrons who understand the importance of spending that extra buck,” Thompson adds.

What happens when you’re finished

In 2011, Mayor Tom Barrett and the Common Council adopted a goal to increase the annual landfill diversion by 40 percent come 2020. This goal can be achieved through recycling and composting in our restaurants and bars. Compost Crusader LLC is helping locations compost their waste, diverting 50-75 percent of waste from our landfills and turning it into usable compost. That’s 175 tons in 2017.

Compost Crusader founder Melissa Tashijan says businesses are enthusiastic about sustainability.

“I see people get excited about diverting food scraps from the landfill all the time,” Tashijan says. “It feels great to do the right thing, especially when it doesn’t take that much more effort to do. This is a new concept for Milwaukee and it is great to see it embraced and practiced by so many people.”

Beans & Barley, Beerline Cafe, Cafe Corazon, Lakefront Brewery, Classic Slice, and Transfer Pizzeria are just a few of the 140-plus locations that are taking strides to reduce their landfill waste by composting.

Being green isn’t cheap or easy

For some establishments, adopting green practices isn’t feasible because of the additional finances that come with it. The costs for biodegradable bags, cups, straws, and silverware are often 10 times the amount of plastic materials. Yet Environmental Health Specialist Kristin Schurk believes the hindering factor in making these changes is not only financial, but behavioral.

“As they say, old habits die hard,” Schurk says. “It begins with employee education and breaking old habits. Teaching the importance of recycling, water use reduction, reducing solid wastes, and implementing compost practices requires time, effort, and desire to change without compromising sanitation.

“The change needs to come from a collaborative team of staff who can create new ideas, implement feasible, sustainable options that work for their operation, and have passion for the greater good of the environment, even if it requires added effort,” Schurk adds.

Is being Earth-friendly only for those who can afford it?

These additional expenses for green efforts aren’t just a worry for establishments, but also for everyday consumers. It raises the question: do businesses think about the financial status of their customers when creating these sustainable menus?

Emma DeBord, formerly worked for LotFotl Community Farm, just wrapped up her last season as manager of the Riverwest Gardener’s Market. She is now a line cook at the farm-to-table restaurant 2894 On Main, in East Troy.

DeBord has a good idea of the effort it takes to maintain sustainability, and why prices jump when terms like organic or farm-to-table are listed. She doesn’t think we’re far from making sustainably raised food financially accessible for everyone.

“I think that restaurants could begin with building flexible payments into some of their menu items,” DeBord says. “I think that it’s sometimes better to have a $10 menu item with the star ingredient being a cool sustainable ingredient, rather than to have a $20 menu item where every bit of it is perfectly local and organic but nobody can afford it.”

DeBord’s motto is “Don’t let perfect get in the way of good.” She recognizes that people are beginning to make more environmentally conscious decisions in ways they can afford. Not all forms of sustainability involve buying a hybrid vehicle; for some people, it’s simply a matter of being more selective and inquisitive about what bar or restaurant they should go to.

Riverwest Co-op and Urban Beets Cafe & Juicery use local vendors and are eco-friendly, and you can find entrees and sandwiches on their menus in the $10 range. Tricklebee Cafe, meanwhile, is a pay-what-you-can café that fosters community through healthy food and spiritual nourishment.

The customer is a part of the solution

If you don’t see any signs of sustainability on the menu, try asking management what their efforts are. If you don’t see the changes made in your favorite restaurant or bar, try starting the conversation to get them there. Consumer preference and inquisition can lead the way.

“The customer can absolutely be part of the solution,” Thompson says. “There’s an idea that every dollar we spend is a vote. Voting at restaurants like Braise and other green restaurants is like a ballot full of awesome, trustworthy candidates.”

About The Author

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Emmy is a local writer, illustrator, and film photographer. She is an avid cyclist who also collects rocks. She is allergic to everything so don't invite her anywhere.