Having recently earned Platinum Plate designation as a Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant, Dinette continues to push the sustainability envelope, serving as a model for restaurants and other businesses. Owner and Chef, Sonja Finn, took time today to share her sustainability story with us.
– What is a macro trend driving restaurants’ uptake of sustainability that all organizations should be watching for their own interests?
The most obvious is the public’s interest in being healthier—in restaurants this translates to customer demand for better products—more organic, for example. Additionally, a push towards local food and supporting farmers. Customers want this and if you’re a restaurant buying locally then you’re buying seasonally, which means the food is going to taste better anyway, so it’s obviously something to embrace.
And luckily enough this is a more sustainable model. But like so many things that affect restaurants, this is a “trend” and the problem with that is people can drop this trend and move on to a new one. Unfortunately, I feel the push for sustainability has followed more of an arc than a continual rise. So, I would hope restaurants would embrace sustainability as more than a trend, so that it holds steady while we move through everything else that pops up. Bloody Mary’s with 11 accoutrements, marquis lights, hopefully poke the unsustainable mercury bomb that it is –-those are trends; Sustainability should be a basic tenet.
Something that business and restaurant owners can do, and I really need to do this, is to write up a mission statement before you start the business. In this include the business’s basic values. Day to day is hectic. You can get so consumed with just keeping the doors open every day that you forget what you want to be as a business. If these values are written down from the get go, then you can revisit them as often as you need to stay true to who you are.
– Dinette recently earned Platinum Plate designation as a Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant. Please share one or two examples of how Dinette is integrating sustainable practices relative to resource conservation, employee care, or operational efficiencies and savings.
We just began donating to 412 Food Rescue. They are a tremendous force in this city and I thank them for enabling all of us to be more sustainable.
When I built Dinette nine years ago, environmentally responsible building materials were just really beginning and becoming available to the average consumer. So in 2008, I purchased an on-demand water heater and plyboo countertops because at the time it was brand new thinking. I made the sustainable decisions where I could, but along the way, and definitely nine years later, it’s time to basically audit many items and see how I can improve. There’s been so much innovation. For instance, this week, we are updating our lighting system.
Today, there are many organizations and businesses that exist just for the purpose of helping a business be more sustainable, providing the resources, doing the research for you. I used to have to scour the internet, now I just have to check my inbox and somebody is there offering to help, so I’m incredibly thankful for that.
– What would leaders be surprised to know about Dinette’s own sustainability challenges and opportunities?
I’d say that I know that being sustainable isn’t going to make me more money, in fact it’s most likely going to cost more, and I’m okay with that.
It’s in my face every day: A rep stopping by to show me these beautiful P&D U-10 shrimp (from Thailand) “only $7.99/lb.” No thanks, I’d rather pay $12.99 for US and then have to peel and devein them myself. Or it’s 8:30pm and we’re probably only going to get a few more tables. I could send home a cook and save $40 pay. But I don’t, because if you’re going to count on them they need to count on you.
As a sole business owner, I feel especially aware of these monetary decisions, as each dollar I save at Dinette is a dollar I can take home (minus taxes of course), while in a larger business it may not feel as present. The flipside is, as a sole business owner, these decisions are mine alone, so I have the opportunity and therefore the responsibility to make sure I’m making the correct ones, i.e. the ones that best uphold my values.
Summing up, I guess I would hope that when trying to market sustainability to others that we do a better job of appealing to their values and sense of compassion. Too often I feel the marketing instead appeals to people’s self interests as maybe it’s thought the easiest way to get them on board. But it’s kind of false advertising plus it also to me feels contrary to many of the underlying principles of sustainability and therefore in the end may prove counterproductive.
Basically, if you are going to stick to your values, you have to find satisfaction in that and that alone. Being a business owner who is responsible, sustainable, taking care of others is unlikely to pay off monetarily. The pay-off is that you can live with yourself.
On a different note, I’m about to join 50 chefs in DC to talk to senators about the upcoming Farm Bill. Nothing sounds less sexy than the “Farm Bill,” so I don’t think it draws much interest from your average American. Unfortunately, that’s how it manages to get worse each time it renews. I would hope people pay attention this time around because it’s actually really important.
Eighty percent of the bill has to do with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)—making sure people have food. Another thing that people may find interesting is how the Farm Bill could impact availability of safe drinking water. We just had this Washington Post article and a couple other articles come out saying that scientists have found the first traces of pesticides in drinking water. The Farm Bill will impact this issue of pesticides in drinking water, either for the better or likely worse if people don’t start getting involved and vocal.