This Zero-Waste Wine Bar Could Be The Future Of Conscious Dining
When I first heard that a zero-waste wine bar had opened in Brooklyn, the first of its kind in the city, I imagined composting how-to's on the walls and bamboo cups on the tables—telltale signs that a space is branding itself as sustainable in this day and age.
I found no such things when I visited on a drizzly evening this fall. Filled with weathered wooden booths, marble tabletops, flickering candles, and throaty background music, Rhodora feels like any other trendy restaurant in NYC. The space doesn't hit people over the head with its green ambition, Halley Chambers, Rhodora's deputy director, tells me from across the table, and in fact, many guests go the entire night without realizing that they're dining in a zero-waste experiment.
The subtlety is intentional: "It shows you can have this really beautiful experience that isn't reductive," Chambers says. "It doesn't feel sparse or scarce." It's true that unless you read the mission statement printed on the front of Rhodora's paper menus (biodegradable, of course), it would be easy to miss all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into the space. "It's, of course, hard to see, because we have no waste," she smiles.
A full dining experience with zero waste.
So what does it mean for a wine bar to be zero-waste? For starters, it doesn't have trash cans. Anything left over after a nightly service is either recycled or reused. All food scraps are sent to the basement to be composted on site. Plastic cups, cutlery, and straws are banned. For times when waste is truly unavoidable (when a customer brings an empty chip bag in from outside, for example), there is one emergency box that gets sent to TerraCycle, a company that recycles things that would usually need to go to landfill.
More impressively, the food and wine that's served is also waste-free. Rhodora's staff picks up their own veggies from a nearby farmers market, the cheese and eggs are delivered in sturdy bins to be returned and reused, and anything that's shipped from out of town comes in packaging that can be recycled or composted—all the way down to paper tape. The supply chain is the biggest source of waste for most restaurants, Chambers explains, but Rhodora has found that many of their suppliers are keen to try out a more eco-friendly way of operating.
Their linen company, for example, was inspired to nix the single-use plastic wrapping it used for all of its deliveries after Rhodora requested that their shipment come in reusable linen bags. And their cleaning supplier, which operates nearby, agreed to make the extra trip to stop by and collect Rhodora's empty bottles to be refilled. "It speaks to the fact that everyone actually wants to do something," says Chambers.
Can this model work for other restaurants?
Despite the flexibility of some suppliers, maintaining a supply chain that's hyper-diligent about waste is still a huge challenge. Chambers says that single-use plastic inevitably makes its way into the front door sometimes, and there's some question over whether all their recyclables are actually getting recycled. She acknowledges that eateries outside a city like New York, where tons of producers operate within a few blocks of one another, would find it even more challenging to do business like this. Rhodora's menu is also limited to a few simple small plates (the emphasis is mostly on the fun, funky natural wine section), which means they have an easier time sourcing sustainable ingredients than a full-fledged restaurant would.
But the hope is that the space serves as a case study that others in the food industry can look to for inspiration. It doesn't set out to be a finish line as much as a starting point.
"We are acutely aware that our tiny natural wine bar is not going to have an outsized impact unless we find collaborators who are interested in pushing for the same thing," says Chambers. "The partnership aspect is so important—not just on a local level but on a systemic level of how we actually address waste."
The past, present, and future of conscious dining.
While it's the first of its kind in New York, Rhodora joins a small cohort of restaurants around the world that operate from a zero-waste mission. Silo, Douglas McMaster's fine dining restaurant in London, is probably the most impressive and well known, and it was the initial inspiration for Rhodora. (After doing a pop-up with McMaster, the Oberon Group, a carbon-neutral hospitality company in New York, was inspired to take its own sustainable mission further. When they found it too difficult to rejigger an existing restaurant into a zero-waste one, they opened Rhodora from scratch instead.)
"[McMaster] was instructive in showing us how much more we could do to reduce our waste footprint—and that running a restaurant is possible without trash," Chambers explains.
In talking with Chambers about Rhodora's early success, it's easy to believe that the zero-waste restaurant movement is just getting started: that the small outpost in Brooklyn is the latest in a chain reaction of eateries inspiring one another to do a little better, to use a little less.
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