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North Hills Monthly

Eateries, Customers Benefit from Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant Designation

Oct 31, 2019 01:49PM ● By Vanessa Orr

Kim-cheese grilled cheese. Photo courtesy ShuBrew

When dining out, choosing a restaurant can come down to a number of factors from the type of food, to location, cost and style. But what if your decision was also based on how good that restaurant was for the environment, the community and the economy?

The Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant program, introduced in 2015 by local nonprofit Sustainable Pittsburgh, is designed to let customers know if where they eat is also working to improve the planet. The program’s different designations of Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum show how a restaurant ranks in the areas of energy efficiency, water conservation, waste reduction, responsible food sourcing, people (employees and community) and nutrition. It also helps restaurants see where they stand, and gives them a guide to follow to help them improve the practices they already have in place. 

“The Sustainable Pittsburgh designation is a great way for restaurants to publicly show their commitment to sustainable business practices, and also provides them with a framework for improvement,” explained Rebecca Bykoski, program manager for the Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant program. “It enables restaurants to set goals so that they run their establishments in the most sustainable ways. The program also helps them connect to new resources, technical assistance, and in some cases, even funding.”

Since its inception, nearly 170 restaurants have earned a level of designation through the program. “We’re not just looking at things from a green/environmental perspective, but also considering how these businesses can improve social equity and boost the region’s economy,” said Bykoski of the organization’s three pillars of sustainability.

In order to earn the designation, restaurants take an online assessment in which different actions in each of the six categories are assigned a point value. For example, composting food waste is a five-point action; purchasing paper products or containers made from recycled content earns three points. Restaurants are then asked to validate those answers with examples of how they perform each action. 

In some instances, Sustainable Pittsburgh can help restaurants become more environmentally friendly by offering resources and support. “We  have partnerships with nine Pittsburgh communities that have access to a pool of funds that we use to provide mini-grants for sustainable improvements such as herb gardens, micro-greens stations, energy efficient equipment, or bikes for food delivery,” said Bykoski, adding that restaurants can also connect to state and federal grant opportunities outside the program.

“We also provide different guides to help restaurants, ranging from information on local sources of products to information on how to purchase clean energy,” she added. “We provide individualized support whether a business might be looking for advice on more sustainable packaging options or a local farmer for a product.”

While some other U.S. cities offer similar restaurant certifications along with a national Green Restaurant Certification, Bykoski says that the Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant designation is tailored to restaurants in southwestern Pennsylvania. “The program is designed to meet them where they are and help them grow, which can ultimately lead to collective impacts across the industry and systematic changes across the food system,” she said.

Restaurants are also taking actions on their own to promote sustainability throughout the region. In October, for example, more than two dozen restaurants signed up to participate in Restaurants Against Food Waste, a partnership with 412 Food Rescue in which the restaurants donate surplus food to feed communities in need. In Millvale, a cohort of businesses is piloting a sustainable packaging cooperative in order to reduce restaurant and consumer waste. 

Sustainability as a Mission

ShuBrew, located in Zelienople, received its Platinum Sustainable Pittsburgh designation this past summer. 

“We wanted to do this because sustainability is a core part of our mission and one of our core values; we are mindful of the environment and how we treat our purveyors and employees,” said ShuBrew Managing Member Erika Shumaker. “We also wanted to see how we compared to other local businesses and to find out if we weren’t meeting certain expectations. 

“We ended up doing very well,” she added of receiving Sustainable Pittsburgh’s highest designation.

Shumaker said that she appreciates the organization’s approach to sustainability in every area.

“Eliminating waste is important, but so is partnering with other local purveyors and building good working relationships,” she said. “That creates better products, which is a win-win all around. 

“We also believe that it’s important how you treat your employees; we want to retain and train good people so that they grow with us,” she added. “Treat your employees well, and they treat you well.”

Shumaker kept sustainability in mind when scouting ShuBrew’s new location, which will open across the street from its current site in November. “We wanted to make sure that we would still be hitting Platinum status in a new, bigger location,” she said. “We kept asking ourselves, how is this sustainable? Is it meeting the criteria? We’re always trying to make things better.”

When opening Tupelo Honey Teas, a retail store and café in Millvale three years ago, owner and CEO Danielle Spinola already had sustainability in mind. “The space, which was owned by the Millvale Library, had solar panels on the roof, but we took it to the next level, refurbishing all of the furniture and counters and putting in LED lights,” she said. 

“Sustainability is important to me, which means it’s important to the business,” she added. “The designation shows that you care about the environment and how you run the business, more than just the bottom line.”

Tupelo Honey Teas has held the Gold designation almost since its opening, and Spinola said that she is working toward Platinum status. She is also involved in projects that promote sustainability in the area, including a pilot project in Millvale that encourages restaurants to use less takeout packaging that ends up in landfills and replace it with more sustainable and compostable options. 

“We looked at the garbage cycle in restaurants and determined that packaging that could be composted in the backyard could help cut down on waste,” she said. “While the project is in its early stages, if it works, Sustainable Pittsburgh may roll out a similar program in other neighborhoods within the city.”

As more people and businesses focus on sustainability, Spinola sees it making a difference community-wide. “One of the reasons I came back to Millvale was because all kinds of cool things were happening here,” she said. “I was excited to come back to the community where I grew up because I can see it changing for the better.”

The Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant designation isn’t just for public restaurants, either. Shady Side Academy is leading the way for private schools by earning a Gold designation for its Middle School cafeteria.

“We applied because we believe strongly in the mission of Sustainable Pittsburgh, and we wanted to let people know that Shady Side Academy and our partner, Metz Culinary Management, follow sustainable practices, and we try to do what is right,” said Middle School Head Amy Nixon. “We also believe that our students can and should participate in and understand these practices. 

“Our mission is to ‘Think Expansively, Act Ethically, and Lead Responsibly,’ so this is a terrific fit for us,” she added. “We believe in sustainability as an ethical practice, and try to adhere to it as much as possible throughout the academy. It also gives us the opportunity to lead responsibly, for our students and our broader community.” 

According to Nixon, everyone who works and eats in the Middle School cafeteria becomes part of the larger picture. “We get to eat local food prepared by local people. We participate in the important practices of composting, recycling, and reusing. We even have a Middle School Recycling Committee, and those students help with sorting at the end of lunch, which helps teach everyone about this sometimes tricky practice,” she said.

Shady Side Academy also conducts weekly waste audits and donates to and partners with local organizations such as 412 Food Rescue and local food banks to donate unused food. The Styrofoam-free campus also features water-conserving dishwashers, energy-efficient appliances and LED lights.

Does it Make a Difference to Customers?

According to Shumaker, while some customers are aware of the designation, others are not, which creates a prime opportunity for education. 

“One of the good things about the designation is that if people don’t know what you’re doing, you can explain what it means and how it not only impacts them but also the local economy,” she explained. “Because of our relationships with our purveyors, our customers know where their food comes from.”

“Anecdotally, we’re hearing more and more frequently that people are using the restaurant finder tool on our website as a way to dine in places that align with their personal values of community and environmental stewardship,” said Bykoski, noting that the tool includes restaurants of all types and for all budgets. 

“The number of restaurants working to earn their sustainable designation is continuously growing as more and more inquiries and referrals from restaurants looking to join the network are received,” she added. 

While most restaurants are working toward sustainability because it’s the right thing to do, it doesn’t hurt that customers are now aware of the efforts that they’re making. 

“We’re really fortunate in Pittsburgh to have an organization like this that recognizes the restaurants that are going the extra mile and taking those extra steps,” said Shumaker. “People may not always understand why there is a higher price for things we get locally, because they don’t know what happens behind the scenes. But we put so much work and effort into it, it’s nice to have someone recognize it.”