Last week we wondered why notoriously progressive Birdbath wasn’t on a list of restaurants certified by the Green Restaurant Association. Owner Maury Rubin, who also operates City Bakery, tells us he didn’t seek certification from the GRA partly because he feels their requirements don’t go far enough. And how far is he willing to go? By this summer, he says, he’ll institute a program which offers his employees incentives, via a “company-wide friendly competition” for saving energy in their private lives. He’s also launching a program that will give his customers price cuts if they sign up for wind energy. We asked him to share some wisdom he’s gleaned from trying to run the most environmentally sound (and still profitable!) food business in the country.
How much does certification matter when it comes to things like being “green” or “organic”?
The meaning of certified organic has come to mean nothing. You have people in Ireland selling organic salmon. Really? Meanwhile you have people like Ronnybrook — they’re not certified, but they’re feeding organic grains to the cows who’ve been there for 40 years. They’re sort of appealingly disorganized, discombobulated people because they’re farmers — all they’re doing is trying to keep up with the farm.
What are some things that make Birdbath, in your opinion, the most progressively green food operation in the country?
We’re using rickshaws for all of our delivery, so we’ve eliminated five to six trips of a van every day. Number one on the list is buy local food. Stop buying fruit from Chile and strawberries from South America all winter long because they're damaging for the earth and they taste like crap.
What do you consider “local”?
For twelve years we’ve bought organic flour from mills in Utah. I love it. When we opened Birdbath, we decided it wasn’t reasonable to schlep flour 2,800 miles across country and then talk about green. We found new flour — some of it is from North Carolina, and some is from Pennsylvania.
Is it difficult to compost your garbage in this city?
There’s a legit system, and there’s a theoretical composting service that’s part of garbage pickup but I think it’s very questionable whether the composting that people think is getting done is getting done. We’re trying our damnedest to set up our own system.
How do you determine which cleaners are environmentally friendly?
We try to find out, number 1, where was it made in relation to City Bakery or Birdbath, number 2, what’s the manufacturing system? Is a product being made in a gigantic industrial factory, or is it being made somewhere that’s more mindful of energy and manufacturing?
So what do you do to serve meat responsibly?
It’s one of the secrets of City Bakery — City Bakery did not sell a piece of chicken for its first ten years. We changed when we moved to 18th Street — we had a growing customer base, and I had bigger bills to pay. But [meat] remains 2 percent of our lunch business.
What do you do to conserve water and energy?
Every location is wind-powered. All you have to do is check a box on your Con Ed bill once a month. It makes your bill about 11 to 12 percent higher roughly, but from the time we started doing wind power, our bills have decreased. We’ve gotten religious about how not to waste energy.
What sorts of changes has that brought about?
We’ve been mad scientists about not wasting ice. Late in the afternoon, depending on the weather, we don’t automatically keep restocking and restocking the ice chest. Ice is really expensive to produce both monetarily and from a resource point of view.
Do you think the city could do more to help?
Santa Monica provides a lot of subsidized environmental programs to our City Bakery there. City Hall has been really mindful about let’s get a great plan in place and make New York City greener, but for the food business specifically? Nothing.
Has there been something you’ve tried to do that hasn’t worked out?
Potato-starch- and cane-sugar-made cutlery is idiotically expensive. The cutlery’s virtue is that it’s biodegradable or compostable, but there’s no real system built in where that biodegradable cup or plate or fork ends up biodegrading. It ends up in the garbage.
Doesn’t it biodegrade in the landfill, though?
The fuel you use to get the garbage from the curb to the landfill is something that you want to avoid. There should be some government-subsidized if not fully provided context for composting for food businesses. We have 250 pounds of wet food scraps (the ends of lettuce, scraped carrots) at the end of every single day. Two hundred fifty times 365 times how many food businesses in New York? Imagine if you took that out of the garbage system.
How important is serving vegan and vegetarian foods?
The production of meat and animal protein is monumentally damaging. It’s one of the thirstiest processes. It is a costly, damning process to the Earth. The Times ran a piece [about meat] that I thought was way overdue. It was interesting that it wasn’t in the food section.