The Pizzaplex kitchen staff works tirelessly to prep and cook the food for the menu. Photo by Rosa Maria Zamarrón

Rosa Maria Zamarron

How Detroit Restaurants Are Tackling Climate Change in the Kitchen

Food waste is a leading contributor of greenhouse gases. These Detroit restaurants are finding creative – and tasty – ways to reduce their contribution.

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This story is part of a collaborative series from the Institute for Nonprofit News, Planet Detroit, Tostada Magazine, Energy News Network, The Land, and Borderless Magazine examining climate resilience across the Great Lakes. This reporting was made possible with support from the Joyce Foundation.

When it comes to wasting food, America is among the world leaders. According to a 2021 report by the United Nations, Americans waste more than 45 billion tons of food – more than 138 tons – every year.

Americans waste approximately 30-40% of our food supply, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. And our food waste per capita is higher than the world’s top two food wasters– China at 125 and India at 93 tons per person per year.

Food is wasted at every step of our increasingly lengthy, complicated, and industrialized food supply chain. During production, food is lost through spoilage and pest damage. During processing and delivery, equipment malfunction, over-ordering, and tossing of nutritional-but-blemished fruits and vegetables – causes more loss. At home or in a restaurant, we overbuy and order too much.

And most of that wasted food ends up in a landfill, which has implications for climate change.

“There is a direct link between landfilled food and a hotter planet,” Danielle Todd, founder and executive director of the local nonprofit advocacy group Make Food Not Waste, says. “Decomposing food in landfills releases methane, a powerful gas that traps heat in the atmosphere. And because we throw away so much food into the garbage, we’re essentially constantly pumping methane into the atmosphere.”

The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimated that each year, food waste in the United States produces 170 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent – about the same as the annual CO2 emissions of 42 coal-fired power plants. Research organization Project Drawdown considers food waste reduction as a top solution to climate change.

One of the worst culprits is the restaurant and hospitality sector, which accounts for about 40% of all food waste at a cost of $376 billion.

“A lot of that comes from the consumer side, what’s called plate waste,” Todd says, “That can come from eaters not finishing everything on their plates, from buffets, or catering. But it can also come from the kitchen if the staff isn’t careful in ordering the right amount, storing food properly, or overproducing.”

To address this issue, Todd’s organization launched a program earlier this year designed to encourage local restaurants and hospitality businesses to take concrete steps towards reducing their food waste. So far, 30 Detroit restaurants have signed on to The PLEDGE which aims to help them pinpoint and eliminate sources of food waste within their day-to-day operations.

Some of the project’s greatest successes so far have involved french fries.

“We’ve heard from a few restaurants that the servers or dishwashers have flagged certain foods that consistently come back without being completely eaten – like french fries,” she says. “Now that they’re looking for it, it helps them make portion size changes.”

But it’s not all as easy as that. Todd notes that making changes requires thought – and the staff to have those great ideas.

“The greatest challenge is having the mental space to change habits, especially during staff shortages. It’s hard for the restaurant industry right now and lots of businesses are working overtime to stay open. It can be hard to take the time to put new processes in place.”

There are easy options any restaurant or food service operation can take. Todd advises getting set up with a food rescue partner like Food Rescue US Detroit or Metro Food Rescue.

“They’ll come pick up any size donation you have and get it to people who can use it,” she says. “The next easiest thing to do is contract with a compost service.” Local composting services include Midtown Compost and My Green Michigan.

Darraugh Collins founded Food Rescue US Detroit in 2019 as a local chapter of the national app-based food rescue organization Food Rescue US. Since launch, Collins says the organization, which relies on volunteer drivers to pick up items from local grocery stores and restaurants and deliver them to social service organizations and food pantries, has kept 8 million pounds of food from the landfill. So far in 2022, volunteers have completed over 4,000 rescues.

“Donating wholesome unused food and signing up for commercial composting service are the easiest ways to start reducing food waste. Every business has an option here in Metro Detroit,” Collins says. “Changing long-standing behaviors is often the hardest, but source reduction is the most important thing we can do for long-term climate change reduction. There are many tools available now to help better manage efficiencies in these industries, we need to demand that it happens.”

The best thing you can do is “have eyes on the food you are tossing,” Todd says. “Weigh it and write down why it went to waste – did it spoil? did it come from prep? did you over-portion? Once you know why it happens, you can make changes to prevent it from happening again.”

State and federal agencies are also offering some resources to assist entities in adopting source reduction practices. In Michigan, the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) offers a guide on sustainable food management, and wasting less, or “produce, purchase, and put on your plate only what you need,” stands at the top of the hierarchy.

Todd would like to see Michigan join the handful of states that have banned food from landfills. “That’s the holy grail of food waste reduction because it ensures a level playing field and encourages the development of the necessary infrastructure to handle it,” she says.

Until then, she encourages food retailers to see what they can do with the resources they’ve got.

“The best thing about not throwing food away is that it’s not a sacrifice. Sure, it might mean flexing those creativity muscles a little bit but you’ll save a lot of money,” she says. “It’s pretty easy not to throw away food. Buy less. Eat what you buy. Compost the rest.”

Read on to learn about three restaurants that have signed on to Make Food Not Waste’s PLEDGE, each working to reduce food waste in its unique ways:

  • PizzaPlex is implementing source reduction through careful menu planning and using a company to help with composting.
  • Marrow employs whole animal butchery to waste as little animal product as possible.
  • Avalon International Breads is pioneering an upcycled grain project by creating new products from spent brewer’s barley.
Food Waste

Inside Pizzaplex’s kitchen. Photo by Rosa Maria Zamarrón

The pizzeria that constantly reshapes its menu

One thing you might not notice right away about PizzaPlex, nestled inside a nondescript brown brick building along Vernor Highway in southwest Detroit and a stone’s throw away from a barbershop, is its commitment to limiting the pizzeria’s carbon footprint.

You’d be forgiven. There are so many other features to capture your attention – like the karaoke bar, a wine-tasting series, or its Sospeso Collective, which invites customers to purchase food on behalf of others experiencing food access challenges.

But fighting climate change by reducing food waste is ever-present in the minds of PizzaPlex’s team. And it all starts with the menu.

Co-owner Alessandra Carreon and her team have been making intentional choices about which dishes stay and go since the restaurant opened about five years ago, driven by a desire to avoid sending edible items to the landfill. Careful menu planning is the crux of PizzaPlex’s source reduction strategy—actions taken to eliminate or prevent food waste.

Carreon and her small but mighty kitchen team hope that by practicing source reduction, they can divorce themselves from contributing to the mountains of food waste contaminating landfills and driving up greenhouse gas emissions each year.

The key to source reduction, Carreon says, is limiting the restaurant’s menu. Over the years, the menu at PizzaPlex has undergone waves of change.

Their approach to source reduction focuses mostly on pizza toppings and the sides the restaurant offers. In the beginning, there were struggles. The restaurant was “overdesigned,” Carreon says, by being open for too many hours and offering too many sides that people weren’t buying, which ended up becoming food waste.

Now, when a new menu item is introduced, they’ll serve those dishes for as long as they have the ingredients on hand. Once that trial period ends, if a dish hasn’t sold well, that’s when the team will amend the menu.

Recently, PizzaPlex stopped offering a side of white beans after sales began to dwindle. And it was a relatively swift decision. “If people don’t order it, then we remove it altogether from the menu,” Carreon says. “People will buy it once in a while, but not enough to justify carrying something.”

When cooking pizzas, the team makes only enough dough as needed, a process that’s been refined over the years as they’ve learned which versions are the best sellers. This way, tracking the amount of ingredients purchased and knowing exactly how they’ll be translated into products eliminates the opportunity for food waste.

PizzaPlex’s attentive menu planning has brought relief to its pocketbook. “You’re not overspending on something that doesn’t even get purchased,” Carreon says.

Additionally, the restaurant’s participation in The PLEDGE on Food Waste — an international, third-party certification program that trains businesses how to reduce the amount of food they throw away — is bringing them closer to performing another source reduction measure called a waste audit. A waste audit involves tracking and measuring how much food waste occurs, down to weighing specific food use.

Measuring waste helps businesses recalibrate their behaviors and processes and prevents future waste. Right now, all leftover food — whether produced from food preparation or if a customer doesn’t finish a meal — goes into a compost bin. Carreon hopes the restaurant will take on the data-driven approach to tracking food waste in the near future.

Local food scrap management company My Green Michigan picks up the restaurant’s leftover food scraps to compost them. The paint on the walls is devoid of harmful volatile organic compounds and the bar was constructed from salvaged wood. When diners want to take one of the restaurant’s certified, Neapolitan pizzas home, the pies are enclosed in white boxes made from recyclable materials, avoiding the damage wrought by plastic food containers with chemicals that can leach into foods or groundwater and soil while slowly degrading.

And as much as possible, PizzaPlex sources fresh produce locally, which food waste reduction advocates say points to an oncoming era of food regionalization as supply chain challenges and labor shortages persist.

While PizzaPlex is rooted in food sustainability principles, source reduction has still been a process of trial and error.

“There’s a tricky balance there,” Carreon says. “Because, on the one hand, we want to be able to offer a diverse set of items on the menu. But with that comes potentially carrying more ingredients that may be ordered.”

As they charge ahead, Carreon and her team will still be navigating that tight balancing act: managing the demands of the sustainability mission and the reality of running a restaurant.

“We want to be able to offer a variety of things,” Carreon says. “But not at the expense of making more waste.”

Ping Ho, CEO and Founder of Backbone Hospitality in Marrow, located on Kercheval. Photo by Rosa Maria Zamarron

Minimizing food waste with Marrow’s whole animal butchery

Marrow, the West Village hybrid restaurant and butcher shop with an eye for using every part of a pig — has big plans on the horizon.

The team behind the critically-lauded dining destination is transforming the former Capital Poultry building at 2442 Riopelle in Eastern Market into Marrow Detroit Provisions. The site will house a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-approved meat processing facility, retail butcher shop, and restaurant — complete with a rooftop bar.

With plans to open in 2023, Marrow founder Ping Ho hopes the facility will enable the company to scale its approach to whole animal butchery. The team also wants to provide transparency to customers. “We want to invite people to peek in and look at our facility,” says Ho.

Since Marrow opened its doors in 2018, its guiding principle has been the practice of whole-animal butchery. Marrow’s butchers are constantly searching for new purposes for every part of the animals that come through the door.

That has meant turning off-cuts into ground beef and sausages to sell to Detroiters who want sustainable ingredients for their home kitchens. It’s also meant dehydrated pigs’ tails and ears finding another life as dog treats. In the Marrow dining room, helmed by chef Sarah Welch, it’s meant featuring the roasted bone marrow of animals from Zeeland’s Moraine Park Farms.

Ping Ho, CEO and Founder of Backbone Hospitality in Marrow, located on Kercheval. Photo by Rosa Maria Zamarron.

The pros of the practice are plentiful. Ho believes this approach can inspire a more thoughtful and ethical meat eater – crucial to a world where global meat demand causes environmental harm.

“We rely on these natural resources to continue producing food, yet, what we choose to eat, and what we choose to manufacture could have a negative impact on the environment if we’re not careful,” says Ho.

To reduce its environmental impact, Marrow also works within a shortened supply chain model —partnering with local farmers — so the team can trace not just where the livestock was raised but to keep tabs on the welfare of the animals when they were alive.

The aim is to change the meat status quo – where a raw chicken or beef package from a chain grocery store is likely a product of an industrialized food production cycle that leaves a trail of heavy carbon footprints.

Although researchers note fruits and vegetables are the most commonly wasted foods, they emphasize that feeding and housing animals has an adverse environmental impact. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, raising livestock alone represents about 15% of all “anthropogenic,” or human-caused, greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Resources like energy and water are used to transport animal products that don’t get eaten and go into the trash. And as the country’s meat production increases, those loss rates are likely getting worse, Vox reports.

“I’m looking at how, as we grow and scale, to participate in overall value creation and be consistently aware of our impact on the environment,” says Ho. “I think there’s a better way to eat meat…a better meat industry that we can absolutely be advocates for.”

The forthcoming facility is fully committed to using all parts of the animal. As Marrow scales up the bacon business, Ho says they’ll need to work with a producer who can meet their sourcing standards and supply sufficient meat. The team will also look for other ways to use the trim for other products, like sausages.

“Even if we are purchasing animals that are broken down before they get to us, we are still working directly with the farms,” says Ho. Marrow has been working with a handful of Michigan farms for years. “And these farmers are still selling, essentially rearing these animals [and] are well taken care of.”

A few challenges loom. Ho sees a 25-30% increase in costs and construction because of inflation, so the team is navigating how to complete the project within a budget.

Once the facility is up and running, margins will be slim.

“One of our challenges would be how to get to a point of scale and efficiency, such that we retain enough margin that we can operate successfully and have longevity,” Ho says.

Beyond the financial obstacles, Ho is adamant about redefining the future of the meat business. The decision to build in the largest historic public market in the country where meat vendors abound was intentional.

Ho says the company’s new venture aims to cement its own legacy through disruption. Traditionalists, take note.

“It’s an old business dominated by a lot of old practitioners,” Ho says. “So we want to blow up things. We want to show you how the sausage is made.”

Marrow, the West Village restaurant and butcher shop, has a variety of meats available for purchase. Photo by Rosa Maria Zamarrón

Rescuing spent grains to fight climate change

Inside a nearly 50,000-square-foot bakehouse on Detroit’s east side, workers are helping reduce harm to the planet by producing sweet and savory crackers made from leftover brewer’s barley.

It’s an exhilarating time for the team behind Avalon International Breads, whose humble beginnings can be traced to a storefront bakery in the city’s Cass Corridor neighborhood. They’ve built a reputation for artisan baked goods over the course of its 25-year history and have multiple cafes across Michigan. Recently, they opened two new locations, inside Rivertown Market in Detroit and Woodward Corner Market in Royal Oak.

Eco-conscious practices, like composting and recycling, have been an indelible part of the company’s DNA. These actions are embedded within a core philosophy of the “triple bottom line,” which also commits to building community and offering employees fair wages, benefits, and a compassionate workplace. Avalon now plays a key role in a food sustainability initiative called the Upcycled Grain Project, positioning them at the forefront of a movement aligned with their values.

The food waste reduction method doesn’t just elevate Avalon’s sustainability mission to new heights. It’s good for business.

“It’s not only reducing [waste], but also creating an economic engine out of waste. I feel like it’s sort of the next wave, like what recycling was in the 1990s,” Avalon CEO and co-founder Jackie Victor says. “If you can reconstitute those grains into nutrient-dense food, you’re creating a delicious product that ideally, with scale, can be even cheaper than conventional grains,” added Franz Narowski, Avalon’s chief financial officer and chief operating officer.

An emerging field in the United States, upcycling spent grains promises to help shrink the detrimental effects of the brewing process. Roughly 30 million tons of brewers’ spent grains are produced by the brewing industry worldwide each year, according to research, and the brewing process itself can leave a heavy carbon footprint.

Additionally, for every 1,000 tons of beer created, anywhere between 137 to 173 tons of solid waste, which includes spent grain, is also produced, another group of researchers found.

Upcycling grains help cut food waste and its associated greenhouse gas emissions by finding alternative uses for the spent malted barley from beer manufacture. Spent grains are high in nutritional value, and farmers have used them to feed animals, or as secondary fertilizers, Narowski says.

The story behind Avalon’s upcycling grain project began with New Zealand-based Rutherford & Meyer, a company that produces and exports gourmet food products. The company began processing spent grain from local breweries using equipment that mills it into flour that can be baked into food products.

Avalon Bakery is located on Willis in Detroit’s Cass Corridor neighborhood. Photo by Rosa Maria Zamarrón

The firm started selling these products and wanted to expand its reach by contracting a manufacturer in the United States, eventually landing on Avalon as a partner. It’s a co-manufacturing relationship. Avalon uses the New Zealand company’s processes and recipes to create its products.

“It’s our job to procure all the ingredients, produce it, package it, and then ship it out to distributors,” Narowski says.

A Minnesota-based company called NETZRO sources the flour for Avalon, which they use to make the final product, the crackers. So far, Avalon gets flour every few months based on demand.

The crackers are bite-sized, charcuterie-like crisps that pair well with jam and come in boxes labeled “Upcycled Grain Project.” Flavors include cranberry coconut, fig cardamom, orange sesame, and the most popular flavor, raisin rosemary.

Right now, Avalon’s cracker production is still in its early stages, and Rutherford & Meyer are working with different chains to distribute the products in 2023, Narowski says.

It’s only been a few months since Avalon began manufacturing the crackers. So far, Victor and Narowski say they’re also not experiencing any immediate challenges, like supply chain issues. But as volume scales up, maintaining quality is essential.

“You want to make sure there’s consistency in the grains that you’re processing to get the same flavor profile,” Narowski says.

As the project moves forward, Narowski sees plentiful potential in upcycling. He envisions potentially launching an entire line of snack products using this method.

Being part of a movement that not only combats the climate crisis but also reconfigures the way the local food ecosystem operates could help chart the path for Avalon’s next chapter.

“Climate change is an existential crisis all over the world,” Victor says. “It’s fitting and inspiring to be part of an international solution.”

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