Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

A Zero-Waste Bar: A Great Idea. But Is It Worth It?

Native cocktail bar in Singapore turns banana stalks into drink coasters. Image: Nicolas Ee

From stacks of cocktail napkins to rows of bottles that may or may not end up in the recycling bin, waste is an inherent byproduct of running a bar.

The last couple years have seen a push by many in the industry to clean up its bad habits. While environmental evangelist and Trash Tiki co-founder Kelsey Ramage admits that an absolute-zero-waste bar is virtually unattainable, it doesn’t stop her, and others in the business, from trying.

But beyond the obvious environmental upsides, and token measures like eliminating the much-maligned plastic straw, what are the real-world challenges and benefits of going low to no waste?

Laszlo bar manager Nicky Beyries favors stocking products from small sustainability-minded distillers and distributors with a shared commitment to minimal packaging. Eddie Hernandez

“Part of hospitality is offering people what they desire,” says Nicky Beyries, the bar manager of San Francisco’s Laszlo and Foreign Cinema, though environmentally conscious bars can often take those choices away from customers.

“While millennials may think what we’re doing is amazing and cool, people my parents’ generation don’t like it when you restrict their choices or ask them to try new things,” says Carina Soto Velasquez, a founding partner of Quixotic Projects, which operates Candelaria, Glass, Hero, Les Grands Verres and Le Mary Celeste in Paris.

Ultimately, reducing waste means “getting away from stocking everything and trying to please everyone,” says Meaghan Dorman, a partner and the bar manager of Manhattan’s The Bennett, Dear Irving and Raines Law Room. “You have to keep a slim inventory and be OK with running out of something and communicating that to customers.”

Most of the drinks at floating bar Grand Banks are on tap instead of in bottles, which reduces waste. Alan Silverman

The upside of fewer customer choices? Smoother and faster operations, according to Alex Pincus, the co-owner of Grand Banks, a seasonal floating oyster bar aboard a historic wooden schooner on Manhattan’s Hudson River. The bar offers most of its drinks on tap versus in bottles, not only, he says, to reduce waste but also to improve efficiency in the high-volume, fast-paced environment.

While limiting inventory can lead to financial and environmental savings, other green initiatives require, well, spending some green. Beyries willingly pays an additional $10 to $15 per bottle for “quality products that have ethical labor and production practices.”

Velasquez admits her commitment to composting is costly, and she also pays extra to remove noncompostable, organic trash from her properties. Jessica Lischka, the general manager at Jimmy’s in Aspen, also pays additional fees for off-site recycling because her city lacks comprehensive recycling facilities.

Negroni Sbagliato at Grand Banks. Alexander Pincus

However, Lischka says, some investments do reap rewards beyond a clear conscience. While not as profitable as selling upcharged premium bottled water like Fiji, Jimmy’s investment in a Vero water filtration machine paid for itself and netted a $4,600 profit, in just 12 months, from selling filtered water to guests.

Vijay Mudaliar, the owner of Singapore’s Native cocktail bar, says the bar’s costly solar power system will save him money in the long run. Same for an expensive composting system that converts solid waste to a liquid used for an all-purpose cleaner and hand sanitizer, reducing the need for more expensive, less environmentally friendly cleaning supplies. The bar even uses leftover sous-vide bath water to mop floors and clean toilets.

Native cocktail bar boasts fewer than 35 grams of trash per month. Nicolas Ee

That type of ingenuity often translates to these bars’ drinks, as well. Kim Stodel, a self-described kitchen forager and the bar director of Los Angeles’ Providence, has used everything from squash seeds to pea shells in his cocktails and says his desire to eliminate waste has shifted his mindset from “I need to order X cases of product” to “what’s the kitchen using right now, and how I can I use it too?”

Velasquez says the symbiotic relationship between chef and bartender is also commonplace in her bars. “It’s a continuous conversation,” she says. “If the the bar has lots of orange shells, a chef will re-cube them for sauce. If the kitchen is wasting carrot peels, the bar can use them for a cordial, syrup or soda.”

Ramage thinks this creativity leads to better cocktails. “You can create new and more complex flavors by using ingredients in two to three different ways,” she says. “Whether that’s fermentation, preserving or making an oleo.”

Coasters made out of banana stalks at Native. Nicolas Ee

And while experimentation can certainly be time-consuming, it may eventually lead to some crucial takeaways. “You can waste a lot of time trying to eliminate waste,” says Stodel, who says his first attempt at a now signature freeze-dried garnish took a few days of trial and error. Today, he can produce a two-week supply of that same garnish in 30 to 45 minutes.

Ramage admits that making and freezing citrus husk “stock” for drinks at a recent pop-up in Melbourne not only extended the life of the produce but also massively cut down on prep time for service.

While bartenders are creatively reducing the waste that leaves the bar, they say the biggest factor they can’t control is waste coming into the bar. “Yes, there are laws that dictate how liquor can be bottled and sold, but do we really need an individual color-printed neck tag on every bottle of tequila?” asks Lischka.

Providence bar director Kim Stodel uses foraged ingredients in his drinks, such as the Ros Marinus, in order to eliminate waste. Kim Stodel

Beyries and Pincus favor stocking products from small sustainability-minded distillers and distributors with a shared commitment to minimal packaging and flexible ordering and delivery methods. “Our glassware company is amazing,” says Beyries. “They pack products in recycled boxes and use wrapping peanuts, which we then recycle at a local mailing facility.”

Ultimately, Beyries says, it’s best to try and change what you can and not lose your mind over the things you can’t.

And even small steps can result in big changes. Solar-powered, sous-vide-wash-recycling Native now boasts fewer than 35 grams of trash per month. And it all started with trying to eliminate a single point of waste: the plastic straw.