As a farmer and owner of five bustling restaurants/wine bars/curated goods shops (Vinaigrette and Modern General in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, The Feel Good in Albuquerque, and Vinaigrette in Austin, Texas), Erin Wade doesn't have a lot of spare time on her hands. These days, when she does find a chance to relax, sustainability is what's on her mind.
"I'm a 'hard chiller' when I have the time," Wade says with a laugh. "I tend to turn off completely, and when I can really relax is when the good ideas come out."
Wade calls her latest round of good ideas the "Summer of Sustainability," and with that, she's launching new initiatives to make her already Earth-friendly businesses even more so.
Despite growing the majority of food supplied to her local restaurants, from greens and herbs to tomatoes and eggs, as well as composting waste from the Santa Fe restaurants back at her Nambé farm (locations outside of our area are serviced by food waste management companies such as Soilutions), Wade says she feels queasy about both the state of the environment and the growing trend of "convenience" eating—namely, to-go and delivery.
"We're all walking around with this psychic guilt about how wasteful our
culture has gotten, yet we are stuck in it like gum on all our shoes," says Wade. "All my companies are about wellness and thriving, and right now there are just a lot of things getting us all down—our president, the environment, global warming—so I wanted to do something to give people a positive feeling."
Wade's first foray into environmental positivity is the Compost Club, which incentivizes restaurant guests to actually get those fancy (and expensive) compostable containers into compost piles.
"The problem is that, while they are better than plastic, they are not being composted, which is what they are made for. They are going into landfills—not hot, damp compost piles where microorganisms eat them and therefore, make them effective," explains Wade. "We're not focusing enough globally on soil health as a way of offsetting or contributing to
carbon in the atmosphere."
The Compost Club gives customers punches on a punch-card every time they return one of their to-go containers to the compost bin at the restaurant, or even snap a picture of it being put into a commercial compost pile. After 20 punches, participants are rewarded with a free item to-go or two free items if they are enjoyed in-house.
Another program called The Reusables allows Vinaigrette (709 Don Cubero Alley, 820-9205) customers to make an at-cost deposit on a stainless container which can then be used in an ongoing exchange with the restaurant every time that person orders to-go. If a customer has bought in to The Reusables, "we can make a salad as soon as they call, put it in a stainless container, and they just bring back the previous one," says Wade.
The program also extends to Modern General (637 Cerrillos Road, 930-5462), where smoothies and juices are the most common to-go items.
"We got these amazing portable coffee containers made from coffee husks that are durable and super-chic, as well as our take on a cold beverage/smoothie container, which is a mason jar with a hole punched in the lid for a stainless straw," Wade tells SFR.
Customers who purchase reusable items during the summer receive a free drink (Wade points out the actual drink usually costs more than the container, so you already make your investment back immediately, as well as doing a little something good for the world). Once summer is over, participants have the choice of pocketing an ongoing discount or donating it to a farm fund, matched by Wade. After one year, the fund will make money available to sustainable farmers.
"Things were looking good for farm-to-table for a while, but now we're adding middlemen in different ways. So the point of a farm fund is getting dollars out of fluffy stuff and into the meaty stuff. Convenience allocates dollars away from the soil and the growing of the food," Wade says. "We need to get dollars to farmers, not into containers and delivery. A lot of problems could be solved if we do that."
Convenience, aside from being the overarching trend in this story, is the
target of Wade's final (for now) summer foray.
"To-go and convenience are the biggest trends in food right now," she says.
"People are spending less time in restaurants, eating at their desks, and ordering for delivery instead. This feels like a disconnect for me as business owner because convenience isn't for the environment; there's a hidden cost."
To alleviate that impact, Wade plans to begin a Vinaigrette delivery service as well, the fees from which will also be donated to the farm fund.
"Change happens incrementally; not by saying 'don't drive your car,' but by saying 'help create soil!'" says Wade. "My goal is to make sustainability easier for people while also sending a gentle reminder: The most sustainable thing is just to take some time off and come to the restaurant and eat with us."