AP NEWS

Baraboo eatery going green with biodegradable leftover containers

March 26, 2019

When customers save leftovers at Little Village Cafe, they also help save the planet.

The downtown Baraboo restaurant has stopped packaging leftovers and carryout orders in Styrofoam, switching to biodegradable containers made of sugar cane. It now sends out coffee in cups made from corn silk.

“We’re going to do our best, do what we can,” said Jim Dickey, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Christine.

They’re part of a growing group of restaurateurs going green. With some U.S. cities banning Styrofoam containers and others turning their attention to plastic cutlery, many restaurants are voluntarily switching to eco-friendly alternatives. Last year, the National Restaurant Association reported that 72 percent of operators surveyed buy at least some packaging and supplies that contain recyclable material.

While to date Little Village is the only Baraboo customer that has switched over entirely to biodegradable packaging, Sysco Foods salesman Dustin Meyer said the practice is becoming common in larger cities. He gets more and more inquiries about “green” packaging locally, with Jen’s Alpine Cafe recently switching to biodegradable containers for soup.

“We’re carrying more of those products because our customers are asking for them,” Meyer said.

Going green costs restaurateurs some green. Dickey noted that where hinged Styrofoam “to go” containers cost 8 cents each, similar models made from sugar cane cost 35. Non-recyclable plastic cups go for a penny apiece, but recyclable cups cost 9 cents.

“It’s considerably different,” Dickey said.

Meyer said the switch could pay off for Little Village. “I think in the long run their customers will appreciate this,” he said.

As more restaurants seek recyclable containers, more manufacturers will produce them, reducing prices, Meyer said. “Once it takes off, I think the cost will come down,” he said.

Little Village started going green years ago when it began using plastic cups made of corn. This month, in addition to switching to recyclable carryout containers, it’s eliminating small plastic containers for sauces and other sides. Instead, it’s incorporating those ingredients into dishes ordered to go: If you order a burrito, you’ll find sour cream and salsa inside. The restaurant also uses paper bags.

The Dickeys felt inspired to switch to biodegradable containers because during their winter walks on the beaches of Florida, they see restaurant refuse everywhere. They found themselves picking up trash and thinking about what they could do to save the planet. Styrofoam takes hundreds of years to completely disintegrate, in the process releasing methane into the atmosphere and contaminating groundwater.

“We’ve always wanted to do it,” Jim Dickey said, noting that a previous push to have customers bring in their own containers didn’t work.

With municipalities cracking down on plastic bags and more restaurants switching to recyclable materials, they felt customers were ready for the change. Dickey said his staff’s challenge will be educating customers that they’re getting the same food, presented differently.

“It’s getting people to understand what we’re doing — that’s the hard part,” he said.

Next he’d like to swap out plastic straws for paper straws — even though plastic straws cost a fraction of a cent, and their paper counterparts cost 1.5 cents each.

“It’s baby steps,” he said. “It just feels good to do it.”