When we heard of the behind-the-scenes efforts of sustainable hospitality businessman, Henry Rich, we were pleased to connect with him to find out more. Over a delightful plant-based lunch, we discussed all things sustainability. Turns out, he is part of the progressive Oberon Group and co-owns the first zero-waste catering company, Purslane, in addition to carbon neutral restaurant, Rucola and June Wine Bar.
His passion to transform a largely unsustainable industry in an unsustainable city by role-modelling sustainable practices and by consciously investing money in order to take environmental responsibility by choice is inspiring to say the least. We believe that quiet-achieving business efforts to inspire sustainable change should be celebrated. In this interview, Henry sheds light on practical challenges encountered, how he has overcome them, and what ultimately drives commitment to his mission – despite the additional costs, effort and time.
What inspired you to take sustainability seriously in a primarily unsustainable industry?
I felt a sense of guilt and urgency working in food. Our industry has one of the greatest effects on climate change and we do almost nothing mitigate it. To make matters worse, as an American, my national government is completely passive on the issue. My only path forward for acting on climate change was through individual choices and the sustainable missions of my projects.
What are the greatest challenges to zero-waste catering and how have you worked to overcome them?
There are three great challenges: logistical, financial, and educational.
Logistically, it is more difficult to separate out recycling and compost than throwing everything in one big trash. This requires more organization and honestly more cooks when executing for hundreds of people. Some event spaces don’t even have recycling and almost no one has compost, so we need to take our bags of recycling and compost out with us to bin in our central commissary. Also, the preparation requires more diligence since we set aside any materials that can’t be recycled by NYC for washing, drying, and putting in a teracycle box so that it doesn’t go to landfill. To solve this problem, we moved to a larger dedicated kitchen commissary. Working with zero waste practices requires more processing space, so we’re now well set up.
Financially, it’s just more expensive – it requires more labor to start. We’ve also replaced single-use plastics, which are cheap, with reusable or compostable ones. We recently made the switch to all compostable gloves. The Teracycle boxes are a great way to recycle difficult to recycle materials we receive from vendors, but this is also a cost – some of them cost us $800/box. We’re still solving this problem. Our hope is that clients will put a value on tour commitment to sustainability and will choose Purslane as a company in line with their values. With scale, the costs of being zero waste lessen.
Education and staff participation are the biggest barriers. Many of our staff and contractors have been resistant to adopting practices which frankly make their jobs more difficult. Timing is critical in hospitality, so people are hesitant to take extra time to work in a zero waste way. To accelerate our organisational change, we’ve spent the last year talking to all staff about zero waste whenever we can. Members of our team who resonated with the sustainability mission stayed and those who didn’t left. All of our new hires are on board, including one today who has a masters degree in sustainable fashion and marketing.
How much does it cost your business/es to go zero-waste over less sustainable options?
We expect it will cost us $150,000 in 2020.
Food-waste from events must be a huge challenge in the catering industry. Can you please explain how you manage this to ensure that no food goes to waste?
Some food still goes to waste because it is very difficult to say what groups will eat what food. Also, unfortunately the norm is for clients to expect that we never run out of a single menu and that there is always more on offer. So, we just do our best at all times.
We are impressed that your facilities are powered by 100% renewable energy (currently 90% wind and 10% solar)! Can you tell us about the transition process of moving to green energy?
We switched all our businesses a few years ago because this seemed like the fastest and easiest transition toward sustainability that we could make. Our local utility has a monopoly on distribution, but by law anyone can pick their own utility including 100% renewable!
Tell us about your carbon neutrality commitment and how others can do the same!
Two years ago we started converting all of our businesses to become carbon neutral. We worked with the non-profit ZeroFoodPrint to transition Metta to become our first carbon neutral restaurant in New York City in 2017, which was followed by Rucola in 2019. Currently, there is no way to run a restaurant without releasing greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. Growing food, even organically, is a carbon intensive process; requiring transportation and energy.
In the Rucola restaurant, we eliminate our footprint by measuring the carbon created by our business and investing in programs that cause an equivalent drop in emissions – these include investing in methane digesters on farms or distributing clean cookstoves around the world, both of which avoid unnecessary emissions.
The outcome is that for several thousand dollars of mitigation a year, our contribution to greenhouse gases is net zero. None of this would have been possible without ZeroFoodPrint and their auditing of our carbon footprint. They also vetted the carbon negative investments which allowed us to reach net carbon neutral.
We understand that in businesses with co-owners, levels of management and many staff members that there must be challenges with maintaining your practices. How do you keep the business and staff accountable?
The decision to go carbon neutral was relatively easy. The most difficult part of it is knowing it will come with some sacrifices. There are certain vendors we no longer use because of their packaging. There are employees and partners who have left because they’re not on board with the mission. There are companies that have struggled with the costs.
I think you start by holding yourself accountable to follow through on your intentions by remembering why you’re doing it; to contribute to a movement that is trying to save lives and the planet. That makes the sacrifices seem small, easy, and trivial.
Thank you, Henry. We are incredibly impressed with your sustainable efforts and absolutely believe that you are making a difference. We have hope that others will follow in your footsteps.
To join the conversation about improving sustainability practices in the hospitality industry, please head over to @plantd.co to comment on our post about this article. Share what has inspired you and tag other sustainable heroes that we can acknowledge for their quiet-achieving efforts.