CHICAGO–The walls of Sandwich Me In are covered in an eclectic collection of quotes on music, food, and the environment. One prominent quote reads: “Leave the world a little better than you found it.” It sounds a little like wishful thinking when you consider the proverbial footprint we all leave behind. But Justin Vrany, 36, owner of Sandwich Me In, is working diligently to make it his mantra—and he’s doing it without sacrificing even a smidgen of flavor.
The dumpster behind Sandwich Me In remains starkly empty compared to its overflowing neighbors in its Chicago Lakeview neighborhood. Since May 2012, when Justin opened the restaurant, trash collectors have found next to nothing. In fact, he hasn’t thrown even one drawstring bag of trash in the dumpster—and he told the city they could discontinue his trash pickup (they told him they couldn’t, but they’d only charge him the bare minimum fee of $40 a month just in case).
The only trash to be found, in fact, is up against a back wall near the kitchen’s exit. There sits a small, unassuming tin trashcan, with the less-than-eight gallons of trash he’s accumulated in nearly two years of business. Even more remarkable, an estimated 90 percent of that trash didn’t come from the sandwich shop; its disposable coffee cups tossed by customers who may not have recognized Justin’s dogged efforts to reduce waste. The cups sit with the last ring of tepid coffee soaking in the bottom because Justin can’t bring himself to throw them out.
Inspired by his grandfather who’d been a butcher in Chicago’s West Loop when it was still the meatpacking district, Justin says he knew from a young age that he would work in the food industry. “They have videos of me when I was four watching gourmet food programs on channel eleven,” he says with a laugh.
When he entered culinary school at Kendall College in Chicago in 2005 he dreamed of opening his own restaurant, but he didn’t know at the time how important it would become to him to run a green, environmentally friendly restaurant that was conscious of the ways we damage both our earth and our bodies. It wasn’t until taking a political science class halfway through school that the spark was ignited. “We were taught by a woman from France about how we in the U.S. are butchering our food. It was all about processed foods and the chemicals that go into them,” he said. “Out of the developed nations, we have one of the lowest life expectancies. There are countries, like Japan, where the average life expectancy is eighty-five. And several people live to be one hundred or more. It’s the same thing with France and Italy. And it’s because of their diet.”
So Justin opened Sandwich Me In with the aim to use fresh, organic, and sustainable food from local farmers. And if customers occasionally seem passive towards Justin’s environmental campaign, they can’t help but turn their heads when he passes through the dining area with the bacon he smokes in-house.
If Justin is anything, it’s astutely resourceful, and this knack is showcased in his ability to minimize garbage. It all begins with his menu–he meticulously maps it out so that he doesn’t waste even a morsel of food. “Everything coincides,” he said. “The crispy smoked skins of the chicken go onto the Cobb salad and the chicken bones make the broth for the chicken soup.” If he has a certain vegetable left over from a given day, it goes into the black-bean burger. Every scrap is artfully used.
“There was a TV show in the nineties, where the guy surprises people and goes to their house and makes gourmet meals for them from whatever happens to be in their fridge,” Justin said. “My wife always jokes that that’s me.”
That same imaginative resourcefulness has seeped into his entire business model, from kitchen appliances, to furnishing the restaurant, to energy supplies (he purchases his energy from Liberty Power, which distributes renewable energy sourced from solar, wind, and bio-diesel). As a result, Justin has nearly obliterated Sandwich Me In’s waste.
One of the reasons is that he doesn’t purchase any processed food. Processed food means preservatives and packaging–and packaging means garbage. The minimal packaging he does get, Justin recycles. And he doesn’t just dump his recyclables in a bin out back. “I take all the recycling to designated drop-offs myself, such as Whole Foods,” he says, because he doesn’t believe his environmental responsibilities are over once the items leave his hands. He wants to know how his recyclables are being broken down and how they’re being used or misused. He doesn’t want to find out later that the recycling company had been lazily tossing some of their pick-ups into the trash.
Justin also composts all his food waste, thanks to a composting company called Collective Resource. The company distributes 32-gallon bins to participating restaurants and 5-gallon bins to residential participants. For a small monthly fee, they provide biweekly pick-ups, and then drop the results off at a commercial composting site. After 100 days all the scraps have become soil, which is then sold to construction projects.
Even in his first stages of furnishing the restaurant, Justin started where he always starts–with what he already had. Though his storefront space had previously been a medical facility, Justin managed to reuse nearly eighty percent of what was already there. He gutted, rearranged, rewired, reconfigured, and put everything he could possibly use back in. He then bought most of his kitchen appliances from Gator Chef, a Chicago-based company that attends auctions at restaurants that are either moving or closing their doors, purchases the used appliances, and sells them to new owners. There are only two refrigerators that Justin purchased new; since they’re energy-efficient, they’re both better for the environment and more cost-effective in the long run.
In the nearly two years since opening Sandwich Me In, Justin has managed to shape a prototype worthy of nearly any small business wanting to shrink its footprint. And he’s proving—one pork belly at a time—that foodies and food activists don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, being both just may make everything that much tastier.
For more information, visit http://sandwichmeinchicago.com/
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