Green Bars Are Possible—You Just Have to Care Enough

Booting straws is only the beginning.

December 17, 2018 ● 3 min read

By Daniel Beres | Art by ChefsFeed

You’ve probably seen the turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose. Or the scuba diver wading through a sea of plastic instead of well…the sea. It’s nauseating.

I’m the owner of a cocktail bar called Lost Whale in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. By some, we’re considered to be part of a new wave of food and beverage establishments—green bars—that challenge the way they do business with not just the intent, but the purpose of keeping their environmental footprint as small as humanly possible. Why? Because like many others, we care and refuse to believe there’s nothing we can do about it.

In April of this year, my business partner Tripper Duval and I were presented with an opportunity to finally open a spot of our own. We had a stack of ideas and concepts that we had stockpiled over the years, but we didn’t know which one of them we wanted to attach our names to first. It only took a few late nights, and a few whiskey-fueled rounds or two of “Wouldn’t it be crazy if?” to narrow it down to one: Could we open a bar that was about more than just serving drinks?  Could we open a bar that could prove it was possible to make a difference?

The issue of food waste had always plagued the two of us. We both grew up hearing “waste not, want not”, and in our case more waste meant fewer profits, making it harder to justify our creativity and the use of fresh ingredients to the bigwigs writing the checks. Throughout our careers both behind the bar and behind the scenes, we’d curated craft cocktail programs and trained bartenders all over the country with an eye towards efficiency and profitability. We taught bartenders simple techniques to reduce waste—cutting certain garnishes a la minute instead of filling an entire garnish caddy when it’s slow, or using citrus peels as an aromatic garnish and saving citrus for juice the next day—but would encounter owners who didn’t want to invest in a decent commercial juicer for their staff, or  pony up the extra eighty bucks a month for a recycling bin. (Did those same owners take issue with the withering fruit and botanicals wasting away on their back bar? No.) We were told eco-friendly alternatives and methods were “too time-consuming” or “too expensive.” Excuses constantly being given as to why things couldn’t change, because those calling the shots didn’t see any money in it, or they simply didn’t care.

So now, here we are in the driver’s seat. No bullshit, no excuses. How are we going to show everyone in our market that not only can you be environmentally conscious, you can still be profitable?

Keeping our footprint as small as possible meant putting everything under the microscope. We knew we had to do more than just open with paper straws in our bar caddies. Recycled and recyclable hand towels in the bathrooms, or hand dryers? Eco-friendly straws, or ax them all together? Do we really need beverage napkins? Even trash bags became a point of contention. The Devil is in the details, and that fallen angel had us heated!

Some days, what had begun as our best intentions seemed poised to compromise the entire concept altogether. But then, we’d find a solution to one of the smaller problems, then another, and slowly but surely the wins started to add up.

Here, a movie montage of solutions: Electric hand dryers are basically the movie Outbreak waiting to happen, so recyclable unbleached paper towels from recycled fiber it was! Next, reusable coasters in lieu of beverage napkins. Compostable straws, disposable cups for our patio, and trash bags, all made from a corn resin known as PLA (Polylactic Acid)—which breaks down in less than 100 days with proper composting, uses 65% less energy to produce than conventional plastics, and produce 68% fewer greenhouse gases while containing no toxins. We partnered with Ben’s Harvest, a local compost and foraging company based in Milwaukee, to collect our compost once a week, and then we trained our staff on what the hell to compost.

To offset the costs—and yes, there were costs—we identified our highest selling items and charged a reasonable amount more for them. We got thrifty by taking advantage of discounts and deals on producs that were offered to us by our distributors. We developed strong partnerships with our suppliers to help drive traffic when brand ambassadors and key account managers were in town, which increased sales and kept us profitable. The most prominent question I get is “Will this work for my bar?” My answer is always the same: It can if you want it badly enough.

Bars, especially to us Midwesterners, are like church. We congregate, we socialize, and afterward, we usually feel a little better about ourselves. We’ve all heard the adage about not talking politics or religion in bars, but the idea of leaving the world in better shape than how we found it is bigger than that, and it shouldn’t be off the table.

The conversation has to start somewhere. Why not in a bar?