Build It, & They Will Come
One Industry Couple's Push for Permaculture Bliss, Come Hell or High Water.
July 3, 2015 ● 10 min read
Anthony Myint has one of those voices that makes you lean in. He’s soft-spoken, and incredibly articulate to boot, and thus, you lean.
This is a guy who, along with his wife Karen Leibowitz, has made a reputation of charitable restaurateuring while helping launch some industry favorites, notably, Mission Street Food (and consequently, Mission Chinese Food) and San Francisco’s Commonwealth.Now, they’re crowdfunding an aquaponic greenhouse as a part of their latest dining venture, The Perennial.
When we sit down on an unseasonably warm November morning outside Linea Caffe, which houses two of Myint’s latest ventures—waffles, and salads with a cause—acclaimed Noma chef Rene Redzepi has just backed the project. Myint says its a much-needed morale boost at a scrappy stage in their Kickstarter campaign: halfway there, and showing no signs of slowing down.
They have always felt invested in the idea of food being able to serve the community, and it’s a well-documented fact: Mission Chinese Food donates a portion of proceeds to the Food Bank. Commonwealth donates to everyone from hunger-fighting organizations to hospitality houses. Those salads at Linea give $1 per salad to climate change activists 350.org. The way they worked charity into their business model is simple: once they make the call, there ain’t no turnin’ back. No way around it, no month-to-month evaluation.
“The restaurant industry is so challenging. People are underpaid and overworked, and it’s easy to get jaded because you’re working your ass off, mostly to give a rich person a nice experience or something,” he says. “So the thought of being able to take money out of that equation and donate it is kind of hard, but it’s really rewarding to work in a situation where what you’re doing serves some other good.”
After being approached by a developer looking to fill a space with a new Myint-Leibowitz operation, they wondered if this was their shot.
“Our 2008 selves would never attempt something like this,” Leibowitz tells me the next day. “Part of it is that when we were asked if we’d like to do it, we responded with what we thought of as a dare that would let us off the hook. We said, ‘Only if we can do it in the most environmentally responsible way, and make it a flagship for a new era of sustainability in the restaurant industry.’ And they were like, ‘Great. We’ll draw up the papers.’”
“That’s not a direct quote, but they didn’t bat an eye. It was sort of like in Austin Powers when he’s like,” here, she adopts Dr. Evil’s signature tenor, “‘One millllllion dollars!’ We thought we were really pushing it, and it was fine. So then we had to do it.”
“Each step in our career has been about pushing ourselves, and to some extent, pushing the restaurant industry.”
With a few years of public goodwill acting as wind at their feet, this campaign represents the duo’s first foray into the global push to put the food industry on solid ecological footing. After much deliberation, they’re betting the house on aquaponics, a hybrid growing system fused from the practices of aquaculture (raising fish or aquatic animals in tanks) and hydroponics (plants grown in water). It’s an increasingly popular choice among environmentalists within the food production world, since it uses 90% less water than traditional farming methods, and is still between five and eight times more productive on a square foot basis. Myint mentions an operation in St. Paul, Urban Organics, that they stumbled over during the research process; located in the old Hamm’s Beer brewery, it’s estimated they’ll be able to produce somewhere around 700,000 pounds of vegetables and 150,000 pounds of fish a year at their peak. And that’s just one converted six-story building in one city. Sure, you can’t grow parsnips or whatever, but in dire fucking times like these, its pretty appealing.
Leibowitz explains that even though they've made a habit of getting out of their comfort zone, this—the dream of a 2,000 square foot aquaponic greenhouse, growing more tangible by the minute—is a different beast entirely.
“Each step in our career has been about pushing ourselves, and to some extent, pushing the restaurant industry,” she says. Food trucks were not the norm when Mission Street Food made its first appearance. Nor were pop-ups, now regarded as a valid practice round for new concepts looking to wet their feet. Built-in charity, too, is a rarity in an industry that loves to give back. While trying to decide just what form their newfound passion would take, research lead them to Viridis Aquaponics in Watsonville, a short drive from their San Francisco homebase. They drove down at 6 a.m. for a morning Intro to Aquaponics class, and met the folks who would later become their mentors and partners in the project’s development. Both parties were sold on the other's idea.
“I think they saw the benefit in helping us set things up and making it successful, because the more people who are interested in aquaponics, the better,” Myint says of the partnership. “Having their guidance is crucial, and takes some of the risk out of it. It eliminates several years worth of mistakes that could be frustrating.”
Now that Viridis had their back, they could afford to be a little more confident about the success of the operation. No messy first grow cycles, less costly experimentation, more answers.
“It had started to feel like there was a more hands-on way to get involved that we hadn’t figured out yet,” Leibowitz adds. “A lot of what we did in the past felt like, well, we can try this out, and if it doesn’t work, it’s only our problem...now, we have so many people involved. There’s more responsibility.”That responsibility extends to yet another offshoot of the project: Zero Foodprint, a non-profit recently hatched by Myint, Lucky Peach editor Chris Ying, and carbon emissions specialist Peter Freed. It’s aimed squarely at helping restaurants reduce their carbon footprint, and while still in its early stages, Zero Foodprint hopes to work with restaurants to evaluate their environmental practices and help implement change on a case-by-case basis. While the greenhouse supplies produce solely to The Perennial, the nonprofit will take the greater mission to their peers.
“I think everybody is worried about climate change, but it’s pretty easy to feel like there’s too many variables, there’s too many factors. I’m just one little guy, I’m not going to make a difference, all that," Myint says. “Aquaponics is almost like a permaculture ideal because it’s close to a closed loop. It’s close to nature, but you can incorporate it into urban design. We really wanted to do it, but at the beginning, it felt absurd to try and do that at this restaurant because there wasn’t really a good space for it.”
Happenstance soon went to work on that tangle: the architect working on The Perennial? Oh, just an aquaponics enthusiast with some unused property lying around. Boom: greenhouse location.“Now that we could build it, it seemed like we should,” Myint says, simply.
Myint, a student of economics and Asian studies in his college days, and Leibowitz, a Ph.D in English literature who had planned on becoming a professor, are two people who never quite thought this is where they would wind up.
Back then, Myint did not consider himself part of the food fervor sweeping the nation in the slightest, and spent his first days out of school as a cubicle rat for a firm that researched the travel industry.
“It was very banal. Literally like in Office Space, writing generic reports,” he recalls. The benefit to corporate life primarily included four weeks of paid vacation time, so he squirreled it away, quit, and traveled the world for six months. When he returned, he landed in San Francisco, and embarked on a series of prep cook gigs and catering stints that would eventually lead him to the just-opened Bar Tartine. (It was here, slowly working his way around the different stations that he met Jason Fox, now the chef at Commonwealth.)
“I could see that the next step was to stay there as a line cook for another year or two, and I didn’t know if I wanted that,” he admits. On a lark, he and Leibowitz rented a taco truck to goof around. That shitty subletted truck would soon be known as Mission Street Food, which shapeshifted into the pop-up, which morphed Mission Chinese Food, and launched chef Danny Bowien into the stratosphere. This was in the early halcyon days of Twitter; Roy Choi had just kicked open the street food scene with $2 Korean barbecue tacos at Kogi in Los Angeles. Friend Chris Ying penned a letter about their little four-wheeled endeavor to a local blog, which was then picked up by Eater, and before they had even stepped onto the truck, they were swamped. Little did they know, this adapt-or-die work ethic would set the tone for the next six years of their careers. Leibowitz notes that Mission Street Food was opened on a mere $400, the cost of ingredients and printer toner for the menus. The scale of things has certainly changed.
The pair has made an accidental habit of finding themselves at the heart of the zeitgeist, and have a knack for acting quickly and following through. It’s a trait that allows them to be among the first-movers of each industry movement, time and time again.
“It’s been a real confluence of right place at the right time. Or, being just prepared enough to rise to the occasion. It would be pretty easy to dismiss a lot of ideas as risky or impractical, but going into something open-minded, and overcommitting, has worked pretty well,” Myint says. “You can be fretful about it not working, but if you just go for it and it doesn’t work, that’s okay. Often, you find that you can make it work somehow.”
During the opening of Mission Chinese in New York, he and Bowien would jokingly tell their staff that it was all nothing compared to the way they had begun in San Francisco; spending the whole week doing half the prep, and then completing the final half, seconds before service, scrambling. Nothing toughens you up like a daily dose of sheer panic and sweat.
“After you do that twice a week for a year, you’re better equipped to open a place,” he says. “The amount of stuff you can do when you’re under the gun…I think that ability was something that we never expected.”
Leibowitz, a freelance writer who typically takes on the content side of operations, says that even though she never pictured heading up sprawling restaurant projects, she hasn’t felt the need to fight the current, either. It all happened too fast for anything but full-blown dedication.
“Between 2008 and 2012, I went from being a graduate student with a line cook husband to being a food writer restaurateur with a child, and depending on how you count it, three or four restaurants,” she says. “I used to feel like things were moving really fast, but now it’s been going on long enough to where I have learned that life is full of surprises. I’ve come to feel good about it.”
Leibowitz recently sat down for drinks with an old friend she hadn’t seen since high school, who expressed disbelief at her diverted professor-to-restaurateur-to-aquaponics-champion path, but for her, the trajectory really doesn’t seem that odd. They aren’t, after all, your average restaurateurs, trying to maximize profits and good reviews. With each endeavor, they strive for new ideals—something that takes their pursuits beyond themselves and into the socio-economic realm. That requires an inquisitive mind and a relentless spirit, something the pair has in spades.
“Over the course of 20 years, a lot can happen. I’m comfortable with the idea that there might be another twist or turn,” she says. “I was on track to be a professor, and I didn’t do that. But the way we are running our businesses feels pretty intellectually gratifying. So in a way, it’s not as far as it might seem.”
With just under ten days left, Myint and Leibowitz, along with Viridis Aquaponics and their chef at The Perennial, Chris Kiyuna, are settling into the starting blocks.
“I was really worried when we started that it would be marginalized as tree-huggers. I always have that fear...have you seen that Portlandia episode with the chicken? Where they have to get his file?” Myint says. “I was sure that was something we would have to face, but so far it’s been very positive.”
The reason he’s able to worry over the perceived preciousness of it all is because, until recently, Myint himself was a bit skeptical.“I was never that into or focused on organics, partly because the economics of it never made sense to me,” he admits. “To buy a bunch of organic carrots and onions, and then boil and make stock out of them...I would rather take that extra five bucks and donate it.”
Then, six months ago, he read Dan Barber’s The Third Plate. The stark honesty about the farm-to-table model put him firmly on the fence about most industry practices, but the notes on flavor made the deepest impression.
“The most important thing to flavor is great soil ecology, right? Healthy soil is going to make the best food,” he explains. “On one hand, that’s a great message. On the other hand, for us embarking on the aquaponics route, we were like, well, we’re screwed, because we won’t have that complexity of soil.”
Nevertheless, Barber’s words illuminated what will be prove to be the real challenge of the operation.
“Let’s say we do this aquaponic greenhouse, and the produce is not as delicious. We’ve all had hydroponic produce. Some is good, some is bad,” he admits. “Let’s say it’s not as delicious as what you can buy at the farmer’s market, and that sucks. That’s something that we’re going to have to overcome, either in the kitchen or through the growing cycle.”
Either way, it’s bound to be one hell of a learning curve. With aquaponics, you’re obviously limited in what exactly you can produce, so the flavor of the things you can becomes the main focus. Myint and Leibowitz, in tasting lettuce samples from Viridis, noticed an inherent bitterness in the greens. Turns out it was just an expression of an enhanced nutrient profile that is usually lacking in commercially-produced greens.
“What we’re trying to do is embark down this path of a mode of production that’s efficient and a closed loop, and then we’ll work within that paradigm to make it taste the best possible,” he says. “We’ll continue to buy things from farmers, it’s not like we’ll be turning our back on all conventional food. It’s a whole spectrum. We’re not exactly die-hard, we’re just trying to move things in a good direction.”
The hope is that dining at The Perennial won’t feel like getting hit over the head with an environmentally-conscious hammer. It will just be a restaurant, with a compelling menu and an honorable platform. They’ll work in tandem with Zero Foodprint, and continue to seek out other projects doing good, like The Marin Carbon Project, which is striving to find ways to graze cattle that better sequesters carbon in the ground.
But for now, it’s about clearing the first hurdle: funding. Ever sure in their footing, they’re not giving in to negative thinking. Lack of funds never means lack of action, and their confidence and conviction is exactly the thing the sustainability movement needs.
“We haven’t even discussed what would happen if we didn’t get funded. We’ll just make it work,” Leibowitz says. “We’ll just keep pushing.”
UPDATE :: Since the original publishing of this profile in November 2014, The Perennial successfully fundraised $4,000 above their proposed amount, and have begun construction. They look forward to a September opening.