When Jennifer Stark and Maureen McNamara decided to make their small Amici's Pizza in Berkley a more environmentally friendly restaurant, they expected the process to be fairly simple.
They could recycle their cardboard, glass, plastic and metal. They'd get rid of Styrofoam cups and containers. They'd buy napkins made from recycled paper. There were lots of little things they could do to make a difference.
The good news is that they succeeded: Amici's - along with its companion martini bar, Amici's Living Room - recently became the first restaurant in southeast Michigan to be certified green by the national nonprofit Green Restaurant Association.
But the process wasn't as easy as the owners had expected.
It took more than six months of problem-solving and persistence to meet the first group of goals set by the association - not because the steps were difficult, but because the women were often in uncharted territory. With so few businesses following green practices, they realized, suppliers and even governmental agencies weren't immediately equipped to help them.
But in the end, Stark and McNamara not only changed Amici's, they helped change the suppliers and agencies they dealt with - which, in turn, may make it easier for other restaurants to follow their lead. Even Amici's employees and customers say they're paying more attention to waste and recycling because of the restaurant's efforts.
"You can really do something," Stark said last week, pleased with what they've accomplished. "You can even do something great."
Out with the Styrofoam
To receive Green Restaurant Association certification, a restaurant must halt the use of polystyrene foam, better known as Styrofoam, and launch a comprehensive program to recycle its wastes.
In addition, it must meet four goals chosen for it by a GRA environmental consultant. In Amici's case, that meant altering their takeout menus, switching to biodegradable cutlery and using more earth-friendly napkins.
Those goals were met in November. Four new goals are to be completed this year, in a perpetual effort to improve the environment. All of this is part of the national program that certifies restaurants; so far, 109 are certified.
Stark and McNamara were more than happy to get rid of Styrofoam. The GRA targets it specifically because it can lie in landfills for hundreds of years without decomposing.
"That stuff should be outlawed," McNamara said last week, as she and Stark sat down to go over their certification materials. Officials in several U.S. cities agree, and have banned it for food-related uses.
To replace the foam, Stark and McNamara chose clear cups and lidded containers from Greenware, manufactured by Fabri-Kal Corp. in Kalamazoo from biodegradable cornstarch.
They're now available through Gordon Food Service and SYSCO, so any restaurant can order them.
Amici's new knives and forks are called Tater Water. You'd never guess they're made of potato starch or that they'll decompose in only a few weeks in the landfill.
Stark orders them over the Internet. "You can cut a steak with this," she says, bending a knife and watching it spring back.
The new napkins, made of 100% recycled paper, are manufactured without chlorine bleach, a chemical that releases toxins when it breaks down, the association says.
And the carryout menus, as specified by the GMA, are printed on recycled paper with nontoxic soy ink. Greenfield Printing in Berkley, Amici's printer, didn't carry either product when Stark first inquired. But owner Scott Russell took an interest, found the products and now stocks them.
Russell said he's hearing more lately about soy ink, "but Jen was one of the first ones to ask me for it," he said.
It's no trouble to use, but the ink and paper are more expensive than standard products. As a result, Amici's new flyers cost it about 45% more than its old ones, he says.
Likewise, the restaurant spends almost four times as much for cups now. Stark says they used to pay $32.28 per thousand for 16-ounce Styrofoam cups, compared with $120.07 for the new cornstarch-based Greenware.
Those numbers "won't encourage people to make the switch," she admits, but she considers the environmental benefits worth the price, especially with people increasingly aware of environmental issues.
The restaurant will not directly recoup every cent it spends, but the owners are sure their efforts will resonate with their customers, many of whom are younger, socially conscious types who are willing to pay a bit more for higher-quality products - like Amici's gourmet pizzas and cool cocktails. It was customer concern, in fact, that started the whole project.
"Customers were asking why we had Styrofoam," Stark said.
It was simply a practice left over from the previous owner, Stark's brother, who sold the restaurant several years ago. Because Amici's began as a carryout pizza place, it wasn't set up for a whole dishwashing operation, so it doesn't use china and metal cutlery. "Maureen and I do care about the environment," Stark said, so they set out to make changes. They decided to go for GRA certification to demonstrate their seriousness and ensure that whatever changes they made were meaningful.
They hadn't expected any trouble setting up their recycling program, but that part took the longest to get up and running.
Jeff McKeen - general manager of SOCRRA, the resource recovery authority serving Berkley and 11 other cities in southeast Oakland County - went to the restaurant to discuss their recycling needs. The agency accepts metal, plastics, paper, cardboard and virtually all kinds of glass.
"We were the only restaurant in Berkley doing this, and they were eager to help," Stark says.
But the contractor who did the curbside pick-ups insisted Amici's use the same small tubs homeowners used, even though the restaurant was filling 15 of them each week. Neighbors didn't like seeing all those bins outside and complained to the city, so the restaurant's recycling program took a break until that was worked out.
To SOCRRA's credit, Stark says, it kept working on the problem and things are running smoothly.
Amici's places its recyclables into two tall, gray, 95-gallon cans-on-wheels - which SOCRRA provided - and sets them beside the back door until the authority's new contractor cheerfully picks them up each week.
"We had a few startup issues," McKeen agrees, but those problems were solved by the new contractor, who can handle the big, wheeled recycling carts restaurants need.
Restaurant recycling in metro Detroit "is not very common at all, but it's becoming more prevalent," he says. Lily's Seafood in Royal Oak does it, and he's helping Howe's Bayou in Ferndale get started next week.
Back in Berkley, Amici's efforts to go green inspired city officials, who've set up the city's first-ever Green Committee.
"The city is really into what we're doing," Stark said. "They've been really cool."
Stark and McNamara don't know how many pounds of trash they used to send to the landfill every week. "A restaurant generates a lot of garbage," Stark says.
But it's much, much less now, McNamara notes. "To see all the stuff in the cans, it's unbelievable. It's really amazing. Then you think about how you were throwing it all away for all those years," she says, shaking her head.
Both feel good about the green changes they've made at Amici's.
And so do employees.
Bartender Amy Anderson, 22, of Detroit says she's more than happy to set aside empty liquor bottles and cans and carry them out to the recycling cart at the end of her shift. It's not a burden, she says.
"I think it's awesome. ... This feels a lot better than throwing all this stuff away."
Amici's Pizza & Living Room
3249 W. Twelve Mile, downtown Berkley
Serving gourmet pizzas, creative cocktails and a small selection of salads, pasta and sandwiches.
Kitchen open 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Bar open 4-midnight Sunday-Thursday; 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday.
How to get started:
• Contact the Green Restaurant Association at 617-737-3344 or read more at www.dinegreen.com. The association offers free consultations for owners to answer questions, says executive director Michael Oshman.
• To set up a free business recycling program in cities served by SOCRRA, call the agency at 248-288-5150 and visit its extensive Web site at www.socrra.org.www.soccra.org Residential recycling information is also available there. Businesses and homeowners not served by a recycling authority should contact their commercial trash haulers with recycling questions.
• Get more information about Tater Ware - cutlery, cups and other containers made of potato starch - at www.taterware.com.
• To learn more about cornstarch-based Greenware, made by Fabri-Kal Corp. in Kalamazoo, see www.f-k.com. Greenware is available locally through Gordon Food Service, its GFS Marketplace retail stores and SYSCO Food Services, among other vendors.
By Sylvia Rector, Detroit Free Press Restaurant Writer