Ocean Devotion: Diners Love Ocean Friendly Restaurants

References to the ocean and its inhabitants fill the pages of literature, stage and screen, music and visual arts. Conservationists spend lifetimes trying to preserve it. One human being may be no match for the mighty sea. But the human race as a whole contributes to its demise – one bottle, straw or plastic bag at a time. That’s our throwaway culture, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

The Surfrider Foundation is devoted to protecting the world’s oceans for everyone to enjoy. A vast group of supporters throughout North America includes restaurants, and those who become certified as a Surfrider Ocean Friendly Restaurant (OFR) derive a tidal wave of benefits.

Restaurants sign up to get certified as an OFR for several reasons. It usually begins with a chef or restaurateur’s desire to leave a lighter footprint on stressed natural resources and willingness to employ sustainable seafood practices, for example. As more food industry folks recognize the impact plastic has on the human food chain, they’re taking action.

There is a misconception that it’s too challenging or expansive for a restaurant to do away with single use plastics, but the rewards of doing so far outweigh the effort. Plus, it’s what diners want.

“There are so many benefits to restaurants, including recognition from the Surfrider Foundation as a leader in ocean conversation, but also because diners want to feel good about dining out and have options that support a sustainable future,” says Jennifer Hart, plastic pollution coordinator at Surfrider. “There are a number of ways they can promote their Ocean Friendly Restaurant status including stickers we supply, table tents, bill inserts, and the OFR logo they can include on their restaurant website and print on their menus – all of which help diners who seek out ocean friendly dining to recognize them as such.”

The media attention around this topic helps, too. The first OFR in an airport caught on like wildfire. It set an example that if an airport restaurant can meet the criteria to be ocean-friendly, anyone can.

“We can’t continue to use single use plastics, because the earth has had enough and we need to change,” Hart says. “We can help restaurants transition away from the single use mindset and move toward sustainable use and there are several ways restaurants can begin to make those changes.”

Surfrider maintains two stages of criteria to meet the standards to be an OFR. Many restaurants are already engaging in these practices because they make good environmental and financial sense. Within the mandatory requirements, there are five must-do items. Then in the optional criteria, restaurants can pick two practices to follow.

Mandatory criteria include:

  • No expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam, otherwise known as styrofoam. Alternatives include paper-based or aluminum alternatives for take-out.
  • Follow proper recycling practices, including providing recycling containers easily visible for customers and recycle cardboard and other delivery packaging.
  • Use reusable foodware for onsite dining, including dinnerware, drinkware, silverware, and ramekins/containers, and don’t forget to consider cloth napkins, all of which add up to less waste and more cost savings.
  • Refrain from using plastic bags for take-out or to-go orders, and provide utensils only upon request and encourage customers to opt-in by bringing their own bag, which is also a restaurant cost saving.
  • Provide paper straws only upon request (bioplastics or compostable straws are not acceptable alternatives.) Consider migrating to preferred straw vendors which offer discounts to Ocean Friendly Restaurants via a discount code provided by Surfrider.

Optional OFR criteria include:

  • No beverages sold in plastic bottles. Instead, glass bottles and aluminum cans are Ocean Friendly options.
  • Offer a discount for diners who bring a reusable cup, container or bag, which can help build a loyal conservation practice following. Restaurants can even sell reusables onsite to encourage Ocean Friendly behavior.
  • Offer vegetarian and vegan food options regularly, which also reduce the impact of climate change, rainforest destruction, pollution and save water.
  • Put energy efficient practices to work to conserve your restaurant’s carbon footprint.
  • Make sure all seafood is ‘Best Choice’ or ‘Good Alternative’ as defined by Seafood Watch or certified as sustainable.
  • Implement water conservation and pollution mitigation efforts, including providing water to customers only upon request, installing low-flow faucets and toilets, and simple things, like using a broom rather than a hose to clear sidewalks and other areas, or not pouring fats or oils down the drain – follow local requirements for a grease trap and FOG management and make sure septic tanks are not outdated.

“By stepping up to achieve OFR status, restaurants can take a leadership role and get their local community to shift away from that single-use mentality,” says Surfrider Foundation Plastic Pollution Manager Rachael M. Coccia. “Becoming a Surfrider Ocean Friendly Restaurant, we’re not asking restaurants to get rid of single-use plastic all at once, but to begin using more of the non-plastic alternatives and help steer them towards more environmental reusables, which can make an impact and result in cost savings.”

Restaurants can strive to meet the Surfrider OFR platinum level status, given only to those who have met all of the criteria. These eateries have a vested, deeper interest to be instruments for change and be there for diners who patronize businesses mindful of these efforts. Chefs are also motivated to make the coveted and highly searchable OFR lists, such as best brunch or best places to eat during Earth Day.

“These types of diner lists reflect what is already on consumers’ minds, and this is just one extra level of recognition we can give certified OFRs,” says Coccia.

Because of the community, grassroots feel, diners see membership in the Surfrider Foundation as a positive endeavor and a move in the right direction. Once communities start to recognize the efforts that go into being an OFR, they want to hear how other restaurants are making those inroads.

Tomoko Senechal is the director of sales and marketing for Table 47, a farm-to-table restaurant in Gig Harbor, Washington. Owner Troy Alstead and the general manager Aaron Shook, both divers, are passionate advocates for ocean health and were well aware of Surfrider’s work around ocean sustainability.

“The Ocean Friendly Restaurants program aligns directly with our mission and values, and is a great way to share how we and other restaurants make sustainable choices for our oceans,” says Senechal, who frequently hears that diners choose to visit Table 47 because they know of Table 47’s commitment to responsible business practices. “Surfrider has had an immense benefit on the community and the region and we are vocal about our ocean-friendly practices, so the OFR program gives us another platform to share our stories.”

Senechal says diners are increasingly evolved regarding sourced proteins and produce, especially in the Pacific Northwest.

“More than anything else on their plate, protein sourcing matters the most to them as they continue to ask and look for local products, and they are hyper-aware of where their seafood and other proteins are coming from,” says Senechal.

“Working with your producers and distributors and asking the right questions will help you find great options to keep responsibly sourced items positioned on your menus and don’t be afraid to rotate your menu if you find that an item is not available – it’s better to not have it than to buy a less responsible alternative.”

All restaurants need to do to begin the process is learn about the program and reach out to their local chapter. A volunteer will do a compliance check and explain in more depth what restaurant staff can do to meet the criteria. On the Surfrider website, there is a link to register and make a nominal membership fee payment.

Larissa Olenicoff is the marketing coordinator of Andrei’s Conscious Cuisine & Cocktails in Irvine, California. As a nonprofit restaurant, Andrei’s wanted to partner with Surfrider to extend their efforts to environmental causes.

“With our close proximity to the coast, it’s nearly impossible to have not heard about Surfrider and all the amazing work they do protecting our beaches and ocean, and when we discovered their Ocean Friendly Restaurant program, we immediately started working to meet the requirements to join,” says Olenicoff.

Among the benefits Olenicoff has seen directly, one has been a deeper connection with the community.

“Being a certified OFR is one more thing they love about dining with us – from the beginning, we’ve always placed a high importance on making smart choices for our menu as well as giving back to the community, so diners love it and are completely supportive,” says Olenicoff, who says she and everyone at Andrei’s would love to see oceans treated as museums. “Everyone is welcome to enter and enjoy their treasures, but everyone also understands those treasures are to be respected like valuable works of art, and a global commitment to only consuming sustainable seafood is the only way forward.”

Diners have evolved to expect that restaurants make better choices, not just in seafood, but in the materials chefs use to prepare and serve food and also how they dispose of those items.

“When we first opened in 2009, not everyone understood what we meant by conscious cuisine and cocktails, and we constantly had to explain it, but now we don’t need to explain this concept as often because guests are deeply connected to this practice throughout their daily lives,” says Olenicoff. “It’s not as difficult as you might think to become a certified OFR, and the reward far outweighs any initial adjustment period. You’ll be surprised how much support you will get from your customers – this planet is the one thing we all have in common so it’s only natural we start working together everywhere we can.”

See a list of participating certified OFRs and get started at the Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean Friendly Restaurant website. 

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