Since opening in San Francisco in early January, The Perennial has elicited headlines asking, Is this the restaurant of the future? Is this the country’s most sustainable restaurant?
Perhaps a better question is, What do you get when you place a restaurant’s carbon footprint at the forefront of every decision made along the way? Karen Leibowitz, the restaurant’s co-founder and Director of Communications, explains this process.
This isn’t your first restaurant. You and your husband, Anthony Myint, started Mission Street Food (which became Mission Chinese Food) and Commonwealth, among other projects. How did this one come about?
In 2013 we were approached by the Avalon Group to start a restaurant on the ground floor of their apartments on 9th Street. At the time, we’d been thinking about ways to make our existing restaurants more sustainable, so we wondered what we would do if we started from the beginning with the environment in mind. We said we’d only agree to look into this opportunity if we could go all the way with respect to the environment. And they said, great!
The Perennial’s website includes a great deal of information about the choices you’ve made. How do you communicate your greater mission to guests once they’ve walked through the door?
We ask our servers to meet diners at their level of interest. They’re trained to answer questions about what we’re doing, but not to speechify. Our dinner menu says:
The Perennial is a restaurant and bar dedicated to environmental sustainability. We believe that food must be part of the climate change conversation, and that restaurants can lead the way. We’re trying to re-think everything about the food world and we’re happy to tell you about it. (Or you can just enjoy the food.)
We also commissioned three postcards from local artist Wendy McNaughton, which illustrate our main ecological projects: aquaponics, carbon farming, and Kernza, a perennial grain. Those provide a visual representation that servers can bring to the table at any time, and they’re also brought out with the check presenter.
The Perennial also maintains a “living pantry” — what’s currently growing inside the restaurant, what’s on your roof, and what’s in the aquaponic greenhouse in Oakland?
In the restaurant itself we have Malabar spinach; on the roof we have kaffir lime trees, scented geranium, and greek laurel, among other things. In Oakland there are marigolds and micro-herbs being irrigated by the water that’s been fertilized by the fish.
It’s been exciting for our chef (Chris Kiyuna) to have things on hand like marigolds that aren’t so commonly found in farmers’ markets. We can choose what to grow to satisfy his particular interests.
How did you arrive at the decision to operate an aquaponic greenhouse? Were you searching for a farm to partner with, too?
It wasn’t that we were first looking for a farm but that we were looking for a food waste solution. Aquaponics is exciting because it produces food, but for us it’s particularly exciting as a way of dealing with food waste.
Initially we were wondering what to do with all of our food scraps: should we make biochar? Use an anaerobic digester? Then we discovered aquaponics [where food scraps are fed to worms and larvae, which are then dehydrated and fed to fish, which then fertilize water used to irrigate edible plants].
All of your design decisions have come from a vast amount of research, but are there any surprises or takeaways you can share with other restaurateurs?
An easy one for Northern California businesses is the Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon. It’s an amazing resource for energy-efficient kitchen design. From them we learned about the PG&E rebate program that measures your appliances for efficiency — if any are underperforming, they’ll buy them back. The energy savings on a new appliance will help pay for the switch, so there’s really no reason not to do it.
And another is that I had not realized how important ingredients are to one’s carbon footprint. We did an audit at Mission Chinese Food and discovered ingredients counted for 78% of our carbon footprint — just beef and lamb together were 37% of the total.
So we made some adjustments to the menu after that, and at The Perennial we’re sourcing our beef and lamb from Stemple Creek Ranch, which uses a carbon farming practice that draws more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequesters more of it in the soil.
The whole audit process helped shape our main goal, which is to think about how we can use agriculture more productively — as part of the carbon chain solution instead of part of the problem. We are really hoping that the agricultural forces become something that’s a value-added element for customers.
Your other restaurants didn’t (and probably couldn’t) start out with environmental concerns in the foreground. Now that you’ve done that, what do you want people to know about The Perennial’s long-term philosophy?
That we wanted to build a restaurant that’s just as enjoyable as any other. It’s important to recognize that food is the closest relationship that most of us have with the environment, and we’re doing our best to make that a positive one as restaurateurs.
We’ve gotten a lot of attention for our design and our mission and we think that’s great! In the long term, our hope is that we’ll build a following as a place that proves that there’s more to sustainability than conservation — environmentalism can be enjoyable.
Photo Credit: Dining room photos courtesy of Helynn Ospina; Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz photo by Alanna Hale; dining nook image by Karen Leibowitz.