Rifrullo Cafe: A Sustainable Restaurant Case Study

Rifrullo Cafè in Brookline, Massachusetts recently earned 3-star Certified Green Restaurant® recognition from the Green Restaurant Association (GRA). In order to reach this sustainability milestone, Rifrullo owner Colleen Suhanosky took action in a range of different focus areas. In this article, we hope to expand upon Rifrullo’s practices and help other restaurants get a better idea of how they can take steps toward a smaller environmental impact as well.

Fixing the Faucet

One of the most inevitable areas of waste in the restaurant business is water waste. Not only is water used throughout the cooking process in the kitchen or “back of house,” but additionally customers tend to use extra water when using the bathroom, simply out of ease (no one ever thinks to turn off the sink while washing their hands). One significant way to lessen this water waste is by installing aerators on every sink. Aerators essentially mix air into the stream of water coming out of a faucet, making the water appear high pressure while significantly cutting the actual amount of water being used. Rifrullo, in accordance with GRA standards, employs aerators which release less than 1.5 gallons per minute in the back of house, and .5 gallons per minute in their bathroom for customer use.

While this seems to be a straightforward change, the process can actually take some effort. Rifrullo first looked to Home Depot to find faucet aerators, purchasing those that seemed to comply with GRA standards. Unfortunately, once they were brought back to the cafe, staff quickly discovered that they were the wrong fit for their faucets. And this process then repeated itself multiple times; even when Rifrullo turned to the internet to order aerators, the fit continue to be wrong. Through patience and persistence, however--and the help of friend and olive oil wholesaler Seth Schrage--Rifrullo was able to find chicago-style aerators from hardware supply company McMaster-Carr, finally reaching their goal for reducing water waste.

If We Must Waste...

Another unavoidable aspect of running a restaurant is waste. Waste can be separated into two different realms, food waste and material waste. Luckily, there are multiple options to limit both of these sources in a restaurant.

In regard to food waste, composting is the best practice. Rifrullo uses Black Earth Compost, who collect not only food waste, but even items such as wax paper, wine corks, and wood materials like chopsticks or toothpicks. Rifrullo has clear signage (with pictures!) posted on their waste bins, ensuring that there is no contamination and the compostable products will truly go towards that purpose. Additionally, education is key for making sure the composting process goes smoothly in the back of house. Suhanosky notes that “No one has ever had a problem with getting on board with composting at Rifrullo. It’s just about having a leader who is passionate enough to enforce it. Everyone here knows that composting matters and that I care.” According to Suhanosky, for chefs wanting to get in on the sustainable restaurant movement, composting is a great place to start; it forces restaurants to think about the entire lifecycle of their food, while making a significant environmental impact. Rather than sending all of that biodegradable waste to a landfill--or even possibly an incinerator-- the food can be repurposed back into the Earth, reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the process.

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Recycling can be more tricky, with confusion about what can be recycled and difficulty in making sure that the materials don’t simply end up lumped in with landfill waste. Rather than relying on recycling as a solution for our consumption habits, the more effective mindset is to shift towards a culture of no single-use. Rifrullo emphasizes reusable dishware for eat-in customers, and utilizes glass jars for to-go soup orders. The cafe then uses high temperature dishwashing which reduces the need for harsh chemicals, keeping the entire process as green as possible. And, even when single-use is necessary, plastic is not the solution. Just at a rough estimate, Suhanosky says that almost half of the cafe’s sales are to-go orders. In order to combat this opportunity for waste, take out containers and utensils at Rifrullo are biodegradable, and they encourage family size meals so that the single-use containers are put to better use. There are no water bottles for sale at the restaurant, and plastic straws are being phased out. Eventually, the goal is for customers to bring in their own reusable cups and containers, ultimately rethinking the way that we consume, even when we are on the go.

Veggie Party!

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The food that is served at Rifrullo is one of the most significant ways the cafe embodies sustainability: 43% of the menu is vegetarian, and 14% is entirely vegan. Reducing meat consumption is immensely impactful for a business’s carbon footprint; the reduction in carbon dioxide and methane release is well documented. This change is also in line with Brookline’s climate plan to have zero emissions by 2050.

Positive Purchasing

Purchasing, like waste, can be categorized into food and other materials. And both are important to creating a sustainable business.

The Green Restaurant Association standards place a high value on locally grown food purchasing, with points allocated for each food group being sourced from nearby farmers. Not only does this practice cut down on transportation emissions, but supporting local farmers creates greater community value. Suhanosky attests that forging relationships with growers means you can feel good about the food you’re eating. And, while it is a concern for many businesses that buying in small quantities isn’t cost effective, Suhanosky has this to say: “Everyone has to decide for themselves what their priorities are. It isn’t an easy choice, but once you make it, you have to stand by that mission.” For Rifrullo, transparency with their customers is paramount to their mission, as well as putting money back into the community that supports them. For restaurateurs looking to start forming relationships with local farmers, Suhanosky recommends reaching out to fellow restaurants in the area to start making those connections and learning from those around you.

In regard to purchasing materials for your restaurant, it can be a more murky process. Determining what is green and what isn’t is a time consuming process. The key, according to Suhanosky, is not to get overwhelmed. Not everything you buy has to be the best environmentally friendly item on the market; even finding materials that are partially made from recycled materials is a good place to start. The Green Restaurant Association even provides a service that analyzes purchasing options and provides a report that weighs the environmental benefits of each. Taking these small steps and making sustainability part of the customer experience creates momentum, which will hopefully grow and spread throughout your community.

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So what’s the take away message? Take a step, any step. Some are easier than others, but they will add together. We don’t each have to solve it all, but we can all be part of the solution. And if we can begin to change these norms and mindsets, hopefully everyone will begin to think of sustainable action as cool (as if it isn’t already) and engage further in going green!

By Casey Maslan, a junior in the Environmental Studies department at Boston College, and intern at Boyer Sudduth Environmental Consultants.