I’ve been working in Boston’s catering industry for almost four years now, beginning as a server for The Catered Affair (TCA) while attending undergraduate school. It started out as a good way to meet friendly people and earn a little money, but I never took it very seriously as a step along my career trajectory. Now, I find myself working for both TCA and Broadway Gourmet; two of Boston’s more well-known catering services. I’ve grown to love the catering business. Well… that is, all except for one part of it…
It has always bothered the environmentally conscious employees at TCA to see all the waste at the end of events. Most of the events take place at the Boston Public Library, Copley branch, and it’s especially sad to see all the homeless people sleeping outside on the library benches as we haul out our leftover food to be tossed in the trash. We’ve talked over the possibility of waste reduction a million times among staff members, but have yet to have a serious discussion with management. Although, I have heard that TCA is working towards implementing recycling at their events soon, and BG is also making an effort.
I’ve spent three years imagining what a sustainable catering company would look like. Would they institute compost and recycling, or, even better, not purchase in excess of what they would need? How would they manage the logistics of waste separation in a traditionally fast-paced/stressful environment? Perhaps there was already a sustainable catering company that other caterers could use as a model, so I googled “sustainable catering companies in Boston”, which yielded a catering company in Beverly named, Chive Events and not much else. Next thing I knew I was in Beverly getting off of the commuter rail.
Lindsey Wishart, one of Chive’s co-owners along with Jen Freedson, greeted me at the door of their warehouse, which actually is more like a garage at the back of a driveway. When asked about the humble beginnings of Chive, Lindsey told me “Jen and I started on the notion that we could throw kick-ass parties while minimizing our environmental impact. We strive for an interesting and creative event design rather than the traditional style of abundance.”
Chive runs a profitable business model that works through word-of-mouth. “Most people have it in their hearts to be conscious of the environment and to waste less,” said Lindsey. Although, the general public still refuses to incur the full environmental costs associated with their actions, and, sadly, it is true that our current economic structure is set up in a way that sustainability is considered a “premium” service. “We are generally more expensive than your typical catering service, but you can’t compare apples to oranges. Our line items on our budget are totally different.” With Chive, customers are paying for fresh produce from a local farm, and near-zero footprint on the environment. “We take care of it so our guests don’t have to. We want them to have an incredible experience.”
My visit started with a tour detailing how they are able to achieve zero-waste. First of all, it’s important to note that Chive doesn’t limit themselves to small family dinners. Lindsey informed me that one of their typical events holds 100-150 guests! As a person who typically works similarly sized events, I know that that can result in a lot of wasted food and materials (two to three full garbage bags usually).
The waste receptacles at Chive’s warehouse include 4 single stream recycling bins, 3 compost bins, and 1 trash bin for emergencies. All of these are residential sized bins that you’d have at your home. I was surprised not to see any dumpsters or industrial-sized trash receptacles. On the side of the trash bin they keep a bundle of plastic bags, where they store them until they are brought to a grocery store and recycled. (Note: Most grocery stores such as Star Market and Stop and Shop have recycling containers for plastic bags as long as they’re clean). Not surprisingly, their recycling hauler is Save That Stuff, a very popular hauler in Boston with their own recycling facility for processing.
Recently, Save That Stuff came under fire for taking contaminated compost from a local restaurant to the dump without informing the restaurant owner about it. When you’re composting more than food scraps (i.e. napkins, plates, utensils, etc.), it’s a tricky business that oftentimes can lead to miscommunication between the hauler and their customers. Chive is aware of the high standards for compost these days, and does their best at making sure that their compost is 100% biodegradable. They choose to contract with a separate composting company called Black Earth Compost, because they are worried about the integrity of other Save That Stuff customers’ compost that eventually becomes mixed together with theirs in the truck. Once Lindsey mentioned this potentially debilitating detail, I could tell that she was serious about the zero-waste mission, and was in it for more than the brownie points. Heck! I wonder the same about my curbside recycling. If Capital Waste (my neighborhood hauler) lumps my materials with my neighbors’ materials, there is likely going to be contamination that will erase any effort I make of recycling the correct items. This is something to investigate further in a future blog post.
You’ve probably seen those plastic looking utensils that are supposedly biodegradable, right? Well, in reality, very few of them actually degrade into compost, even at the high heats present at commercial composting facilities. (Read a great article with more details here). Lindsey, having done her research, ordered Aspenware dining utensils instead, which compost beautifully and are sturdy so as not to break. Also, she selected VerTerra single-use plates made from palm leaves, which are BPI-certified compostable, and actually enhance plant growth once they are broken down into soil.
Next, I was brought to the storage area, where they keep all the pieces that make up their events, from kitchen equipment to table decoration. Personally, I’ve never attended one of their events, but judging from the unique items they had in their storage, I would say that there is definitely a vintage feel to them. Instead of fragile ceramic serving plates or bowls that often chip or break, Chive owns a variety of old wooden ones, encouraging the idea of reuse. They use chalkboards to write out the night’s menu, or to give their guests details of which farm the locally-sourced ingredients came from. Even the flower vases were made from different colored glass bottles that had been cut in half. “We try to give everything another life” said Lindsey.
Signage and employee education is key to Chive’s success. “We understand that our servers might make a mistake throwing an item in the wrong area after having worked a 12-hour shift, so we find it really important that we label everything.” Chive also tries to employ like-minded people who care about the environment, and who bring a positive demeanor to the events. “Our servers are knowledgeable about our mission. They care about that aspect too. I think it fuels our success, because our guests feed off of their energy.”
In my experience, this is the human component of serving that is often overlooked. It can make the difference between a good party with a lighthearted atmosphere, or a tense party where everyone is always checking their phones. Chive doesn’t hire any temporary servers or bartenders, and prides themselves on being a flat organization where their staff can speak to the event’s details. “It makes the party so much better for our guests when the people working are enthusiastic to be there, and can answer questions at depth,” said Lindsey with a smile. “We also try to use as few outside vendors/contractors as possible, so as to avoid any confusion in what we do. If you choose us for your event, it’s in the contract that we come with our zero waste program.” Of course, there can be some push-back from their clients on this issue. For example, in the instance that a client might hand-select the bartender for their wedding. Yet, Lindsey and Jen do a good job of explaining the ins and outs of their sustainable agenda to their customers beforehand. Ultimately, they want the client to buy in to it on their own account.
One area of sustainability that Lindsey doesn’t underestimate is the sustainability of working relationships. “My job is managing relationships more than anything. There’s so much stress sometimes [in catering]. When upper management is stressed it becomes a trickle down effect, and all that corporate resentment builds. We challenge our employees to step outside their box, encourage them to ask hard questions, and to do their best. If you make a mistake, we’ll show you how you can learn from it and correct it. We don’t need people snapping at each other.”
Overall, most catering companies are similar to grocery stores in that, to satisfy their customers, they create abundance beyond what can realistically be consumed. A superficial image of “plenty” is more important than feeding those in the community or protecting the environment. (See my last post to read how one Boston organization is rescuing that extra food from wholesalers and providing it to their communities). In my opinion, this is the main area in which Chive is miles ahead of their competition. “Don’t get me wrong. It would be horrible to run out of food at an event,” Lindsey shuddered, “but we take many things into account before an event so we can estimate the correct amount of food to bring.” Obviously, the first level of defense against waste is to not overdo consuming it at the source.
At this point I was already in love with the concept of Chive. Their level of awareness about sustainability is what impressed me the most. Sure, some things are common sense (like choosing compostable cocktail napkins), but a lot of what constitutes “sustainability” is complicated and needs constant re-wiring. “Sustainability is always changing, and we’re not going to say ‘let’s do it this way,’ or ‘this is what sustainability means.’ If it means we have to evolve our system to make it better for the environment, than we’ll do it. We’ll make the change. We’ve done it before. No big deal.” This attitude of embracing change is honestly so refreshing for me as a young professional. It’s always been a challenge for humans to break out of their comfort zone, even when there is potential for improvement. Rip off the band-aid already!
When asked if she had any advice for other catering companies trying to make a sustainable impact, Lindsey responded “it really comes down to educating your team. You have to have a staff that’s on-board. Also, you can make it easily accessible for them with simple things, like signage, or not having trash bins located everywhere, thus reducing the drive-by toss.”
Finally, when asked whether she feels like Chive is leading the Boston’s catering industry, Lindsey humbly shrugged. “The whole point that we do this is so that more people will do it too. The easier it becomes, the more it will spread to other businesses and catering companies. Sure, in the back of our mind we are wary of the competition, but at the end of the day, this is the world we want to live in.”