(Beef, a very good boy, is watching me take a photo of his humans' new restaurant.)
What if you built a restaurant on trash?
This week at Eater, I'm telling the story of Shuggie's Trash Pie: it's a new pizza place in San Francisco where food waste takes center stage.
The common cited (but a bit old) figure is 30-40% of U.S. food is wasted. Unfortunately, that estimation doesn't distinguish between the two sides of the food waste coin — what gets wasted before it leaves the field or the boat, and what gets wasted after. The latter is everything thrown out at retail, or hanging out in your refrigerator for too long. This is the majority of food waste, but there's another kind, the kind Shuggie's focuses on:
The “trash” in Shuggie’s name refers to waste from farmers and other food suppliers, which the owners repurpose in all sorts of ways: Bruised fruit gets blended into frosé slushies, fish bycatch crowns a salmon belly pizza, and buffalo-flavored chicken gizzards and hearts make the most of meat offcuts. With the exception of the pepperoni pizza, every item on the Shuggie’s menu has multiple ingredients that would otherwise go wasted. (Murphy does insist on canned Stanislaus 7/11 tomatoes and low-moisture mozzarella to maintain a consistent base of flavor for the pizzas.)
Why would farmers spend so much time and effort on growing food only to throw it away or leave it in the field? It's a mix of economic forces, consumer preferences and the physical reality of keeping food fresh as its moved around.
In one field study in California, researchers at Santa Clara University found one-third of marketed crop yields were left behind in hand-picked fields. Greg Baker, lead author of the study, says market prices can dip so low it’s not worth the labor cost to harvest or package, or farmers may not bother harvesting produce with cosmetic issues they know retailers will turn down.
While Shuggie's is only one restaurant, I think the implications of what they're doing with food waste shows how individual choice and food systems create feedback loops.
Enough people personally reducing the food they waste has knock-on effects about demand. But individual farms, purveyors, distributors restaurants others can shift how they plan to use food and change what they consider wasteful. Restaurant patrons respond to what's in fashion and what the business identifies as worthy.
Market demand is growing. Miles Mountjoy, a sales specialist at Monterey Fish Market (where Abe and Murphy get salmon bellies, and also get fish frames to scrape down and make conserva) has seen fish offcuts go in and out of fashion in fine dining. Plus, “in a lot of other communities, [fish heads and collars] never [stopped] being popular,” he says; immigrant communities and restaurants in the area already bought a steady stream of fish heads. This isn’t news to Abe, who grew up in a Japanese household where fish bellies were considered prime cuts.
Their choices are also driven by local relationships - both existing connections formed by each partner's history in the food industry and people who sought them out after learning what the restaurant was doing.
You can read the whole story here, but I wanted to share some of the extended conversation I had with co-owners Kayla Abe and David Murphy about why "trash" as a restaurant concept, and how they plan for shifting supplies of otherwise wasted food.
(The inside of Shuggie's is a look. The owners say its about mixing the mission with a sense of fun)
Kayla Abe on training servers on the more uncommon elements of the menu
Kayla: We don't want them to necessarily have like a Disneyland blurb.
TKB: "Have you dined with us before?"
Kayla: Exactly. I'd like it to be a more organic conversation. Maybe that comes up in suggesting things like, "Oh, the cauliflower dish is really tasty. We're actually using all pieces of the cauliflower... The staff is equipped with little anecdotes about everything. One the first day of training, we did a food waste 101. They can they can insert things here and there. We're kind of encouraging them to be proactive about it... We have been talking to staff about the main kind of challenge of being here is time management. People are probably going to want to ask a lot of questions.
David Murphy on designing a menu around waste
That's where just like normal chef-ery comes in.. When you're building a menu, you take on the responsibility and trying to cater to absolutely every single type of guests that's gonna come through. We tried to do that with the vehicle food waste. That's the limiter, the constraint that we put on ourselves, which is, it's a fun exercise for chefs, I think, is to is to kind of give yourself limitations. And I think that's where the most creativity for, at least for myself, comes through is when you kind of put the handcuffs on and say, "Okay, what can what can you do now?"
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