3 Fort Wayne food businesses going 'green' during COVID-19

As restaurants across the U.S. fight to stay open during the COVID-19 pandemic, many are changing up their operations and relying more heavily on carry-out and outdoor dining venues to prevent the spread of the virus. 

For three Fort Wayne restaurateurs, these changes are driving a renewed interest in a related concern: Sustainability in the form of eco-friendly takeout supplies and patios that support the Northeast Indiana environment.

Hop River Brewing Company uses recyclable materials whenever possible.

Hop River Brewing Company is among those working to curb waste through a multi-phase approach, says Director of Marketing Mary Corinne Lowenstein. This fall, the brewery announced a partnership with a new nonprofit, Plastic Free Restaurants. This national organization provides financial assistance for food industry businesses to switch from petroleum-based restaurant takeout supplies to biodegradable single-use alternatives.

Hop River will be among the first in the nation to eliminate plastic utensils in their taproom and in to-go orders, with the support of the organization.

Though the move may seem bold, Lowenstein says it’s a natural next step for her team. Environmentalism has always been one of Hop River's core values.

“This is one of many things that we're doing,” Lowenstein says. “We have been very intentional about using paper boats that can decompose faster. All of our takeout items are (made of) recycled cardboard or recycled paper. All of our spent grain goes to a local farmer who uses it for his cattle. So we're just really aware of what we're doing and trying to be a responsible member of our community. Once we phase in earth-friendly utensils, we’ll be able to compost everything.”

As far as a timeline for implementation, Lowenstein says that detail is uncertain. They had received a large shipment of plastic utensils right before COVID-19 hit the country, so they’re trying to be good stewards of their resources by using them until they run out and then making the switch to plastic-free supplies. 

Pembroke Bakery & Cafe Co-Owner Steve Nagy.Even so, this switch doesn’t come without an added cost. Steve Nagy, co-owner of Pembroke Bakery & Café located in the Auer Center for Arts & Culture, knows the cost of going green firsthand. He says his restaurant started using containers made from sugarcane about three years ago. At that time, availability wasn’t always consistent, or the supplier required a large order. Now, the supply is elusive, and sometimes shipments can take weeks to arrive. He predicts that the costs of such goods will go through the roof this winter due to increased demand. In effect, proprietors will be forced with a difficult decision: Absorb the costs, or pass them on to the consumer.

Lowenstein says the short-term financial support from Plastic Free Restaurants will no doubt help in this way. But she’s someone who tends to look at the larger picture. When consumers choose establishments like Hop River, they become part of something bigger, in her opinion.

“Consumers can vote with their money,” she says. “They can choose to support different organizations that follow whatever ethics or morals that they want to see within their community.”

Corey Waldron, owner of Conjure Coffee shares that ethos. In an effort to meet the demand for outdoor seating, the Conjure is converting one of its parking lots into a patio with extra seating. To that end, Waldron’s vision is to bring not only safety and comfort to his guests, but also natural biodiversity to the surrounding area. The result will be a restorative landscape habitat installed by local landscape designer Rozelle Lawn & Landscape.

Jay Rozelle of Rozelle Lawn & Landscaping.

Owner Jay Rozelle says this concept is forward-thinking because the benefits of restorative landscaping go deeper than the surface-level. Most good landscape designers think in terms of aesthetics when approaching a project. But restorative landscaping is both beautiful and functional.

“What I mean by functional is that by using specific plants—native plants—those plants are going to function within the landscape and have multiple purposes,” he says. “So, they provide food and shelter for things like pollinators, butterflies, and birds. In contrast, science has shown us that exotic plants—those from other regions and areas of the world—do not provide food sources and habitat for the local wildlife.”

For instance, a Japanese maple tree might have visual appeal, but it’s neither native nor functional to Northeast Indiana. He estimates that most landscapes—whether commercial or residential—contain 80 percent exotic plants, which can be detrimental to the ecosystem at large. On the other hand, restorative landscaping represents a step in the right direction for businesses like Conjure looking to be part of the solution.

“When I think of a native landscape, I think of it in terms of reducing waste,” Rozelle says. "It's going to require less water, less fertilizer, and less mulch over time. There's no such thing as a maintenance-free landscape, but it will be lower maintenance.”

Conjure Coffee's landscape will be both attractive and functional, Rozelle says.
After completing phase one, Rozelle says Conjure is preparing for what’s to come in the spring. So what can patrons expect? Traditional landscape design usually means having a few evenly-spaced shrubs and big areas of mulch. In contrast, this landscape will have a lot of grasses and flowers planted close together, so that those will spread and fill in overtime.

Following the principles of restorative landscaping design, Rozelle says that a diversity in flora was a priority. But from a practical standpoint, he wanted the greenscape to enhance the indoor and outdoor dining experience, too. In his words, they set out to keep “lines of sight open” when determining how the landscape would inform the existing urban space. 

“So, if you're inside the coffee shop, I want people to be able to sit inside and look out and see the grasses and the flowers, but still be able to see past those,” he says. “And the same thing goes for people sitting outdoors—nothing that's going to get really tall and block views.”

In addition to the new plant life, it’s important to Waldron and Rozelle to educate guests and customers on native plants and the importance of biodiversity in their backyards. In the meantime, they’ve launched a GoFundMe campaign to help raise funds to offset the costs of this project.

Vote with your money

Similar to Small Business Saturday, Small Brewery Sunday on Nov. 29 is a day dedicated to supporting local taprooms and brewpubs. Hop River welcomes your business and support on this day and every day, Lowenstein says.
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Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a freelance contributor for Input Fort Wayne. A graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.