In the movie classic The Graduate, recent college grad Ben Braddock is given life advice by friends of his parents. One man takes him aside and says, “There’s a great future in plastics.” If there’s a remake of that movie, the screenwriter’s going to need to rewrite that line.
In April of this year the New York State legislature passed a budget that includes a ban on most single-use plastic bags. The ban will begin in March 2020. Municipalities will have the right to opt-in to charge a five cents surcharge on paper bags. And exempt from the ban are plastic bags provided by restaurants for take-out orders.
As towns across Westchester enact plastic-bag bans or place surcharges on their usage, restaurants and other food establishments have been leading the way in cutting back on their (and their customers’) use of plastic, whether that means offering alternatives or not offering certain items at all.
Café owners acknowledge that they have to figure out what the market will bear when it comes to the additional cost of minimizing plastic usage. Selamawit (“Mimi”) Wieland-Tesfaye, owner of Mimi’s Coffee House in Mount Kisco, uses glassware, china, and silverware for her to-stay patrons and, after seeing them at First Village Coffee in Ossining, serves hot drinks to-go in compostable and biodegradable cups. There are also no plastic bottles of water for sale or cup sleeves. Tesfaye notes that some customers did comment on the cost of her coffee (the extra cost of the cups was figured in).
Cost was the main reason that Katonah’s Reading Room made sure the café was financially viable before moving away from plastic materials in a large number of items, says co-owner Peter Menzies. Reading Room doesn’t automatically put lids on cups, and paper straws are made available but not put in drinks. “Ultimately, savings is an ulterior motive.
Every lid or straw that doesn’t go out our door is a savings for us,” Menzies says. Leslie Lampert, owner of Bronxville’s Ladle of Love, says, “The question has long been how to best balance the cost of doing business with my conscience about doing business.” Lampert says she’s worked to “incentivize” customers by selling Mason jars for reuse or giving them a discount for bringing in their own.
Menzies also offers his customers discounts when they bring in their own cups and sells stainless-steel straws and reusable coffee mugs and cold cups in the Reading Room. The plastic bag ban in Lewisboro also led to a marketing opportunity for South Salem’s The Horse & Hound Inn, says GM Mike Harris. The restaurant had cut out plastic bags prior to the ban and doesn’t use Styrofoam.
They started selling a branded reusable tote bag if customers want one for takeaway. Harris says, “We’re trying to think outside the box, and it seems that people are willing to pay for it.” The restaurant has nixed red plastic stirrers and doesn’t automatically offer straws.
ERL Hospitality, with restaurants Sweetgrass Grill, Tomatillo, the former Red Zebra, and Grass Roots Kitchen under its umbrella, is seeing a “mutual learning curve” with its employees and customers, says ERL president David Starkey. “We made it a policy to stop offering straws automatically and to stop putting utensils in everyone’s to-go orders. We trained our employees to ask the customers whether they’re needed.” Starkey says that they’ve been thinking about giving the customer the option of bringing their own bags in when they come to pick up food.”
The issue of plastic vs. paper bags at their supermarkets has been on DeCicco & Sons radar for some time, according to Chris DeCicco, one of the company’s partners. “In 2013, we made it a five-year goal to become more environmentally friendly.”
He says the company, with seven Westchester locations, goes through approximately 22 million bags a year and that there’s a substantial price difference between plastic and paper — with plastic bags running $660,000 annually and paper costing $2.4 million. The company decided to ban plastic bags in November 2018. “We had to take a number of actions internally to offset the cost of not offering plastic bags,” DeCicco says. That included looking at lighting and refrigerant options, he says.
Tesfaye notes she’s always been conscious of the life of a plastic bag or straw and thinks in the future the price of plastic alternatives will come down. She also says younger consumers are willing to pay more for compostable containers. And ERL’s Starkey, like others who are cutting back and finding substitutes or eliminating plastics, realizes “there are no perfect solutions, but restaurants have to try to be conscientious about what they’re doing in this area.”
Abbe Wichman is a Katonah-based writer who writes about food and drink. She’s been known to use her pocketbook as a grocery bag and is happy to see restaurants and other food businesses leading the charge to eliminate and cut back on plastic consumption.