This morning I was remembering a moment about 5-6 years ago, not that long after we opened Carmo; a diner who was in the lunch line making what I thought was a surprising comment. I recall that I’d written on the menu about the fact that we were using local seafood, that there were local veggies on the salad, along with a note about the biodegradable food containers. What I found surprising was as the man approached the register, he pointed to the comments on the menu and said, “you know, I don’t care, most people really don’t care about this, you should save your money.” I was so taken aback at the time, that I have to say that I don’t really remember exactly how I responded, but I think I bumbled out a version of “I care.” The man happened to be one of our regulars who I assumed was an executive (always wore a suit, not that that matters at all), and I guess it was just the fact that he took the time to let me know that what I was trying to do didn’t matter to him, and to others. At the time, I hadn’t really prepared myself for an adequate response, as I had no context for it. Over the years, I’ve replayed my response to him in my head countless times. So I’d like to take this moment to articulate what I didn’t apparently have capacity to those years ago.
Dear Mr. Local Guy who doesn’t care,
I think I understand the subtext of your comment to me, which is that no matter what I try to do to better Carmo’s net positive environmental and community footprint, there will always be people who don’t care, and that in pure economic terms, it doesn’t matter.
In fact, you’re not the only person who has tried to make that argument to me over the years. There have been a couple of employees who, for example, were annoyed with the fact that we compost and recycle our waste extensively, and separating glass, aluminum, paper, organics, plastics, etc. can be very tedious. Customers who pick up a stack of napkins in protest of our little sign asking people to take only what they need, because “napkins grow on trees.” Or maybe it was a perspective line cook who told me that it was better to buy the canned, non-local, pasteurized crab meat because it had less shell fragments and looked more consistent. When I explained to him why local crab meat is better than processed crab meat from Southeast Asia for a host of different reasons including flavor, he proceeded to tell me that when he worked at a famous local restaurant, and that’s what they used and they were known for their crab cakes. Duly noted.
In essence, you are right. There will always people who don’t care that you’re putting the effort into growing a business that has positive resonance, ecologically and socially. And you’re also right that there’s a very good chance that we might be doing more than just breaking even if we stopped doing those things we are and “save our money.” But where your statement shows its fallacy is that the number of people who do care about those things we’ve been doing over the years has grown consistently, and will continue to grow in spite of political winds. There are some very clear reasons why that is the case and we could write books on nearly every one. It might be easiest just to list a few of the more obvious ones, and call it a day, as it’s time to go make the gumbo (using local veggies and seafood, btw).
Top Five Reasons that Mr. Local Guy should care that we’re trying to run a sustainable restaurant
1. Food that is organically and locally sourced tastes better, there’s really no debate about this, and that food which tastes better is more nutritious. Also, not debatable, flavor is nutrition.
2. Supporting our local farmers, fishers and other producers has far-reaching cultural and social benefits, not to mention that it provides us more control over food safety (e.g. farmed imported seafood vs. local) and has positive economic effects locally, which helps to inoculate us from the whims of a broken national food system.
3. Exposure to toxic chemicals is big problem in restaurants. By using approved, commercial, effective, non-toxic alternatives, the chances of inadvertently being exposed to toxins is reduced to zero.
4. At the end of the evening, our trash can is almost empty, so generating just a tiny percentage of what a typical restaurant does, so now there’s more room for other restaurants and you to dump your unsorted waste! At least until you see the light.
5. We’ll continue moving towards a time when food quality, energy conservation, waste reduction, labor standards, and overall social impact will be more and more incentivized, monetarily. Again, this won’t have anything to do with who’s president, or whether you care, for that matter. The fact is, that Carmo is positioned to take advantage of a market which does care, and it will. Those businesses and individuals who’s bottom line is based purely on archaic profit models will be desperately playing catch up.
Finally, Mr. Local Guy, you’ll notice that I didn’t appeal to your sense of ethics, morality or social responsibility. That’s because if you tell me you don’t care, it means that you’ve managed to divorce those things from how you navigate commerce, and maybe life in general. I hope that I don’t come off as cynical or snarky, as I have the best of intentions in sharing all of this with you. It simply to help you realize how much you’re missing out on, and how that sense of isolation from your community will become more and more pronounced. So please join us.