The Pioneer

FLORIAN PFAHLER

Owner :: Hannah's Bretzel

Fifteen years later, Florian Pfahler still remembers his first lunch in an American deli. "I ordered a sandwich and they put it into a plastic container, then into a paper bag with ten napkins and three mustards and three mayos, and then that was put into a plastic bag," says Pfahler, a native of Stuttgart, Germany. "I was sitting in front of this mountain of trash, thinking to myself, This is amazing." He never forgot the experience. And when it came time to build a business of his own, the onetime Leo Burnett ad exec came up with this idea: a chain of carryout cafés where placing an order wouldn't amount to a crime against the environment, the arteries, or the taste buds.

Blending his marketing savvy, European heritage, and interest in sustainability, Pfahler opened the first Hannah's Bretzel at 180 West Washington Street in the Loop in 2005. He created a menu of whole-grain pretzels, sandwiches, and salads that's long on organic ingredients and short on waste. Utensils are made from potato starch; seemingly "plastic" cups are, in fact, made from corn; plates are made of biomass—and all materials break down in landfills. While the food is healthful, it's also good: Sandwiches are stuffed with exotic ingredients like Madrange ham, manchego cheese, and fig chutney, and, in place of chips, diners can opt for a side of almonds or roasted vegetables. Pfahler, 43, who named the enterprise after his young daughter, opened a second location in the Illinois Center last year; a third location—and plans for even more expansion—are in the works. 

As Hannah's grows, Pfahler continues to push for new ways to green his tiny segment of the fast-food industry. He's working on getting his Illinois Center location LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)—a coveted national designation that, among other things, signals a building is more energy efficient than conventional structures. And he's studying how to incorporate more local produce into his menu offerings, despite concerns that small farmers can't always guarantee availability. Phahler believes that as more and more people take an interest in conserving resources and eating healthier, the fledgling "green supply" market will adapt and catch up to demand. "We are very enthusiastic about the next five years," he says. "This whole idea is no longer the ideology of a few nut cases. It is becoming mainstream. It's really not a fad."

Photograph: Anna Knott