What’s right isn’t always popular, and in business, it’s not often cheap. When Dan Rosenthal, a 40-year veteran of Chicago restaurants, priced out replacing plastic bags with something biodegradable three years ago, he discovered the switch would add $24,000 to his expenses. “I was stunned,” says Rosenthal, 62, head of the Rosenthal Group (Poag Mahone’s, Trattoria No. 10, and Sopraffina Marketcaffè are under its umbrella). “I wanted to do the right thing, but I couldn’t.”
Realizing the only way to switch to the sustainable product was to buy in serious bulk, Rosenthal called an ally: Ina Pinkney, the self-proclaimed “breakfast queen” and proprietor of Ina’s in the West Loop. The pair combined resources—Rosenthal gathered research and funding while Pinkney rallied friends in the business—to form Green Chicago Restaurant Co-op, an open-membership collective that, since 2007, has ballooned to nearly 450 restaurants and suppliers. The co-op helps make green purchases affordable for chefs and restaurateurs, who are often under the thumb of unpredictable budgets and multilayered food and sanitation regulations.
“Dan’s at the top of a big pyramid, and I’m a frontline kind of girl,” says Pinkney, 68, who opens Ina’s upstairs dining room as a meeting spot for the group’s steering committee. Rosenthal (whom Pinkney calls a “driver and strategic thinker”) works side by side with the co-op’s one full-time staffer to build membership and programs.
In a few years, Green Chicago Restaurant Co-op has become an information clearing-house and vetting agency for goods and services (“If we don’t have the skill sets, we rely on independent third-party agencies,” says Rosenthal) and a buyers’ club that negotiates deep discounts for members looking to stock green products or replace equipment and appliances with energy-efficient models. A high-efficiency hand dryer that retails for $400, for instance, is $50 cheaper at the co-op’s price.
Education is a growing part of its mission, too. Last year the co-op organized State of the Plate, a one-day conference on sustainable meat for farmers, suppliers, and chefs. It also introduced Guaranteed Green, a local stamp of recognition for restaurants that have been certified as environmentally responsible through one of two national organizations (Green Restaurant Association and Green Seal).
Today there are 23 Guaranteed Green establishments (including The Publican, Big Jones, and all five outlets of Sopraffina Marketcaffè), and Rosenthal and Pinkney are behind a push to double that number by the end of this year—an effort that might be backed, in part, by charging co-op dues for the first time. Up to now, the Rosenthal Group has bankrolled the entire project.
“It’s not cheap, but it’s very worthwhile,” Rosenthal says. “It’s worth every penny.”
Photograph: Taylor Castle; Photo Assistant: Joshua Haines; Hair and Makeup: Nika Vaughan; Wardrobe: Tony Bryan; Furniture: Courtesy of Post 27
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