Can Sustainable Restaurant Food Be Democratized?

corner deli

You’ve heard the charge: “the sustainable food movement is elitist”¦eating local, organic, responsibly raised food is out of reach for the average person.” Though you could argue the truth of this statement, nowhere is this charge more applicable than in restaurants.

If one has access to healthy fresh food in his or her neighborhood, knows how to shop, and has some basic cooking skills, one can eat real, sustainably raised food on a budget. But when was the last time you had a taco, a pastrami sandwich, or a hot dog that was made with sustainably raised meat and cost under $10?

Upscale restaurants all over the country that source farm-to-table ingredients, and chains like Chipotle are taking steps toward better meat and a more seasonal, sustainable menu. What about everyday, non-chain restaurants? This is the next frontier for restaurateurs and it’s going to require a huge commitment, not to mention a retraining of customers, a rethinking of tradition, and a reimagining of comfort food.

There are a few renegades out there pushing the envelope, questioning tradition, and doing their best to make their operations more sustainable, while keeping prices and portions in line with what consumers expect.

Last week, I attended a panel Referendum on the Deli Menu held at Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen in Berkeley, Calif.


Why a referendum? Saul’s sits a stone’s throw from the vaunted Chez Panisse, birthplace of food with a sense of place and incubator of chefs who have gone on to contribute to our collective food culture in untold ways. Peter Levitt, co- owner of Saul’s, along with Karen Adelman, is one such Chez Panisse alumnus.

But Saul’s stands at a crossroads. The owners don’t want to sell industrially produced meat, sodas with high fructose corn syrup, out of season chilled borscht, and factory pickles. But because Levitt and Adelman serve a cuisine that is steeped in tradition and memory and so associated with comfort, their customers are not always receptive to the foods they want to serve and the changes they want to make.

For example, they’ve moved away from that standby of the Jewish deli experience – the giant, industrially produced and heavily subsidized corned beef sandwich in favor of a smaller, more flavorful sandwich made with grass-fed beef from Marin Sun Farms. They’ve replaced Dr. Brown’s soda with house made sodas in flavors like celery, Meyer lemon, ginger, and cardamom, and switched out the factory pickles for locally made, traditionally fermented pickles.


But they want to go further, so they brought together customers, supporters, local food advocates and a variety of community members to ask for support and permission. They also brought in a few heavy hitters in the culinary, green business, and local, sustainable food worlds (who are also customers) to serve on the panel.

Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s culinary radio show Good Food, moderated the panel. Serving on the panel were author/journalist Michael Pollan, Gil Friend, author of The Truth about Green Business, and CEO of Natural Logic, a strategic sustainability consultancy, and Willow Rosenthal, urban farmer and founder of City Slicker Farms, along with Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt, co-owners of Saul’s.

The discussion could have gone in a million different directions. In the end I was inspired by the depth of meaning and heartfelt passion for tradition that came out, as well as the general agreement that tradition isn’t always what it seems…and I was craving a pastrami sandwich.

The panelists went deeply into a discussion about Jewish food traditions and how they came about, touching on some of the reasons why these traditions are so fiercely guarded.

Evan Kleiman: “These are foods that are embedded in our souls. We know what we love has some issues”¦is the meat we are longing for only something that can be produced industrially?”

Willow Rosenthal: “The desire to eat those sandwiches comes from a place of poverty and not having enough”¦what was chicken soup if not having to make another meal from a chicken you’d killed?”

Peter Levitt: -¦and the dumplings were leftover bread.”

Kleiman: …it goes back to the “issue of our people and food scarcity.”

So if the actual food tradition was eating what was available and making use of all of it, is what we think of as tradition really something else? Like many other foods, traditional Jewish deli foods have been commoditized and their ownership has been concentrated among a few large companies.

Gil Friend: “What we take as traditional is fairly new”¦it’s not the deli, it’s postwar America.”

Michael Pollan: …this tradition that we call Jewish deli food and that “has seemed unchanging has been revolutionized over the last 50 years, but a lot of people didn’t notice it.”

Friend: “What is the tradition we are trying so hard to preserve? There was a time we ate what was available. This is really just a weird moment in history.”

Levitt points out that those old Jewish companies are no longer what they were. It’s all nostalgia. For instance, Con Agra now owns Hebrew National. There is one company producing salami. Salami used to vary by city, neighborhood, kitchen – “Now, there is one salami.”

So what’s the alternative?

A more seasonal, inclusive menu with more petite sandwiches including smaller quantities of higher quality meats, and maybe a wider-ranging menu.


Karen Adelman spoke on how tradition isn’t necessarily static: “Jewish cuisine is a Diaspora cuisine and the fact that the cuisine stays the same is not where we came from and not where we are going. Food changes. We have to lead, not react. The cuisine needs to reach back and connect to the past but we need to connect to our future as well. We need permission to do that.”

Pollan: “Saul’s proves it can be done. It’s just more expensive”¦what they are doing here is important. We’ve figured out how to do sustainable, expensive food (the customers at Chez Panisse are well-trained. Nobody there expects an out-of-season tomato) when sustainable food hits delis, taquerias, and cafes, that’s when it democratizes.”

But who is out there doing the hard, heroic work of challenging customer assumptions about what comfort food is besides Saul’s? Not many that I know of. There are a few mid-to-lower-priced non chain or small chain restaurants trying to change bring sustainable food to a wider dining audience, but it’s really just a drop in the bucket.

The trend seems strongest in burgers. There’s the small Pacific Northwest chain Burgerville, and there’s Amanda’s in Berkeley. LA has O Burger serving up 100% organic food and featuring grass-fed beef burgers (though there’s no information on where the beef is raised) and many vegetarian choices.

In San Francisco, three Sellers Market locations feature salads, sandwiches, and pizzas made with local, organic, and sustainable ingredients, providing a viable, sustainable lunch option for downtown office workers. There are two Farmer’s Diner locations in Vermont.

There have to be more. Leave a comment to let us know about other everyday restaurants serving sustainable, seasonal, local menus.

To learn more, you can also read Saul’s blog.

Note: The event benefited the Center for Ecoliteracy, an organization that works with schools to support and advance education for sustainable living.

Image: A. Strakey

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.