Cafe with a Conscience: Danny Schwartzman of Common Roots Cafe


When you think of the restaurant industry, green business isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. It’s an often overlooked fact that the restaurant industry hasn’t been particularly sustainable or kind to the environment. But the statistics speak for themselves:

  • Restaurants use an average of 2.5 times more energy per square foot than any other U.S. industry;
  • A single restaurant will produce an average of 50,000 pounds of trash each year;
  • Most restaurants will use between 1 and 13 million gallons of water each year;
  • The food served in most restaurants will travel an average of 1,500 miles before ending up on your plate.

common roots food

With numbers like that staring you in the face, one can surmise that greening the restaurant industry would be no easy task. Try telling that to Danny Schwartzman of Common Roots Cafe in South Minneapolis. When Danny decided to open a restaurant, he had a particular idea of what that restaurant was going to be – and it wasn’t any of the above.

“For me, it was really important that the full business match my values,” he says, taking a drink of the fair trade and organic green tea the cafe serves. “Yeah, it has added costs, but I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”

We recently sat down with Danny to get an idea of how he’s changing the way people in the Twin Cities (of Minneapolis and Saint Paul) are thinking about dining out, and how he’s revolutionizing the green dining scene.

How did you come up with the concept of Common Roots?

I had the idea of opening a restaurant for a long time. When I got out of college, I just started talking to people, getting ideas, things people wanted to see in a restaurant that were sustainable. I knew I wanted the food to be local and organic. I wanted to do good, high quality food in an accessible way. But it’s more than that. I wanted to create a place where you come not because the food local and organic, but also because it tastes good.

Why did you decide to open it in the Twin Cities?

There is such a great food community in the Twin Cities. I don’t think I could have done something like this anywhere else. There’s such an extensive network of producers, farmers and coops in the area, that people actually come to me. We work a lot with local farmers to get the freshest ingredients.

Can you tell me a little bit more about where the food comes from?

common roots garden

Common Roots Garden

Whew, where do I start? Well, 86% of our menu is made up of ingredients that are local, organic or fair trade, or a combination of the three. And that number is pretty important to us. We keep track of it by coding every line item so we know where it comes from. All the meat we use comes from local producers and is free range or grass-fed. All the dairy is local and most has been certified organic. Almost all of the produce is either local or organic or often both. Some of it we grow in our own garden out back. This is the second season we’ve had a garden and in the past two years we’ve gotten about 3,000 pounds of produce out of it – all of the herbs we use – sage, oregano, chives – even the herbs used in our herbal iced tea.

In addition to the garden, what are some of the ways you’ve made the restaurant sustainable and environmentally friendly?

compostingWe try to use as many reusable things as we can and use as few throw away items as possible. And if we are throwing things, like take away containers, we use compostable containers made from a corn based plastic or paper or sugar cane, so they break down into dirt. We were the first restaurant to work with Eureka Recycling in their composting pilot program. Last year we composted nearly 58,000 pounds of waste.

When we built this place, we were also were intentional about using recycled building materials. The floor in the front is made from wood salvaged from a barn. The tabletops on some of the tables were salvaged from a mill that burnt down, the tabletops in the back are made from a wood that is made from sunflower seeds that have been reprocessed and pressed down. The countertops are made from cardboard that’s pressed and recycled.

I think the the biggest thing we do for environmental sustainability is working with local farms. All of our food travels less than a hundred miles before it reaches your plate. We have a map on our website that has 50 dots on it of local farmers or producers we’re working with in some way or another.

How about in the kitchen, where going green can be a little more difficult?

There are all kinds of things you can do in the kitchen. All of our appliances are energy efficient appliances. We worked with our contractor to develop a more efficient walk-in freezer. And we have other systems like an on-demand water heater, which means the water heater only heats water when it’s needed, and an energy efficient plating system. We moved our condensers to a well ventilated room and just that little thing was huge. It didn’t cost us anything, but it made us more energy efficient.

It sounds like you’re doing so much, do you have any plans for otherinnovations in the future?

We’re always looking to improve. We’re always trying to be intentional about each thing we’re doing and how we can make it more sustainable. I’d like to install a water capture system on the roof to collect water for the garden.

What green marketing efforts have been most successful for you?

We don’t do any conventional advertising or print advertisements. No logo placement, unless it’s going somewhere to support a nonprofit as an event sponsor. We have a new website that we just launched and a Facebook page and Twitter feed that is updated pretty regularly. For us, it’s really been word of mouth that has been most successful. I think people are really excited about the things that we’re doing and people start talking about it to their friends and others want to come see for themselves.

Common Roots owner Danny Schwartzman

Do you have any advice for people in the restaurant or cafe industry on how they can make their businesses a little greener?

Start asking questions about where things are going or how you can do things differently. Talk to your staff, get them to think differently about food and waste. Composting is easy. Sure there is an added cost, but it more than pays for itself in the long run. Take a look at your kitchen and see how you can make it more energy efficient. Traditionally, efficiency hasn’t been a focus in kitchen design. It’s more about performance. But there are options out there when you start asking questions.

To read more about Common Roots and how they’re revolutionizing the food scene, visit them on Facebook, Twitter and their website.

Image Credit: Common Roots Cafe, wisemandarin

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