Despite the 'yuck factor,' Buzz Cafe learns to love composting

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

Already most people would think of Oak Park's Buzz Café as eco-focused, green-leaning and pleasantly hip. That's what 16 years of organic foods, homey welcomes and having Laura Maychruk as your heart and voice will accomplish. 

Now though the Buzz, 905 S. Lombard Ave., has really upped its green bona fides having become the first restaurant in Oak Park to work with its waste hauler to begin composting virtually all its food waste. It hasn't been cheap and it hasn't been easy, but, says Maychruk, she and her staff "feel good about not doing the wrong thing by doing the right thing."

Last August, with encouragement from Oak Park's public works department and support from a cohort of local green business initiatives, the Buzz started training its staff to divert food waste from the garbage stream and into a commercial composting regimen. Maychruk said that staff training focused on explaining how to compost, why bother compost and how to do it all the time even when the restaurant and its kitchen are very busy.  

"It is difficult for a restaurant to do this.  But, what I see every day is a lot of food waste in our restaurant," says Maychruk, "not only from customers who didn't finish everything they had ordered, but in our own kitchen when we are preparing food.  We use a lot of organic produce in here, and I'm thinking, wow, that could be really good compost."

Still, with mostly wet waste there is a "yuck" factor for employees, as well as a learning curve, she laughs.

"Most people who work for me do not compost at home, and didn't even know what compost was," says Maychruk, who points out that commercial composting is different than the backyard composting she personally engages in at home. 

Karen Rozmus, the waste reduction manager for Oak Park public works, has been working with Maychruk from the start and she is impressed. 

"Laura is doing this at a great hit to her bottom line [an extra $400 a month]." Says Rozmus. "But, by doing this, the Buzz is reducing its waste stream, which could be up to 35 or 45 percent, or more, because instead of her food scraps going to the land fill, they are going to a commercial composting site, and being turned into new soil," Rozmus says. 

While Marion Street Cheese Market opened with a plan for commercial composting and has worked with a Chicago non-profit to do it, says Rozmus, Buzz is the first operating restaurant to negotiate a separate contract with Waste Management to have that hauler transport her restaurant's food scraps to a nearby commercial composting facility

"The Buzz is the first restaurant in Oak Park to approach its hauler and say, 'can you give me composting,'" says Rozmus. 

With just two commercial composting facilities in the region that are licensed to accept food scraps, and in the free market, because commercial composting is a new service, "it is pretty expensive right now," says Rozmus.   

Meanwhile, she says the idea of commercial composting is slowly heating up.  When local restaurant owners call her for advice, she tells them "to work closely with your hauler and negotiate a good price by getting the right interior collection containers and training materials for staff.  The staff, from the chef's down to the bus boys, need to be trained to separate this stuff." 

Now in the kitchen at Buzz sits a system of  three different bins which regularly go out back to a five-yard capacity metal dumpster that Waste Management hauls away to a commercial composting facility several times a week.

"I am very conscientious in this area, so the Café was already on that trajectory," Maychruk says. "I hope to see the cost of commercial composting to come down, because currently I think it is unfair.    They take that product, and turn it into fertilizer and sell it back to us in bags of compost.   So, they are making money on it."

Prior to receiving her Illinois Green Business Association certification status, Maychruk was among the 24 local businesses which participated in the Oak Park Development Corporation Green Business Program in 2013, says Viktor Schrader, vice president of OPDC.  That program was a primer to the IGBA certification process, plus a hands-on opportunity to learn more about becoming a green business, he says. 

"The IGBA is an established nonprofit green business certification organization, so they come out and do audits, then business have to meet a certain standard in order to become green certified.  So, they have to make changes to their recycling practices, or upgrade their water efficiency systems… it is sort of like becoming LEED certified, but on a more informal basis," Schrader says.  

The OPDC effort also received funding from the Village of River Forest, in addition to funding it received from another grant.

"The IGBA process for green certification was arduous," says Maychruk. "There are many, many areas throughout the café that we had to evaluate, from energy and water consumption, waste stream, and more.  We had to look at and evaluate where we could make things greener throughout the café," she says.  

Maychruk says she added efficiency to her boiler system, and has asked her staff to be more conscientious with water usage, energy and lighting. She changed out all of the lighting to be energy efficient.

The Buzz Café is now one of 12 businesses in Oak Park and River Forest to achieve the distinction of being a certified IGBA sustainable business.  

The efforts were supported by grant funding from the Community Foundation of Oak Park- River Forest.

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