Duke’s Alehouse & Kitchen is an upscale-casual gastropub in Crystal Lake, IL that creates gourmet comfort foods utilizing sustainable ingredients from local farmers and producers. They believe food should not only be responsibly sourced, but also healthy for the community, environment, and our health. The IFSCC is proud to have members that do more than talk. Duke’s walks the walk. Find out more from our interview with Chef Zak Dolezal.

When did Duke’s first start thinking about ways to reduce food waste and keep food scraps out of the landfill? Can you briefly describe what prompted this, and tell us how you began your journey? 

Much of my culinary background was in fine dining. When I worked with chefs working at that high level there was a huge emphasis on where the food came from, how it was grown, and especially how it tasted. I remember farmers coming in the back door of the restaurants with samples of different vegetables and lettuce for the chef to try. I loved seeing that relationship with the food and the people that grew it.

When I came to Duke’s in 2008 my passion for local ingredients followed. I connected with an old friend and we started a “garden” for Duke’s in the backyard of one of our bar regulars. We set up a compost bin and drove food scraps from our kitchen to that garden. Eventually, we started with Prairieland who started taking our food scraps and other compostable products as a waste hauler. This made things much easier.

We know Duke’s composts because it is a participant in the We Compost recognition program. What other sustainability efforts are part of your restaurant’s operations? 

The local sourcing of ingredients from eco-conscious farmers was where it all started. We also implemented whatever green practices we could like LED lighting, occupancy sensors, sourcing 100% recycled post-consumer paper products, installing faucet aerators, installing a tankless water heater, sourcing green-certified services, and so on. We are always looking for the next green thing we can do as a restaurant. We understand how wasteful restaurants can be and we embrace our responsibility to our community and the environment.

What were the biggest challenges to implementing your food waste reduction and diversion initiatives?

When sourcing some of our compostable carryout containers we sometimes had issues receiving them consistently, especially as of late. The substitutes weren’t always up to our standards and we were forced to source from other companies and/or pay more for a similar product. As far as the implementation of a composting program for our staff it wasn’t any more difficult than starting a recycling program. We provided containers in specific locations where food scraps would be going along with signage and training. We also had to make sure that everything going on a plate was compostable–no plastic products. This made it easier for the bussers and dishwasher because they could scrape everything from the plate with the food scraps for composting.

Has there ever been any confusion about what materials are acceptable for composting? In other words, has communication from your hauler about the program criteria been clear and consistent?

Yes, only because the haulers have changed what is and isn’t allowed. We are happy to comply, but changing habits with our team doesn’t usually happen overnight. We’ve had plenty of staff members digging trash out of our compost totes when mistakes were made.

Did any changes in procedure require significant training or intervention with staff members to break old habits and establish new ones? Or did your crew find it relatively easy to adapt?

It’s always a challenge with new employees as they aren’t usually accustomed to these practices since most restaurants in our area don’t have a recycling program let alone a composting program.

How did you find the information and guidance you needed to begin your efforts?

There is a huge group of dedicated environmentalists in McHenry County. The Environmental Defenders of McHenry County were, and still are, instrumental in providing Duke’s with positive green encouragement and support. Through members of the Defenders we started our Green Drinks program. Between that community and those Green Drinks events, I learned so many things that Duke’s could and should do. The community was so helpful and supportive.

Have you communicated with customers about your composting and other waste reduction and management practices, and if so, how? What, if any, feedback have you received from the public?

Yes, but probably not enough. We communicate through social media and emails. Plus we have received some awards for our efforts. The public has always been super receptive to our efforts. All of the feedback we have received has always been positive and supportive.

Have you tracked any metrics associated with your food waste reduction and diversion efforts?

No, we don’t track that, but we should. We mostly concentrate on the systems and not measuring. We concentrate our efforts on the implementation of green steps, but it would be nice to see the difference we have made. We don’t measure those impacts because we honestly don’t have the resources to do so. I would love to get some help with that.

What are some metrics you’d like to capture to understand and communicate the impacts of your food waste reduction and diversion efforts?

I think the amount of food scraps and recycling diverted from landfills would be a fantastic metric. I’d also like to see how much we’ve saved in fossil fuels by ordering locally.

What advice would you give to other restaurant owners or chefs interested in reducing food waste and/or starting their own composting efforts?

Join the Green Restaurant Association. The Green Restaurant Association has been helping restaurants for a long time. They know what they are doing and have so many resources. Also let local green organizations and groups know of your efforts. I think you’d be amazed at the amount of help and support available to green your business.