The Sustainability of Sustainability
Is Doing the “Right Thing” the Road to Prosperity?
Chef/Proprietor Pascal Chureau of Allium, a Neighborhood Bistro in West Linn, remembers growing up in the French countryside, a time when sustainable practices weren’t an optional business model but his family’s way of life. “My father used to take me out to our relatives’ farm, and we’d play in the hay in the barn, sneak some housemade boudin noir, and run around the farm,” he recalls. “I loved picking out fresh eggs from the coop and seeing the first signs of life pushing their way up through the dirt. We used to yank those beauties straight from the earth and run them to my mother cooking in the kitchen. If I was lucky, she’d let me chop some vegetables as she prepared that Sunday’s family dinner, various pots simmering – couldn’t really get any better than that, and I remember it at the beginning of each and every summer.”
Those childhood influences are so ingrained in Chureau, so sustainable, that he continues to relive them every year when the Northwest weather finally warms. In fact, he and Allium Chef de Cuisine/Partner Ian Ragsdale have turned farm-to-table upside down, bringing their customers to the source in the countryside. Starting in June, Allium habitually co-hosts seasonal summer dinners at nearby farms and wineries, blending ingredients like organic fruits and vegetables with locally raised chicken in the greenest of atmospheres, reinforcing the bistro’s commitment to the earth while generating enough revenue to help pay the rent.
“As a business in its sophomore year, we have to find a balance of cost and sustainability,” explains Kim Wilson, who is Allium’s Pastry Chef and Manager. “Each year we discuss what our goals are for making the restaurant more sustainable. We spend more money on food so that we can keep more things local and seasonal. As far as making our restaurant more green and reducing our carbon footprint, we have to take small steps. We review, many times throughout the year, what changes we can make and where we're willing to spend a little extra money to make our business more green.”
Locals have been very supportive, according to Wilson. “They have been very open to supporting and learning more about buying local and supporting sustainable farms,” she says. Allium gives them the opportunity to participate. “The farm dinners create a direct connection between my customers and where their foods come from,” notes Chureau. “It is both an educational process for them and the farmers as well. The farmers get direct feedback. It is a wonderful event that brings the community together.”
It’s Randy Gehrig’s business to connect the dots between the farming and foodservice communities and do that in the most efficient, eco-friendly manner possible. Gehrig, director of business resources, Category and Brand Business Development at Sysco Portland, believes that sustainability works for the right business concept. “You see a lot of organic, and it’s definitely a more expensive way to go,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that we don’t look for alternatives, but some people want to have an organic product. It’s customer demand, and people are paying for it.”
There are others who won’t. “There are accounts out there that we do business with that started out with local and/or organic product and moved away from it because it was not as cost effective as they wanted it to be,” reveals Gehrig. “It just didn’t make enough money for them. I think that they’re making good business decisions based on whether or not it’s something that makes sense for their business.”
Even so, Gehrig says that demand for Oregon-grown goods is strong. “We’re getting increased demand for people to continue to support local,” he says. “What’s really fun for us is when we can give the customers what they want.
“I’m somewhat passionate about a local, sustainable agriculture, as I work with produce and the beef industry, pork and poultry, and seafood. I’ve cooked for a portion of my life as well at a restaurant.” That gives Gehrig a unique perspective. “The chefs want a local product, because it tastes good,” he says. “So, they are reaching out whether they have it grown by somebody who sells, whether they grow it themselves or whether we find somebody that’s growing it locally, they want product that will impress the customers that come in. They’re willing to pay for it and mark things up accordingly.