Back to the Roots

UC-Santa Barbara concept focuses on organic, local fare.

By Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

The café was constructed with green materials such as
recycled glass.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif.—After visiting Burgerville, a sustainable burger concept based in Oregon and Washington, Sue Hawkins, director of University Center Dining Services, decided that was just the kind of concept her department needed to fill a vacant space in the university center. What they came up with is Root 217, a concept focused on organic, natural and local ingredients.

“I sent some employees up to look at Burgerville and when they returned we started looking at how we could start procuring sustainable products for our own concept and what it was going to cost,” says Hawkins. “We worked with our vendors on getting sustainable products. We looked at everything from organic to free range and grass fed—it kind of runs the gamut. There’s also a big focus on local, of course. [Deciding which products to feature] came down to price.”

The hierarchy of purchasing for Root 217 starts with organic, says Hawkins. Where the department can buy organic, it will. If organic is not available or too expensive the department will aim to purchase items billed as “natural,” which Hawkins defines as organic that is not third-party certified. Root 217 always serves grass-fed beef and free-range chicken, as well as items like organic onion rings, french fries and beverages like tea.

“It’s a big movement in the UC system for all the UC dining services to become more sustainable,” Hawkins says. “We’ve been working on improving our efforts for a number of years. When we had the opportunity to create a new concept my immediate thought was to create one that was focused on sustainability. It’s just a matter of looking at where every individual item came from so we can find what fits with what we are trying to do.”

Menu: Sustainability can be seen all over the menu. The signature item is a grass-fed, hormone-free, local burger, which is served on a local roll with organic lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and a housemade “217” sauce, which blends mayo, horseradish, Dijon mustard, Cholula sauce, salt and pepper. Other items include a fish sandwich made with Maine Stewardship Council sustainable haddock, which can be ordered grilled or fried, and sandwiches made from free-range, antibiotic and hormone-free chicken that can also be ordered grilled or fried.

“We taste tested for a long time to get the right menu mix,” Hawkins says. “Customers walk up and place their order and we give them a number and encourage them to sit in the dining room because we have a wireless calling system throughout the seating area. Their number comes up on a board and they walk up and pick up their food. It’s not real slow, but it’s not McDonald’s. We try and cook food as much as possible to order.”

Green building: The food isn’t the only thing getting the sustainability treatment. The café composts all pre- and post-consumer waste. All disposables are compostable so if customers dine in the university center, where Root 217 is located, the items will be composted correctly. Additionally, the construction of the concept took advantage of as much sustainable building materials as possible. The countertop is made from recycled glass. Paint is all VOC-free. The backsplash is made from renewable palm. The front bar is a backlit acrylic that uses pressed local grasses, and all lighting is LED. Hawkins says she hired a local designer who had experience using sustainable materials to help with the space.

“The idea was if we were going to call ourselves a sustainable unit then when we did the remodel we had to go sustainable in that route too,” Hawkins says. “Our designer was familiar with what kind of materials to look for and what was available in our area. We also recycled a lot of the equipment and didn’t buy anything new.”

Hawkins says the biggest challenges launching a sustainable concept like Root 217 were sourcing food that met the department’s criteria.

“There had to be a lot of education of our vendors,” Hawkins says. “You explain the concept to vendors and tell them, ‘I’m looking for natural products, free range whatever,’ and they’d come back to you with products that contain high fructose corn syrup. They just didn’t understand. The other problem was a lot of the sustainable products out there that you can buy from big distributors aren’t offered in commercial sizing. For example, we found organic ketchup that we did like, but it only came in 12-ounce bottles. I think that problem will change over time but not any time soon.”

Despite any challenges the department has had with the concept, Hawkins says she believes it is worth the effort.

“It was a lot of fun to create and it got a lot of interest on campus from people that are interested in sustainability,” Hawkins says. “We do have an environmental school on campus so they were pleased we went this way even if the price point is a little higher. We try to educate our customers that it is going to cost more to buy and prepare food this way. People understand that. I think a lot of people are happy that we are using local produce providers. We did come up with a marketing scheme that uses banners that have photos of our local farmers paired with their message of why farming naturally or organically is important. We took that text and put it next to their picture so customers can see where our food is coming from.”