When the sustainable restaurant Engrained opened on 53,000-student Arizona State University’s campus in Tempe in September 2008, the wheels of the economy were already slowly starting to slow down. FSD spoke to Katrina Shum, sustainability manager for Aramark at the university, about how the slowing economy has affected what was already one of the more expensive operations on campus.
What is the concept behind Engrained?
The sustainable concept behind Engrained evolved out of Aramark’s Green Thread program, which is our commitment to environmental stewardship across our operations. The six green intentions of the restaurant were inspired by the six Green Threads: sustainable foods, responsible procurement, energy and water conservation, green buildings, waste stream management and transportation. Being in a campus environment, we realized the unique opportunity to engage students, faculty and the larger Tempe community in sustainable dining through a learning-living restaurant committed to locally grown food and environmentally responsible practices.
What kind of customers does the restaurant attract?
Engrained attracts a wide demographic of students, faculty, staff and the larger Tempe community. There are many patrons who are very interested in healthy food and sustainability, and many who just come to enjoy a good meal and lively ambiance. We have attracted a diverse customer base through partnerships and presentations with various university departments, Slow Food Phoenix, Gammage Theatre, Tempe Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Greening Summit and many other local organizations in the Valley.
What extra challenges are there involved because of the restaurant’s sustainability concept?
Arizona has a unique growing situation with the hot and arid climate. This is one of the reasons we feature a seasonal menu that changes every two weeks depending on what is seasonally and locally available. We have a partnership with The Campus Harvest program and ASU’s Grounds Department to harvest edible landscaping on campus for us to use. We use a variety of the unique ingredients that are indigenous to the area and grow well in this climate. Examples include prickly pear iced tea with agave nectar, mesquite, chocolate-dipped Seville orange peels and medjool date brownies.
How do you maintain a sustainable restaurant in this difficult economy?
In developing a sustainable concept, we focus on the triple bottom line to operate in a way that is socially responsible, environmentally sound and economically viable. Realizing that our customers are increasingly price conscious, we make an effort to provide affordable meals that uphold the quality food and value that Engrained is known for. Over the past year we offered special promotions such as the $5 Budget Meal and Summer Sampler. The summer sampler allowed customers to enjoy tapas-sized portions of three menu items, including a dessert and beverage. The $5 Budget Meal at Engrained allowed customers to enjoy a premium ¼-pound burger with a refillable beverage. From an operations perspective, changing our menu every two weeks enables us to take advantage of seasonal ingredients, which can often be more cost competitive. We constantly challenge ourselves to think outside the box to balance cost-plus, cost-minus and cost-neutral sustainability initiatives.
What advice would you give to other operators who are trying to operate a sustainable restaurant?
Sustainability is relatively new in the industry and requires the flexibility to change traditional foodservice practices. It often requires various stakeholders to work together to make environmental initiatives possible—engaging all the players in the local community— whether it’s working with small farms, large food distributors, waste/recycling contractors, architects or local governments.
For more on ASU's Engrained, click here .