Henry Moynahan Rich spent his summer being haunted by trash. He needed to figure out how to eliminate it completely. In July, his company, Oberon Group, closed the Fort Greene restaurant Mettā with a goal of reopening it in the fall as the first truly zero-waste restaurant in New York and possibly in all of America. That meant not only the restaurant’s waste, which he could control, but also the gum, empty cups, and hygiene products his customers would bring in.
“We have to be honest,” he explains. “This is going to be an inconvenience to guests, and we’re in the hospitality business.” He’s not excited about the prospect of saying no to his customers: “People are going to say, ‘I’m paying you. Can’t you throw this away for me?’ And we’re gonna have to be like, ‘Nope, sorry. We actually don’t have a means of dealing with this here.’”
In reality, Mettā had been trending this way for some time. In 2017, Rich; Oberon’s deputy manager, Halley Chambers; and the rest of the team had made it New York’s first carbon-neutral restaurant. Everything was cooked over a single fire fed with responsibly forested local wood; the group bought renewable energy, and the remaining emissions (about the equivalent of 50,000 gallons of gas per year) were offset by investments in carbon-negative initiatives. Leftover citrus rinds at the bar were turned into salt, and the kitchen stored gallons of fermented ingredients.
Now they’ve gone all in, and the restaurant is slated to reopen later this month. The space looks the same, but Mettā will be renamed Rhodora, after a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem. The hope is the new model will create a template that other restaurateurs, and the companies they work with, can follow to cut down on or eliminate their own waste. Oberon has sourced wines in compostable boxes, dropped liquor brands that use unrecyclable caps (that’s more than you might think), found a dishwasher that uses electrolyzed water to eliminate the need for soap, got rid of paper receipts, tracked down a nonprofit called ReCORK that turns used wine corks into shoe soles, and, at least for now, has retired the Francis Mallmann–inspired fire. (For that matter, Oberon’s other businesses — including June, the Cobble Hill wine bar, and a catering arm called Purslane, which is also going waste free — operate with sustainability in mind too.)
As Chambers explains, “the food world has traditionally done such a poor job of being environmental stewards — if we can build a model of a sustainable trash-free relationship, suppliers can start replicating it.”
Restaurants sometimes use the term zero waste to refer to a nose-to-tail, stem-to-root ethos in the kitchen. And in fact, Rich first tried to remove kitchen waste completely when the restaurant was still Mettā. Doing so while the place was up and running proved too difficult, however. “Trying to reverse engineer it would never work,” Rich says. At Rhodora, the focus will be on natural wine and simple food, so the restaurant can extend its mission even to its suppliers. “The entire company doesn’t have to be trash free,” Chambers explains, “but our direct relationship with them does.”
So all cheeses must be used in their entirety (no wax rinds) and delivered in reusable containers. Brooklyn butcher shop Marlow & Daughters will bicycle over cured meats, jars of chicken-liver mousse, and pickled veggies. Marlow’s sister bakery, She Wolf, will do the same with bread — initially, rye loaves, ciabattas, and baguettes. Le Petit Poisson, a tiny Brooklyn distributor that pushes sustainability, has offered to deliver oysters in what are likely New York’s first returnable oyster packs. Spent shells, meanwhile, will go to the Billion Oyster Project to help restore New York’s waterways. Anything guests leave on their plates will be fed into a commercial-grade composter, along with shredded-up bits of any cardboard packaging.
Perhaps counterintuitively, many of the wines will come from France. Rich’s position is that he’d rather offset the emissions caused by importing natural wines from an artisanal winemaker overseas (a sliver of the bottle’s total carbon footprint, anyway) than buy from closer producers whose principles are less aligned with Rhodora’s.
In addition to waste, something else will be notably absent from Rhodora: a chef. The menu lands between substantial bar snacks and light dinner fare — oysters and seafood conservas, cheese and charcuterie, sliced bread, a few other basic items like a bitter-greens salad and pickled vegetables. Staff won’t need culinary skills beyond the ability to shuck oysters, dress a salad, and plate a cheese board. That was intentional because Rich also wants Rhodora to jettison traditional restaurant roles, particularly the part about porters and bussers cleaning up everyone’s mess. “The whole idea is taking responsibility for your own waste,” Rich explains. “It felt weird to have a guy running around cleaning up after everybody.” They hired a team of half a dozen, and, depending on the night, an employee might prepare oysters, recommend wines, or mix cocktails. Cleaning and educating diners about zero waste are duties everyone splits, and they all receive profit shares.
Even though Rhodora is unique among New York restaurants, Rich and his team have leaned on sustainability pioneers industrywide since Mettā’s start. The move to carbon neutrality, for example, was inspired by Anthony Myint, the Mission Chinese Food co-founder who now runs Zero Foodprint, a nonprofit focused on fighting the climate crisis, which boasts partners such as Noma, Osteria Francescana, and El Celler de Can Roca. (“Henry and the folks at Mettā are like our kindred spirits on the East Coast,” Myint says.) They also worked with the chef Doug McMaster, who runs Silo in London, the U.K.’s first zero-waste restaurant. (Five years in, Silo kilns its own plates from plastic bags, upcycles food packaging into tables, and sports a carbon-negative floor made from bombproof cork.) Last November, Oberon co-hosted a zero-waste pop-up with McMaster and Lauren Singer, of Williamsburg’s zero-waste home-goods store Package Free.
Which brings us back to the trash: Even though Rich knew how to eliminate the waste his staff and partners would create, he still needed to take care of customer-generated rubbish, especially in the restrooms. Package Free deals with the issue by simply not having a restroom, so Singer never had to devise a plan for customer trash. When Rich asked McMaster how Silo had solved the problem, the chef was confused; the U.K. has companies that specialize in recycling the bathroom waste products that had Oberon stumped.
The group considered opening with a sign in the restroom that asked guests to brainstorm solutions. A few weeks ago, though, it found an answer. To recycle Saran wrap, Mettā had used a New Jersey–based company called TerraCycle that runs a curbside-pickup program for difficult-to-recycle items: cigarette butts, gum, cooking oil, batteries, even hazardous waste. It would be expensive — “a box may cost you $ 800,” Rich says — but that waste wouldn’t be a problem. They’ll have two TerraCycle boxes, one in the bathroom, another for random litter that guests leave on the bar or tables.
Still, it’s another cost in a low-margin industry that Rhodora will have to absorb, at least until a better option presents itself. “If zero waste is our mission, the entire program has to be built around that,” Rich says, pointing out that his goal is to start with sustainability and turn that idea into the same thing every operator wants: a place with delicious, affordable food where customers return again and again. “Sustainability can’t be a special-occasion thing,” he argues, “because if that is the case, this movement will fail.”