At From Blueprint to Solved, we are interested in creating different maps (blueprints). We believe in living a good life, without being a cost to the environment. To us, Edible Beats, a group of unique restaurants in the Denver area, exemplifies just that. To get more insight on how owning a restaurant can be trendy and conscience about its impact, we hopped on the phone with owner Justin Cucci. Below are a few links to help navigate the topics we covered and of course, Justin’s transcript:
Justin, before we settle into your interview, is there something that you’re never asked that you really want to talk about?
Justin: Here’s what I would say: Myself included, how spoiled we are as Americans, and how we’ve been a major piece of why the rest of the world doesn’t have the food and water access that we do. We get cheap clothing, cheap food, we get everything cheap even if it’s at someone else’s expense . We need to be aware that everything we do to enrich our lives has an effect that takes away from everyone else’s. Nobody asks me about that, but I think that it’s important for sustainability, especially in the food system.
So what is it about an avocado on rice paper with some salt, pepper, lime juice, and quality ice cream? Your bio on Edible Beat’s website mentions that if you had to choose a last meal on this earth it would be that.
Justin: Well for avocado, I have yet to tire from its taste, its flavor, the creaminess, and all the things that the avocado brings to the table. So there’s also something to be said about how it’s done in a very simple way (salt pepper and a little bit of lime juice). To me it’s celebrating something that’s simple.
But then the ice cream is on the other end: it’s not necessarily something that’s messed with. It’s done on a big machine. Ice cream, again celebrates to me this beautiful, frozen creamy… I never get bored with it. That could be trouble for my weight, but (at least) I’m aware of my attraction to both of those ingredients.
Well, hopefully the lime sort of balances that out and makes it a little healthier. Is there a specific drink you would add to that? Just water?
Justin: Oh my god, water with lemon is my wine to other people. I mean when I eat a meal I’ll drink water with a little lemon, and I’m like there’s no one in the world that can beat drinking water. It has to be the right temperature, it has to be good clean water, and just the right amount of lemon juice. We almost thought to call Edible Beats water with lemon. That was going to be the parent company, that or lemon water, but that sounded a little bit funny. That’s just how much I love water with lemon.
Was there a moment that made you think, we need to make the food industry more sustainable?
Justin: Yeah that honestly started when I moved to Denver and started the first of the restaurants, Root Down. That was a big part of the mission statement. It was part social change at that point. I had moved from New York where you lived on this island, where everything you wanted magically appeared, and when you were done with it, everything magically disappeared.
I moved to Colorado and I was really hit with a holistic view: Here was this city with beautiful mountains, this metropolitan city in a beautiful sort of nature area. Early on, I wanted it to be part social change. I wanted to start walking and stop talking. I was worried, because I wasn’t sure if anyone was really interested in that (a sustainable restaurant). At that time, I lived in a bubble. There really wasn’t anyone I knew.
It was about making it part of our culture. It was the only way we ( Edible Beats) figured we were going to make any headway. We would make head way with suitability. It started with repurposing a building and ended with the design of the building and repurposed items where we get our water. Of course where we get our food from has to come from under that umbrella of culture.
Linger was a mortuary, Ophelia’s Electric Soap Box was a gastro brothel. How did you choose to repurpose these buildings? Was there something that really spoke to you about them?
Justin: I had a strong mental, physical, spiritual connection to either the architecture or its context in the neighborhood in its previous life. So if I couldn’t connect with the building I just wouldn’t even be interested in doing anything there. Concepts are just so important to my restaurant. What is so important to me is to be able to tell the story that we ( Edible Eats) needed to tell.
Besides using repurposed buildings, Edible Beats uses wind power, biodegradable products, and sources locally. Are there myths surrounding sustainability in the food industry?
Justin: Yes there are. I feel most of what is going around is a myth in a negative way. It is easy to manipulate those words (sustainability etc.). (It is easy) to talk the talk. Easy to find a piece of what you’re doing that is sustainable, while 90 % of the decisions you make are unsustainable. I think a lot of the myths are created by the restaurants that want to take a piece of this ethos and present it to their guest or their staff as a philosophy. For us ( Edible Beats), we realized early on that what we started, probably would be revealed to be out of date really soon: sustainability was moving at such a fast pace.
The first thing to do to make sure that you don’t get caught in a myth is to ask questions. Just keep finding out, because the guy that says he has a sustainable farm, year one, by year three sustainable could mean so many different things. You have to ask well where is this farm, where do you get your water for this farm, where do you get your electricity? What kind of seeds are you using? The conversation has to go on. Most people don’t go into that conversation. We try to do that, to be the people who look in the mirror and see the most flaws and ask the most questions. We usually don’t get the questions asked to us by guests, but we are ready for them and we like the challenge.
How can we, as consumers, as business owners make other people accountable?
Justin: That’s a great question. We love it when people make us accountable. Just to add one more thing, I think the problem is that most restaurants or let’s say chefs feel that sustainability is about food. It surely is a big part of it, but I think what guests could do is start by asking questions about the food.
You know, maybe instead of just buying (any) vodka, they ask for local vodka. Maybe when they go to the restroom and they see commodity toilet paper or soap from these big commodity chemical corporations, they could say hey, you talk about sustainability and staying local and that’s great with the food, but what about your spirits, your beverages, what about your toilet paper? I think more guests should ask questions and vote with their money and try to support places that are doing that ( being sustainable).
Most people don’t care about toilet paper in the bathroom. Any restaurant to me that sells bottled water and then says that they are a sustainable restaurant is a contradiction. It’s not a horrible one, but you have to first make the choice to say we’re not going to sell bottled water, then you have to give guests the same experience from your filtration system.
Which is chilled and then maybe sparkling? You have to offer the alternative (to plastic bottles), because no guest is going to say great, you don’t do bottled water and you’re sustainable. If you don’t offer the quality, they are going to be put off.
I want to ask you the inverse of that last question. What’s the process for moving towards being a more sustainable restaurant? Do you think restaurants are able to be completely sustainable from the get go?
Justin: The restaurant industry is on inches and seconds. You’re right. You open a new business, you put everything you can into it and then all of a sudden wind power is 10% more. Making that into a preset system is difficult, because there’s a 3000 dollar outlying cost while bottled water is 27 cents a bottle.
You can get it (bottled water) and sell it to make a lot of money. So those are hard decisions and I respect that. I think it’s about being committed to being better everyday and saying okay, right now we don’t have the ways and means to do all of these things, but we do have the ways and means to talk about it. We can make sure we’re making some of those intelligent decisions.
The bottom line is that if it’s going to be a task of the dollar, it’s not going to happen. Unless all of these sustainable things magically become on par with…(cheaper less sustainable options).Even if things (sustainable options) become on par with less sustainable ones, I’m ashamed to say most restaurants won’t make the decision (to go sustainable).
Let’s use the example of the to go container. Styrofoam containers now, I think are on par with ones that are made from corn or recycled paper. Still, I would say that the majority of restaurants use Styrofoam ones. So why is that?
I think it’s just not being educated to the difference, and people just not pointing it out. When I go to these restaurants and get Styrofoam and a plastic bag, I ask is there anything else I can take this in? I don’t really want to take this (my take out) home in Styrofoam and a plastic bag.
To get back to your original question, I think it has to be as much as you can. But it has to start sometimes with taking a risk and saying if you don’t do bottled water, what do you think that means to your restaurant? Do you think that it can still survive and if it can I think you need to find other ways to make that money and that ethos work for you.
Maybe by giving free filtered water, you’re going to get guests that are completely in love with your idea and come to you more often. The problem with this is on the macro. I think restaurants look at the micro and they look at the dollars and cents.
We’ve always tried to be a macro company where some of that is social change and some of that is trying to do the right thing. In the macro, maybe nothing is going to happen for months. In the macro, things are going to pay off in the spades, way more than the micro.
Besides plastic bottles and Styrofoam, what is the biggest roadblock to owning an environmentally friendly business?
Justin: You have to start with what can you do that is going to be the most impactful. Granted, the to-go container perhaps is not that impactful. I think you have to start with some basics of where you are. Hopefully, if you’re a restaurant, you’re in a reclaimed building. That’s a good start right, as opposed to a Chili’s which will build a restaurant every time they add a new one, because it has to be exactly the specifications of whatever style of architecture they use . So it’s can you find a way to make what your vision is in an existing building?
And then how you do it. Where are you getting the steel to do it? Again, I know that restaurants sometimes tend to get everything on the cheap. But how do Americans feel 3 cents more are a ton will impact their business? So we started asking these questions (about) where we get our concrete and those raw materials. We now get to ask it. To be sustainable as a business is to be in business, but we found that some materials are equal and we need to keep on using them (the more sustainable option).
No contractor is going to come in and tell you which steel he believes in more. He’s going to tell you my steel guy has this and we can do it for this. If you ask can we get American steel, he might say oh yeah I can answer that and he can tell you how much is it. To me it’s not about the restaurant. It’s about the power, it’s about the water, and it’s about the design elements in there. It’s about the toilet paper, it’s about the chemicals, and it’s about the soap. Of course it’s about the food, but it should also be about the alcoholic experience. The wine. Are you using dynamic wine? What are you doing with the bottles after? Are you recycling them? Are you composting?
When you’re dealing with humanities’ biggest commodity, which is food, I feel like you’re not giving any respect to it as the end-user, when you take something that is so perfectly crafted and scrape it into the trash. It’s doing a disservice to that product, because at the very least, it should be used to grow other things. We (Edible Beats) have a culture of very rigid computability. I don’t know if we talk about it with the guests, or if they mind or care. If you are a restaurant and you aren’t composting, that’s not a dollar and cents decision, that’s an energy and laziness decision. Taking old food and converting it into new food has to happen or you’re not a sustainable restaurant. You’re just talking the talk.
Is that the biggest take away from this interview for our audience?
Justin: I’m going to say it’s three things. There are three tenants that have to do with it: it’s sourcing, composting, and… I’m making this up on the fly. I haven’t come up with the third one yet. Those two (sourcing and composting) are really important.
I could say that it’s sourcing, composting, and integrity, but now people like me are suspect. MacDonald’s uses the word integrity and the president uses the word integrity. Integrity means I’m lying, but I’m using a really good word that will fool most people. So I don’t want to use the word integrity, because it’s dead.
Yeah you don’t want to use a filer, no pun intended. I want to back track to the repurposed buildings: How do you honor the history of these different places, especially a place that dealt with mourning death?
Justin: Yeah, (Linger) was a little bit of a tough one. Well they’re (Edible Beats restaurants) all tough, because there are people and places where a restaurant in a gas station might be a little bit repulsive. I know when people think of eating food in a mortuary it is that way and (that’s the same for) a brothel. These are areas on the fringes of society and they’re usually in certain areas.
I always wanted to honor the building. Not cover up its history, (but to) expose its history, and use the ingredients that were there in the building. Those ingredients could be the existing floors. In every one of these buildings as much as we could, we used the existing floor. If it was concrete slab we used it or if it was concrete brick we used it. If the ceiling was made of crappy popcorn plaster we used it.
I know a lot of restaurants do that. And I know a lot of restaurants that go into old spaces and the first thing they do is go into this sort of dry wall drop ceilings wood floors… they go into this mode of expected and expected is like. To me, it’s a bit of a bad thing, because it’s expected. What did you do that’s unique other than go through a dialog, talk to a designer, and pick a couple of things that are materials that are done in every new building? You ‘ve taken a beautiful old building and now you’ve made it look like it’s a strip mall.
My restaurants purposefully, in a sustainable way, honor the architecture’s history. In honoring the building, we try to do enough, but we don’t want to beat people over the head that it’s a mortuary. We want to do it enough that people know that it (Root Down) is a gas station. There’ a lot of odes that it’s a gas station. If you walked in, didn’t care, and just wanted to eat, hopefully you’ll have an experience that’s on par with another great restaurant. You wouldn’t be amidst if you knew it had been a gas station.
For us it’s part of the ethos of walking that walk of sustainability. That sometimes means using that brick wall, when you think using a wall with blue wallpaper is a better move. ( If you went with the wall paper) you’d just be adding all these things on. You’d make it more complicated. In reality, that building’s brick wall was there for about 70 to 100 years.
What is the differences between a concept and a theme? You mentioned concepts a few times.
Justin: I hate themes and I love concepts. I think themes are a finished. I’m going to use the word convoluted to a degree and an expected sort of result : I hate themes. Concepts are these, in my world, organic, evolving, growing collaborative ideas. So, the concept for each of the restaurants (Edible Beats’ restaurants) is so loose. If I had told you what the concept was day one and you looked at the restaurants now, you’d see they’ve all had the ability to grow. When you have a theme it’s really hard to grow. I think a concept to me is more inclusive. And I think a theme is more exclusive. To me a concept celebrates diversity and a theme celebrates individualism. There could be a theme of Southern France. That’s a theme. It celebrates one part of the world.
Concepts, and the way I do them, are more about diversity and dispirited things coming together. If it’s not a theme, it doesn’t have to have this thread of continuity. It ( a concept) has to have a thread that ties it all together, but it’s not this continuous pictures of France. A theme says, we should have pictures of wine fields, wine bottles, and then make a wall of that. We should have lavender all over, then we should have these cute little posters from the twenties of French Spirits…. That to me is a theme. It’s one-dimensional and it doesn’t bring anything to the table. Concepts to me have way more depth. Anybody and everybody need to be welcomed here. Themes I feel like, alienate people. Not everybody wants to go to the South of France. That’s even if you let them go ( to the South of France). Not that there’s not a time and a place for restaurants that are food themes. So like Asian. An Asian restaurant could be called a food theme, but I use those words (concepts and themes) in a very specific way.
Justin, is there anything else you’d like to discuss?
Justin: The only other thing that I think is important is that we do get away from trying to over educate people and get away from trying to over celebrate what I think is basically doing the right thing. It’s like walking into a room and saying guys, I just wanted to tell everybody I didn’t hit my dog today, you guys should congratulate me. You guys, I didn’t hit it with a newspaper, I actually gave it a little bit of water.
By doing the right thing I mean sourcing the right way: We’ve actually shyed away from it (over celebrating sourcing). I have (shyed away), but I don’t know if my servers have. This is the base line. I think we celebrate this like it’s a new concept. By all means there is nothing unique about this (sourcing the right way). This is how we (Americans) probably lived for hundreds of thousands of years. Most countries lived this way, until they got the riches that we got, until they got the exploitive economy that we have. That lead us down the road that now we’re trying to get out of.
But the way most people live in most of the world is with what grows around them. If you want cobebe from Japan and you’re living in sub-Saharan Africa you don’t get it (cobebe). It’s also because you can’t afford it and it’s not coming there. I think we just need to stop celebrating this as some new idea thought up by chefs: now it’s a movement. Hopefully by trying to do the right thing and celebrate that, the movement is natural.
It’s like, once you get to the point of being as rich as America is, you can have others send you things. It’s almost cheaper to have people bring you things from China than to make it here (in the US). That’s a big break in the system. So to me this ( sustainable restaurant movement) is trying to fix that paradigm and go back to the way it should be.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should just eat what can be grown in Colorado. But, I think we should start in Colorado. Then we should have a little ring. Outside the ring, maybe that’s California, New Mexico, Nebraska, and concentric rings around that.
A lot of people don’t know that their seafood comes from Thailand. It’s really cheap. There are no laws there on how they farm for it, but is that the best thing? No it’s not. It’s exploiting the culture, it’s exploiting the sea, and it’s at an expense to the earth. Let’s look at this not as some bourgeoisie movement; let’s look at it as more a responsibility. Seventy percent of the world still lives like this (sourcing locally), but they don’t call it sustainable. They call it I live here. The farm is four minutes away. What can I afford based on that and why would I even bring something else from across a sea, or an ocean or a lake? So we’re just creating words to justify it. Really it’s needed, natural, and it’s really an organic way to try to get back to.
Do you remember the three different steps that restaurants can take to be more sustainable? You already said sourcing locally and composting. Did you think of a third one?
Justin: You mean the third word? I’m going to bounce this off of you. I think the third step could be keeping it real. Keeping it real could be kind of not making this a bourgeoisie chef movement. Instead, it’s more of a hey we’re just trying to turn back a little bit of the road we’ve been down. Could keep it real work? That means no lying, not green washing, and not creating this bourgeoise chef movement. Does that work, because it works for me. It’s not as cute as the other words because it’s three words.
I like it because I think focusing on authenticity…. is something a lot of resturants….
Justin: Oh, there you go. You got the one word. Sourcing, composting, and authenticity. I just try to talk about it. By no means am I an expert in it. I just try … once the servers bring us ideas, and the guests tell us about something. To me it’s just our culture at work. I’m just good at articulating that and hopeful I make good decisions as the business owner
You can’t have one without the other. Really, I just look at this as culturally the biggest thing we have going on for us here. It’s not I’m going to make all these decisions. It’s that the guests are willing to embrace it, the staff loves being here, and the chefs love creating within it. So it’s like a win-win all over.
Justin, my last question for you today is what are the next steps for Edible Beats?
Justin: We’ve had this amazing line of restaurant’s growth within Edible Beats. I never thought that in a million years, I’d have more than one restaurant. I always thought, man, my dream is to have one successful restaurant. Now here I am with six pretty successful restaurants. So what are next for us?
There are three things that I put on our agenda for the next couple of years. One of those is being a win win company. I’m obsessed with this idea of win-win. Any idea that doesn’t have someone on the other side winning just isn’t a great idea. So we just want to be that company that always finds the win-win.
I think that’s number one and that’s the philosophy we’re really exploring. Sometimes you forget that simple idea…. that just begs the question what about for the other side? What are they getting out of it? The other thing we wanted to do is really focus on what we are doing and get better.
And opening restaurants for the last couple of years has sometimes been at the expense of consistency. I would say quality, but I’m sticking with consistency. That is the hardest thing for a restaurant to falter on. No guest wants to say okay, am I getting a really good service today or am I getting a mediocre one? Am I getting food that is totally craveable or am I getting food that is just good?
So that’s the other important thing. Then we have some cool creative stuff (snapshot cookbooks) that we’re going to put out quarterly or trimesterly. Rather than being a cookbook that takes you two years to get through, we want to put out quarterly or trimester editions that are basically a snapshot of what is happening at Edible Beats, in Colorado, in food at that time.
Because, sometimes you buy a cookbook and then two years later you’re like ugh why did I buy this cookbook? But our little snap shots, to me, are going to be cheaper. They’ll tell a story about other things, not just cooking. It could be how to make cocktails. It could be about wine. It’s just about everything that we do. A little sort of take away that guests can come and get every quarter.
We also want to venture into podcast world. I would love to start a podcast that gets people who work in this industry or are chefs. The last thing we talk about is food. There’s too much noise about food. There are too many people talking about it. I think that we ( food industry professionals) need a break from it.
But I think that people who work in it and chefs have a really great perspective and point of view. And I think that it would be really cool. You get a bunch of chefs together and one day: you don’t even talk about food. You’re talking about racism, or you’re talking about history. I don’t know. It’s a kernel of an idea, but we think that the podcast would be a really cool thing if we can cultivate that audience.
Once again, we want to thank Justin Cucci from Edible Beats for a great interview.
For key takeaways from this interview, check out :
- How to Build a Sustainable Restaurant From the Ground Up According to Edible Beats’ Justin Cucci
- How Customers Can Keep Restaurants Accountable to Being Sustainable According to Justin Cucci
- Five Takeaways From Our Conversation With Justin Cucci.