Known as "Foodtopia" for its impressive array of fine restaurants, commitment to locally grown ingredients and variety of food-related events and initiatives, Asheville soon may also lead the nation in green restaurants.
With 100,000 residents, the city already has an oversize devotion to culinary excellence and variety. It boasts more than 250 independent restaurants, 17 active farmers markets, longstanding support for the farm-to-table movement and a bevy of local farmers.
“We’re one of the top destinations in the country, and what makes people want to come here also makes chefs want to ply their trade here,” says Steve Frabitore, proprietor of Tupelo Honey Cafe’s two locations and head of Asheville Independent Restaurants (AIR). “We’re surrounded by natural beauty, this is a free-spirited and eclectic town full of great art and theater, and we have a great farming community. The quality of food and service here has just skyrocketed in the last five years.”
Independent Eateries Grow
Proving the point, membership in Asheville Independent Restaurants doubled in 2010-2011 to 70 members, Frabitore says, thanks to dedicated chefs and owners, and the organization’s commitment to “helping make our members better at what we do.” Active community sponsors, from hospitals to linen companies to credit card processors, help support AIR’s educational and community programs. The group has partnered with Mission Hospital on improving kids’ menus, offered $10,000 in scholarships to culinary students in 2011 and is developing an innovative program to retrain workers for the culinary field. In 2011 AIR trained 25 restaurants in gluten-free cuisine, making Asheville the nation’s leader in that regard. And now AIR aims to make Asheville number one in the country in per capita number of restaurants certified green by the Green Restaurant Association.
“If we can say that Asheville is the greenest restaurant city in the country, that’s a very big thing,” says Kevin Westmoreland, co-owner of the Corner Kitchen and part of AIR’s Green Team. “Asheville is a city that wants to be green, that is trying to be green, and this is a big step toward making that happen.”
Greening the Restaurant Scene
The group’s Green Team had earlier helped restaurants go greener with low-cost, simple steps, from using low-flow sprays on dishwashers to eliminating Styrofoam. But in July 2011, AIR received a $240,000 grant, courtesy of the state of North Carolina and federal stimulus money, that allowed it to go bigger – and greener.
Seventeen member restaurants underwent training that will lead to certification by the Green Restaurant Association. Grant money, matched by participating restaurants, will help provide solar panels, efficient water heaters, insulating curtains in walk-in coolers and other energy-saving features. Restaurants will save energy and, over the long term, money. And the community will reap considerable benefits too.
“This will pull a lot of BTUs out of the system that we are currently using,” says Westmoreland. “It amounts to the electricity that would be used by 100,000 televisions each year, which will help ease the strain on the power grid. We’re excited about this. When we get done we can walk the walk and not just talk the talk.”