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Zero-Waste Restaurant | Lessons from FREA

The amount of food waste produced by restaurants can be staggering – with piles of unused food in bins out back. Until recently, for most of us, it was a case of ‘out of sight out of mind’, but that is beginning to change.

Restaurants like FREA in Berlin, the world’s first vegan zero-waste restaurant, take an uncompromising approach and are at the forefront of a sustainable revolution, with zero tolerance towards waste of all forms. I caught up with David Suchy, co-founder of FREA, to learn more about their zero-waste approach.

David U (me): What’s so unique about FREA??

David S: We are a zero-waste restaurant,  but that isn’t all that we focus on: we cook good food, work seasonally and regionally, and we really like to think about what we need, consume, and how we can avoid unnecessary packaging and waste. 

Hopefully, people will enjoy their food and the atmosphere, but also rethink a bit by the end of the night. We try and get good people involved, create amazing energy with all the wonderful staff that we have, and make something interesting out of it.    

David U: How long has the restaurant been going?

David S: Since March 2019.

David U: Oh wow, so it’s really new. And how did it all start?

David S: Well, initially, I changed my personal lifestyle to a zero-waste philosophy. I was very concerned about my diet, my health, and also the environment. I started with a catering company five years ago, and with my YouTube channel, blog and Instagram I was spreading this zero waste message to other people. I could see that people were really interested, so I thought, well, if I can do it with a catering company, then surely I can do it with a restaurant as well – and that is where the idea came from.

David U: Amazing, and what systems do you have in place to operate with zero food waste in a busy restaurant?

David S:  Well, the way I see it, if you have food waste, you are doing something wrong. With the dishes we produce, we try and make a good amount to last till the end of the night, and if it runs out, then it runs out, and it doesn’t matter - because there will still be other stuff for people to choose.

With most of the food that we create, we can easily store it for 2 or 3 days in the fridge without the quality going down.  Some of our food, like the fresh, handmade, filled pasta, well we have like 24 employees, so that can go to feeding staff. In terms of any leftovers from the kitchen or people’s plates, we put them in the composting machine we have. Within 24 hours, it produces a lovely fertiliser that we then give back to our producers. So, there is no waste at all.

David U: Obviously, you can control a lot of waste in your restaurant, but how much are you aware of what your suppliers and producers are doing?

David S: That is really important for us. 85% of our products are from the region, from Germany, and it is really important for us to have been there, you know, in the field, and to know our producers.  We are in a position now where we know almost all of our suppliers.

David U: Avoiding packaging and plastic waste is another big part of your restaurant, but are there really any good alternatives out there to plastic in terms of preserving and packaging food?

David S: Well, not really, no – not right now. It’s like a lot of things: we are in a moment of transition. But with some things like vegetables, to get them plastic free is actually really easy, and we get them all with no packaging. For our dry foods, like flour and buckwheat, for example, we can get them in big paper bags which are 100% recyclable.

But the whole industry is not ready for this way of thinking yet. For example, the cleaning products we use are ecological, but are still using plastic - recyclable plastic, but still plastic. In some cases, it is just not possible right now - there aren’t zero-waste options.

David U: From your experience, how wasteful would you say the average restaurant is?  

David S: Huge – very huge. Humongous! When I started, I looked up lots of things, and for example, I read in one article that in some restaurants, the waste produced in 5 days is equivalent to what one person would produce in a whole year, especially when we are looking at some of the main high street chains.  And it’s not just food waste either, we are talking piles of packaging, plastic and paper as well.

David U: What would be the number one thing that most restaurants could do to reduce their food waste?

David S: Well, it is about careful thinking really; thinking about what you really need. Do I really need a menu where I sell everything, or should I concentrate on a few things and do them really well?

That is where you will really make a difference.

David U: Do you find that you are saving money through your zero-waste approach as well?

David S: I would say yes, but there is probably more work involved. You know you have to do more to get more out. But you can certainly make a good living out of it for sure.

David U:  What’s the long-term plan for you and FREA?

David S: Well, we are at a stage where lots of doors are beginning to open up because people really like our concept, but for now, we are just going to concentrate on the restaurant, the catering and our events. Then, after a year, maybe we can draw a line underneath everything and see where we are and where we can go next.

You know, there is a lot more potential in the hospitality industry like hotels, for example, maybe there could be something like a zero-waste hotel.  That is the sort of thing that you can replicate, a concept that could really take over globally.

David U: What advice would you give to people at home to have a more sustainable kitchen?

David S: Well, cooking more is the first thing, using seasonal products. When you go to the supermarket, stop and check where this food comes from. We live in Berlin, and we obviously don’t grow mangoes here or avocadoes! 

Of course, you might want to include some exotic items in your cooking, but they shouldn’t be the main foods we use to sustain us. You know, we have potatoes here, other root vegetables, we can make our own pasta, and they make up 85% of what we cook here. Of course, we still get things like olive oil, chocolate and coffee from elsewhere, but we should check where it is from, how it is made, how it got here.  When you cook and buy individual ingredients and produce yourself, it is much easier to know these things and be mindful of the impact of our food choices and how we cook.

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