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From Zero to Hero: More and more restaurateurs have had enough of food waste and excess packaging. Nolla in Helsinki and Café Botanico in Berlin are demonstrating a different approach.

In 2017, as part of its quest to fight hunger, climate change, and social injustice, the United Nations declared June 18th Sustainable Gastronomy Day. The goal behind the initiative is to highlight the fact that restaurant industry professionals play a key role in the sustainable development. This is because restaurateurs have a significant multiplier effect, which is a platform they can use to develop their customers’ awareness of how they use food. One important point: sustainable practices aren’t just good from ethical and environmental perspectives. They make companies more successful, too. Millennials, in particular, want businesses to be responsible in their use of resources. Responding to that demand can help entrepreneurs position themselves on the market and respond to customer expectations more effectively.

 

Helsinki’s zero-waste heroes

 

Nolla is Finnish for zero, so it’s a fitting name for Helsinki’s first zero-waste restaurant, which has been taking the fight to trash since last spring. A restaurant this size would otherwise produce around 70,000 kg of waste per year, explains Luka Balac, who started the project in 2018 with two other chefs. “The idea of zero waste was born of the frustration I felt working in other kitchens, when I saw how indifferently and disrespectfully people treated food,” the Nolla founder says. The trio’s focus isn’t just on food waste, though – they’re also looking at packaging, plastic trash, paper trash, and wasted water. The Nolla founders’ goal is to keep all of those at zero.

How? They approach local suppliers, most of whom are immediately willing to accommodate their requests: coffee is delivered in sacks, oil arrives in barrels rather than one-liter bottles, and vegetables come in crates that travel back and forth between supplier and restaurant. All other products are stored in easy-to-clean boxes with air-tight closures, making plastic wrap and disposable packaging unnecessary. The restaurant uses seasonal ingredients, all of which are from the region. The only remaining waste is of the biodegradable variety, and that goes into a composting machine that turns the leftovers into a type of soil.

 

No trash cans in the kitchen

Zero Waste Restaurant Nolla

Composting machine at Nolla / Image: Nolla

“The first step was banning trash cans from the kitchen,” explains Albert Franch Sunyer, another Nolla co-founder. The three chefs turned to crowdfunding to help them achieve their no-waste dream, raising their start-up capital by offering stock in the restaurant in exchange for contributions of between €150 and €6,000. Nolla has been around for about a year now, and it’s fully booked every day. Diners come in from all over the place, including from Germany and Austria. The chefs offer a selection of five dishes, with prices starting at €45. The zero-waste concept attracts customers, because it makes them feel like their money is going toward a good cause. The founding trio is hoping their idea finds imitators throughout Europe.

 

F&B meets DIY

Nolla Zero Waste Restaurant

Martin Höfft at work / Image: Martin Höfft

Permaculture expert Martin Höfft is another guy for whom “sustainability” is truly a way of life – he runs the only certified organic garden in Berlin’s inner city, in the Rixdorf neighborhood. That garden is part of Café Botanico, the restaurant 50 meters away where Höfft’s freshly harvested fruit, vegetables, and wild herbs are transformed into traditional Italian cuisine. It’s sort of a green oasis just off the hustle and bustle of Karl-Marx-Straße. “I came to Berlin ten years ago,” the former geography major explains, “and I started a garden for my family’s own use.” Even as a college student, Höfft was already interested in sustainability, and in the interconnectivity between plants and organisms represented in permacultures. He was a passionate gardener, with herbs and edible plants as his pet interests. Then he discovered a 1,000 square meter plot of unused land in old Neukölln. “It was actually way too big and expensive for me, but I found myself wondering how I could make it economically viable.” Together with his Italian father-in-law, a chef and die-hard fan of Höfft’s wild-herb salads, he opened Café Botanico. His wife’s dad stepped into the kitchen, while Höfft began cultivating the garden next door.

 

Over 200 edible plants

Food Zero Waste Restaurant

Dish at Café Botanico / Image: Martin Höfft

These days, Martin Höfft and Café Botanico are Berlin fixtures; he harvests more than 200 edible plants all year round, and holds countless demonstrations for schools and groups, where he shows them delicious nettles, goutweed, lemon balm and wild garlic in their natural habitats and hands out harvest-fresh samples.
Café Botanico then uses the delicacies in mouthwatering seasonal dishes like risotto with zucchini blossoms, hops shoots with pasta al herbe, or “Berlin’s best herb salad”. Martin Höfft goes into the garden every day to harvest whatever is ripe and ready to eat.
It’s not about perfection – it’s about making better decisions. These examples from Berlin and Helsinki show that sustainability comes down to producing, transporting, and using food responsibly. Using locally produced ingredients supports sustainable, healthy nutrition and protects biodiversity, plus it gives restaurateurs an opportunity to distinguish themselves on the market and make the community feel good about the business.

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