Crown Jewel owner Alex Wight at the composting site near Great Diamond Island’s Diamond Cove, where her restaurant will launch its composting program this season. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Sustainability, once little more than an empty buzzword in the hospitality industry, has become a top priority for many area restaurants, despite the substantial cost and effort it requires.

Making a restaurant more eco-friendly means investing in new equipment and supplies, for instance. And while energy-efficient dishwashing machines and compostable plates promise to save an operation money in the long term, they’re more expensive on the front end, a difficult proposition in an industry that often operates on single-digit margins.

Sustainability means much more than sourcing more of your food locally, which many Maine restaurants have excelled at for quite some time. Greening a restaurant also requires owners and managers to spend more time researching and learning sustainability strategies, then training staff to carry out the new practices of, say, waste collection and composting.

“The economic incentive for (Maine restaurants) to reduce food waste is there already,” said Sarah Nichols, the sustainable Maine director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, though she added that more restaurants should be separating their compostable food waste from the rest of their trash, and that many could do a better job with packaging, specifically the takeout materials they use.

“You don’t necessarily need that plastic package with the fork and the knife and the spoon, you might just need a fork, or you might not need any of it,” Nichols said, noting that she’d like to see Maine restaurants start to implement reusable takeout containers, which she said have grown in popularity in cities around the country, including Boston.

Nichols said if she had to grade Maine restaurants on their sustainability efforts to date, “I’d give whatever grade would show good effort, with room for improvement. I think that is the environmental ethic here in Maine. It makes people feel good to know their food is sourced locally, for instance, and they want to support the businesses that they know are doing the right thing. We hope to work with restaurants in the coming years to help the ones who really want to see this happening. ”


Many restaurants and breweries in Maine have already made significant progress toward sustainability. Allagash Brewing Company and Luke’s Lobster, both certified B Corps – meaning they meet the nonprofit B Lab’s exacting standards of sustainability and transparency – are among the state’s environmental trailblazers in the hospitality industry.

Maine Beer Company has outfitted its Freeport facility with solar power as part of a commitment to produce more clean energy than they consume by 2030, while a growing number of restaurants have also joined community solar farms, from Saco’s Auto Mile Diner and the Gorham House of Pizza to Old Port’s Via Vecchia and Blyth & Burrows.

Here we spotlight three Maine restaurants with standout sustainability programs: Crown Jewel on Great Diamond Island in Casco Bay, which is enacting a new composting program to bring it closer to its zero-waste goals; The Great Impasta in Brunswick, the only restaurant in the state certified by the national Green Restaurant Association; and the newly opened Rosella in Kennebunkport, sister operation of what The New Yorker magazine called the only sustainable sushi restaurant in New York City.


Crown Jewel on Great Diamond Island. The constraints of island life compelled the restaurant to use disposable dishware. Owner Alex Wight searched for biodegradable plates and has started a composting program. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The new composting program at this small restaurant on Great Diamond Island was born of necessity, and developed in response to the restrictions that can come with island living.

“We sort of backed into it, because this side of the island (Diamond Cove) has significant water restrictions, and they apply to wastewater,” said owner Alex Wight. Because Diamond Cove doesn’t have suitable soil for a subsurface wastewater treatment system, it has an overboard discharge system – a series of 12 holding tanks that treat and filter wastewater so it can be released into the ocean – overseen by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.


Within that system, Crown Jewel is limited to producing 365 gallons of wastewater a day, which means the restaurant would only be permitted 14 seats if they used plates and utensils that required washing, while they are allowed more than double that number, 35 seats, because they use disposable materials.

“I didn’t imagine opening a restaurant with disposable service ware,” Wight said with a wry smile, looking around her airy 35-seat dining room, where her extreme attention to detail is clear. With its light pink walls, tabletop brass pineapple canisters and mother of pearl lamp shades, the tastefully decorated space could double as a hip Caribbean beach club.

Yet disposable serving vessels and utensils were what she opened with in 2018, so she could maximize her capacity and give her new restaurant the best chance to be viable. Disposable dishware isn’t ordinarily considered the best choice for the environment, but Wight did the best she could under the restaurant’s unusual circumstances. She spent considerable time tracking down disposables that were attractive, functional and sustainable, eventually landing on compostable white plates, bowls and other wares made from sugarcane. They cost as much as $1 or more per piece, many times more than paper or plastic service pieces would cost.

Crown Jewel chef Juan Pacheco puts the finishing touches on pork tostadas, which are served on compostable plates made from fallen palm leaves. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

This season, Wight had to find new vessels because the sugarcane products, though safe to use, had not yet been certified to meet the requirements of Maine’s new PFAS ban. She eventually found tableware made from fallen palm leaves that are 100 percent compostable.

But again, restrictions hampered the restaurant’s sustainability efforts. Because Casco Bay Lines won’t accept trash on their ferries, Crown Jewel’s waste in past seasons – though compostable – has been taken off island by barge and processed as conventional trash.

“Now what’s exciting this year is we’re finally going to be able to compost,” Wight said, noting that their new program came about through her consultations with island resident Steven Moore, who had been formally schooled in composting.


“All credit goes to him for getting this composting program up and running,” Wight said. “Most of the decisions I made are based on his research. He’s the real guru and I owe everything to him.”

Moore had spearheaded the island’s composting program and helped open its official composting area – about a four-minute walk from Crown Jewel – three years ago. The penned space now collects compost from a small group (about 25) of the island’s year-round and seasonal residents. Crown Jewel will be the island’s first commercial entity to contribute material.

Over the past few months, Moore helped Wight research commercial-grade compost shredders. He found an 1,100-pound, Chinese-made model, and wrote the manufacturer to see if the machine could handle bones and shellfish shells along with softer vegetal matter.

Two days later, the shredder company sent Moore a video of a cow femur being put through the same shredder model. “It just tore it to pieces, almost turned it into dust, so I figured it’d be just fine,” Moore said.

This spring at the island’s compost site, Crown Jewel built five 246-gallon bins made of perforated high-density black polyethylene to hold its compost material this season. Wight and Moore expect that the seafood shells and bones may make Crown Jewel’s mix especially rich in nutrients, and they’ll know for sure when the compost is lab-tested in September.

Until then, Wight is investigating ways to offset costs – the shredder alone ran $6,600, not including the full cost of shipping – by selling the finished compost to island residents or perhaps to her customers, through Crown Jewel’s “general store” area behind the dining room. “Which is fun, because it would really close the loop on your dining experience,” she said.


“Waste in general is an issue for restaurants,” Wight said. “Chefs and owners are very cognizant of trying to minimize waste because it affects your bottom line. We’re cognizant of waste here in a more acute manner. And it’s exciting to think how we are going to be able to put our waste to work.

“It will make my heart happier to know that our compostable materials aren’t being hauled off to Portland and being dumped in a landfill,” she said.


Chef-owner Chris Orr with compost bins behind The Great Impasta restaurant. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The only way you’d know that longstanding Brunswick restaurant The Great Impasta is certified by the Green Restaurant Association is from the decal on their entrance door that says so.

The Great Impasta has earned three out of four stars from the national association, and is the only restaurant in the state to have certification at any level from the group, which they’ve held now for more than a dozen years.

But most of the operational changes they made to earn the distinction – upgrading to more efficient plumbing equipment, switching from conventional chemical cleaners to green products, enacting a composting program, and more – aren’t readily apparent to customers, though they did notice when the restaurant switched from plastic to paper straws.


“Feedback wasn’t great,” said chef-owner Christopher Orr. “It was a texture thing. Over time, the straws absorbed liquid and just got soggy.”

The Great Impasta switched again to compostable, marine biodegradable straws made from a biopolymer derived from canola oil. “They feel more like plastic, and stand up better to liquid,” said Orr, who started working at The Great Impasta in 2005 under the restaurant’s founding owner, Alisa Coffin.

Compostable and marine biodegradable straws at The Great Impasta. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Orr recalled helping Coffin with her initial efforts to become certified by the Green Restaurant Association in 2010. They took pictures of all the chemicals and cleaners they used to send the group for verification. They changed to an environmentally friendly dish soap, switched all faucets and dish station spray nozzles to low-flow fixtures, installed a more efficient dishwashing machine and went from using plastic clamshell takeout containers to brown paper compostable containers, among other changes.

Other restaurateurs may have shied away from seeking certification because of the Green Restaurant Association’s rigorous testing and extensive requirements in every conceivable category, from energy efficiency and waste diversion to chemical and pollution reduction, education efforts and transparency. But Coffin was convinced it was worth the effort.

“I’ve always tried to be a conservationist,” said Coffin, who left the restaurant business sinceselling The Great Impasta in 2014. “We have one world and we need to take care of it. And the certification from the Green Restaurant Association was a badge of honor for all our hard work.”

Orr says the restaurant’s waste sorting and composting programs were particularly hard work in the beginning. When The Great Impasta started composting, they hauled the material away themselves.


“It was like another job entirely, trying to stay on top of the composting,” Orr recalled. “It was such a pain in the butt to maintain, on top of daily restaurant work.”

The restaurant eventually hired a third-party hauler, Agri-Cycle Energy, to take its composting away, so staff only needed to sort the recyclable and compostable material.

“The sorting doesn’t really feel like extra work anymore because we’ve been doing it so long, it’s routine now,” Orr said. “I don’t even think about separating the trash anymore.”

Orr and his work partner and wife, Leyna Valek, recently had their fourth child. With their work and home lives so full, Orr doesn’t envision The Great Impasta trying for its fourth certification star anytime soon.

Still, the Green Restaurant Association reviews their certification annually, and Orr said it may help their status if they use some of the association’s teaching materials like informational pamphlets and videos to train staff on new ways to make The Great Impasta even greener. “Education is an easy area to improve on,” he said.

“I’m proud to say we’re a certified green restaurant. So many restaurants still just do business as usual, and there’s so much waste,” Orr said.


And he doesn’t mind that their ongoing work to make the restaurant more eco-friendly goes largely unnoticed by customers. “We’re not doing it for recognition,” he said. “It’s just the right thing to do.”


In the foreground, sushi made at Manhattan’s Rosella using farmed steelhead trout from the Hudson Valley in New York state. Photo courtesy of Rosella

As the sister restaurant to Rosella, which New Yorker magazine last year called “the only sustainable sushi restaurant in New York City,” Rosella KPT is expected extend the brand’s high environmental standards to its Maine location.

The upscale sushi restaurant opened in early June in the Grand Hotel in Lower Village, Kennebunk. Rosella co-founders Jeff Miller and T.J. Provenzano said the new venue’s menu offers the clearest indicator of its sustainability strategy.

“We won’t be serving anything from Japan,” said Provenzano, speaking the week before Rosella KPT’s grand opening. “A traditional sushi restaurant experience will include maybe 12 different species of fish from Japan. Ours will include zero. To think about a sushi restaurant that brings in no fish from Japan whatsoever, I’ll definitely say we’ll be the only one (in Maine).”

Instead, Rosella KPT will serve sushi made with sustainable species approved by watchdog organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) FishWatch program. Fluke will be on the menu, along with black sea bass, South Carolina shrimp, steelhead trout farmed in New York’s Hudson Valley, amberjack, East Coast bluefin tuna, and Arctic char, and seasonal catches like bluefish and Spanish Mackerel.


The new Rosella will also offer plenty of seafood sourced from Maine, including scallops, lobster (its sustainability is controversial; environmental groups argue that the lines used by lobstermen threaten the highly endangered right whale), tuna, mussels and seaweed. And it will serve delicious and abundant species like porgy that are often dismissively – and short-sightedly – referred to as “trash fish,” because they don’t command a competitive price at market.

“At Rosella in New York, we found that sustainable fish caught nearby like porgy made for amazing sushi,” Miller said.

“Where a normal sushi restaurant wouldn’t want anything to do with that kind of thing, we were asking for it,” Provenzano added.

The two had honed their sustainability ethos even before opening the original Rosella in 2020, while they worked at Miller’s eight-seat sushi restaurant Mayanoki in Manhattan.

“At Mayanoki, we started asking ourselves questions,” recalled Provenzano. ” ‘We live on an ocean here. Why are we bringing fish in from across the world?’

“As we started to play around, and Jeff started serving things like bluefish as sushi, we had those light bulb moments, like, ‘This is delicious, and it’s from our own backyard,’ ” he continued. “So let’s rethink some of this. We want to make sure we’re respectful to the delicate art of sushi, but we wanted to adapt it to local ingredients.”


“The menu (at Rosella) is meant to be a template for whatever fish are available and abundant locally,” Miller said. “If one fish is determined to be unsustainable, that can slide off the menu and another more sustainable fish can slide in easily.”

Rosella’s two locations also seek to minimize food waste as much as possible. They make a spicy XO sauce from fish and shellfish scraps left behind after cutting sushi pieces, for example. They dehydrate the scraps, rehydrate them with sake, then cook them down with chile peppers into an umami-bomb ragu.

“We take pride in using every part of everything that comes in so nothing goes to waste,” Miller said. “We’re trying to respect what we’re pulling out of the water.”

Still, they realize it may be tricky sourcing some fish for the Maine Rosella, at least at first. Miller said Rosella KPT’s Chef Matt Kramer is facing some of the same challenges he did when he first opened Rosella in New York.

“He’s working with seafood suppliers who aren’t accustomed to what he’s asking for,” Miller said. “It took me about a year (in New York City) to build relationships with suppliers so that we were on the same page.”

“One of the challenges is getting the fish handled gingerly enough to be served as sushi, especially when that fish isn’t commonly used for sushi,” Provenzano explained. “You let them know, ‘We want bluefish, but we want the best-looking bluefish you’ve ever seen. Please don’t step on it, or whack it in the head with a baseball bat and let it asphyxiate on the boat. Please treat it with respect so that it tastes at its best.’


“We’re very excited about joining the state of Maine and getting to know the fishermen and playing with the bounty of seafood there,” Provenzano continued. “There’s a lot to explore and learn.”

Miller said he thinks it’ll become more common over the next 10 years for sushi restaurants to operate sustainably.

“What we’re doing is not at all unique outside of sushi, but in sushi, it is,” he said. “It takes a lot more work to do it the way we’re doing. It’s so easy to get good fish if you don’t care where it’s coming from.

“It’s a real hope of mine that what we’re doing with Rosella will be used as an example for other restaurants,” Miller added. “Hopefully the knowledge we’ve gained will make it easier for others to do similar things.”

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