BOISE, Idaho — For eco-restaurateur Dave Krick, it's not just about where his food comes from, but also where it's going.
And in the case of his Red Feather Lounge and Bittercreek Ale House, some 100 pounds of it a day are feeding an extra 200,000 diners — Vermont red wiggler worms that live in the restaurants' basement, working around the clock to turn kitchen waste into nutrient-rich compost.
That's a lot of worms, but it's a singular distinction.
The Green Restaurant Association knows of no other restaurant in the continental U.S. doing onsite worm composting — known as vermiculture — and only one other in the country, The Kona Brewing Company, which has pubs in Hawaii.
Even before Krick got into worms, his businesses focused on sustainability, serving grass-fed Idaho beef and local cheeses. The wine list is sorted by the miles each bottle travels to reach the table to encourage diners to select from local vineyards. Even the ketchup is made in-house.
“One of our goals is to eliminate our garbage by 2012,” says Krick, who opened Bittercreek in 1995 and the Red Feather in 2002.
So Krick started thinking about what happens to all the food that either doesn't make it to the plate, or gets left behind. He spent weeks cataloging the restaurants' garbage, figuring out where they could reduce waste.
“We wanted to do onsite composting because it takes very little energy,” he says. “But regular composting smells, because it's basically the chemical process of heating things up. And in a restaurant setting we knew that wasn't going to work.”
Krick had heard of organic farms using worms to compost and the Web is awash with advice for doing it in home basements. But he couldn't find any information about using worms in a restaurant setting.
He did find a 14-by-4-foot metal bin that would fit in his building's basement. It could handle about half of the 200 pounds of the compostable food waste generated daily by his restaurants.
The bin has a built-in grid of metal screens. The worms stay above the screens, nestled among organic dirt and food waste. The compost drops through the screens and is scraped into buckets by a blade. It has worked so well he plans to get another bin and double his worms.
Rhonda Sherman, a vermicomposting expert and faculty member at North Carolina State University, says vermicomposting is an emerging trend among businesses of all kinds.
“More and more people are doing it, especially with this new green movement. All sorts of businesses are jumping on the green bandwagon and doing vermicomposting onsite,” Sherman said. “It's being used on a really large scale to handle animal manure, and on a mid-scale in places like hospitals, restaurants, universities and prisons. There's just huge interest out there.”
But Colleen Oteri, spokeswoman for the Green Restaurant Association, says most restaurants simply don't have the space to do it.
“Restaurants pay a lot of money for rent, and at the end of the day they want to just send it off and have the composter pick it up,” Oteri said.
There's also the potential “Ewww!” factor — worry that people would be unsettled to know about thousands of squirming eaters nearby.
“I anticipated that,” said Tracy Solomon, sustainability coordinator for Kona Brewing Company, who keeps her worm bins on the lanai of the Kona Pub and Brewery, alongside dining tables. “Sometimes when I go feed the worms I get a lot of people staring at me wondering what I'm dumping in the bins.”
But Solomon says she's found that reactions aren't what she'd feared.
“People just think it sounds like an interesting step to take,” she said. “But kids love it. I do presentations for kids at schools, and we give starter bins of worms and castings to the schools for their own gardening.”
For the past year, Krick has been filling the restaurants' outdoor planters and supplementing his home garden with the compost. But this summer he hopes to sell it at a local organic nursery.
Still, though gardeners often call compost “black gold,” Krick is unlikely to get rich off the endeavor.
Each bin costs about $12,000, and he opted to fill them with pricier organic soil to start so that his resulting compost would be completely organic. Selling the compost likely will only defray some of the startup expenses.
“For us, we know that we're not ever going to recoup the investment. But to eliminate our garbage, we find those gains are intrinsic to our business, (it's) a matter of priorities,” Krick said.
As his worm herd increases, Krick also hopes to sell starter buckets for home vermicomposting — potentially creating a scenario where customers take home doggie bags from Bittercreek to feed to worms that were raised in the basement of the restaurant.