Exhibit, restaurants dish out sustainable innovations

Are you one of those shoppers who gets paralyzed in the grocery aisle? Not only are there a zillion types of crackers, cookies or chips to choose from, but if you check labels, you can fixate on calories, grams of fat and sugar, or ingredient lists that will make you second-guess your eyeglass prescription and your ability to read English.

Ah, but why are you even holding that box of processed food! Put it down, warn the food police. And what are you doing at a big box grocery store? Why aren’t you supporting the local economy by buying real food at the farmer’s market?

There are so many decisions to be made about food, especially if you are economically positioned to place a premium on food and you desire a more sustainable food system. Trying to do all the “right” things — shop right, cook right, eat right — is enough to make us throw up our arms and quit.

That’s probably why the exhibit at the Museum of Design Atlanta (MODA) in Midtown is so compelling. “Food by Design: Sustaining the Future,” which runs through May 7, features projects by designers, scientists, engineers, farmers, policymakers, grocers and other industry innovators who are finding solutions for some of our toughest food questions.

How can we grow food more efficiently and sustainably? How do we give more people access to local, healthy food? What alternative food delivery systems might better meet our changing shopping habits? How can we reduce food waste?

The exhibit starts from the premise that our global, industrialized food system is not ecologically, socially or economically sustainable, explained MODA executive director Laura Flusche. It looks at cutting-edge developments in Atlanta and around the world that seek to make our food system more ecological, equitable and efficient.

“Food by Design” explores numerous farming innovations — vertical farming, rooftop farming, even residential mob farming, where a group will farm on your lawn. You harvest what you want and they pick the remaining crop and distribute it to others.

Indoor residential farming ideas include a nano-farm. (Imagine a box about half the size of a mini refrigerator that runs on a timer and can grow lettuce and herbs to full size in just a few days.) The prototype was created by a Georgia Tech alum and is now moving to the market thanks to a Kickstarter campaign.

Other local initiatives highlighted in the exhibit are urban agriculture projects coming out of the City of Atlanta Office of Sustainability. One of these is a “food forest” that involves the deliberate planning of edibles in a public park that Atlantans can forage.

People are also pondering protein. Can we grow meat in a lab? Can we use the ocean more efficiently to create food? Can we make protein-rich bugs more appealing through new-age cricket farms?

Moreover, thought leaders are bringing farmers markets to you, be it with the advent of mobile markets, or stands next to transport hubs, such as the Fresh MARTA markets at the West End, Five Points, College Park and H.E. Holmes MARTA stations.

Companies such as Peapod are using technology to revolutionize internet grocery shopping. There’s also Amazon Go, which eliminates the checkout process. While for now the Seattle store is only open to Amazon employees, it will soon be open to the general public.

Restaurant design factor

As Flusche walked me through the exhibit, she paused to comment that no single innovation on display in the exhibit will save the world. Yet the range of forward-thinking designs “needs to happen for comprehensive change to come.”

“Food by Design” focuses on the interstices of food and design as related to food production, distribution and sales. But we don’t always get our food from a store, farmers market or backyard vegetable plot. We eat at restaurants. Where do they fit into the design picture?

Z-Space Design in Lawrenceville specializes in restaurant design. In business since 1975 (originally doing business as Zakas Space), you’ll likely recognize one of its projects: Atlanta Fish Market and its sky-high metal fish sculpture out front.

These days, Z-Space Design has been putting its touch on Antico at Avalon and the new Antico opening at The Battery, on Sublime Doughnuts locations on North Druid Hills at Briarcliff and its soon-to-open spot in Sandy Springs, on Fresh to Order locales and the recently launched C&S Chowder House in Roswell.

Peter Zakas, co-founder of Z-Space Design in Lawrenceville, said certain restaurant design specifications have become standard as the industry and public at large have adopted a mindset toward sustainability.

LED lighting tops the list. “We specify it for every restaurant,” Zakas said. The energy efficiency of LED bulbs compared to conventional bulbs is enormous, as an LED bulb will provide roughly 50,000 hours, draw only 10 watts and emit less heat than a conventional 50-watt bulb that gives between 1,500 and 2,000 hours.

Reclaiming old as new

If you eat out, it should come as no surprise that reclaimed wood is also hot in restaurant design. Zakas gets many requests for reclaimed, reused or repurposed furnishings.

Bob Amick, founder of Atlanta-based Concentrics Restaurants, highly values that which can be reclaimed, starting with the space itself.

“I don’t like brand new, spanky clean spaces,” Amick said, citing as an example the group’s One Midtown Kitchen and its former life as a warehouse. “Why start from scratch?”

Restaurateur and chef Justin Anthony holds a similar sentiment when it comes to site selection. “We tend to do well in old houses,” Anthony said. His 10 Degrees South started in a small bungalow before moving to its current location on Roswell Road, and Yebo Ski Haus (soon to be converted back to Yebo Beach Haus) is in a former single-family home in Buckhead. “But we have to be careful of the environment and what we can put in these spaces,” he added.

Anthony’s wife, interior designer Kelly Anthony of Wolf Design Group, handles interior design for her husband’s restaurants. “My wife is always sourcing sustainable sources. But we have to be wary for the guest. Comfort comes into play. Design comes into play. We want to transport them to another place, time and experience.”

Materials such as porcelain and vinyl offer an alternative to wood flooring. Porcelain planks and luxury vinyl tile, known as LVT, appeal to restaurant owners because they are easy to install, less labor intensive, and highly durable, Zakas said.

He noted that Atlanta restaurants that choose vinyl tile are also choosing local, since the companies that specialize in LVT — Milliken & Company, Shaw Floors and Amtico — all use vinyl products from Georgia. An added benefit to a porcelain plank is that even if it chips, it won’t be noticed because the color goes all the way through the material.

Look up while you’re dining and you might just encounter the latest in duct work. It now comes as a fabric instead of metal. The benefits: it does not blow annoying cold air on you, air is distributed evenly, and it can be cleaned in a washing machine. It also comes in numerous colors, which adds to the aesthetics of a space.

Flush with sustainability

I’m fairly certain I’m not the only person who has excused herself to use the restroom, and returned to the table announcing, “You have to check out the bathroom!” I said it at One Midtown Kitchen and even found myself taking photos of the loo at Shaya in New Orleans because the modern Israeli feel impressively extends into that room.

Design is one thing. How much does sustainability factor into restroom design?

“One hundred percent of restaurants are doing touchless faucets,” Zakas said, explaining it’s part of an effort to keep things as sanitary as possible.

Air dryers, despite being more prevalent than ever, have not eliminated paper towels in bathrooms. “Most owners would like to get away from paper. But because customers are used to it and don’t have the time to wait to blow their hands, we continue to add paper,” Zakas said.

Toilets with flush-efficient valves are standard. Rare, though, are energy-saving dual-flush toilets at restaurants. Commercial-grade options are few and, in Amick’s opinion, current models lack a strong enough flush.

One lavatory contraption that hasn’t caught on at eateries: the waterless urinal. Amick said he has not found it to be odorless. “It’s getting there, but is not quite there yet,” he said.

Restaurateur and chef Justin Anthony has come up with his own solution. “At 10 Degrees South, we put ice in the men’s urinals. It eliminates odor and serves as a natural flusher,” he said.

Clever doesn’t have to cost much.

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