GREEN CITY Doing the right thing often costs a little more. Organic food, solar panels, and compact fluorescent lightbulbs are all pricier than conventional options. But Café Gratitude is now adding legal fees to the cost of going green for terminating a linen service contract in order to use unbleached cotton napkins in its four restaurants.
It’s hard to imagine how a restaurant could be any more humane, sustainable, and environmentally conscious. Café Gratitude’s raison d’être is encouraging deeper human relationships with one another and the world while serving strictly raw, vegan food. Wheatgrass grows on its counters, and if it’s not organic, it’s not on the menu.
Terces and Matthew Engelhart opened the first restaurant in the Mission District in 2004 and have since spread to the Sunset, Berkeley, and San Rafael, with a Los Angeles location on the way. Each spot has compact fluorescent lightbulbs, toilets that flush with a low-flow gush, high-output hand dryers, and cornstarch to-go containers.
In order to eliminate plastic from their entire supply chain, the Engelharts have leaned on their bulk-food carriers to use fusti containers (large, stainless-steel casks provided by the café) instead of those ubiquitous, unrecyclable five-gallon buckets when shipping their raw goods. A recent raw food recipe book by Terces was printed on 100 percent recycled paper at her insistence. The cafés frequently host fundraisers for local nonprofits. Of course they compost, recycle, and buy local. The delivery van putters along on biodiesel.
Yet in the process of seeking to further green their business, the issue of bleached napkins came up. The Engelharts have always used cloth napkins rather than paper. Once washing napkins themselves became infeasible for their growing business, they contracted for clean cotton napkins from Mission Linen Supply. From the start, they asked the company for an unbleached alternative, but none was available.
Anyone with a bottle of Clorox can read the warning label cautioning against allowing its contents anywhere near your skin, mouth, or eyes. The use of chlorine bleach in laundry produces chloroform, a human carcinogen, and additional industrial uses create another 177 organochlorine byproducts, including dioxin, the stuff found in pesticides like DDT and Agent Orange. No level of exposure to dioxin is considered safe, but it has pervaded the environment so deeply that it typically turns up in breast milk and semen, drinking water, and the fatty tissue of the fish we eat. Dioxin can lead to hormone imbalances, reproductive disorders, kidney and liver diseases, and cancer of all kinds.
So the Engelharts decided to switch from Mission Linen to another nationally known company, Aramark, which offers unbleached cotton cloth rags, often used in the auto industry. The rags, which are a creamy beige color and look like they could have come off a shelf at Crate and Barrel, would have a first run at Café Gratitude, then be recycled for their next job, wiping oil dipsticks. "We thought this was a great green solution," Terces said.
But now Café Gratitude is being sued for $25,000 by Mission Linen for breach of contract.
Before terminating their contract with Mission Linen, the Engelharts continued to press the company for a green solution, but no dice. They decided to keep the bleached supply coming to the Harrison Street location, but as new cafés opened, they’d use Aramark’s unbleached alternative, which is the same price.
After repeatedly requesting a greener laundry service from Mission Linen, they reviewed their contract and determined it could be terminated if Mission Linen couldn’t provide a product or service of the quality found at a similar laundry in the area. Mission Linen did not return calls for comment, but according to the Engelharts’ lawyer, Fania Davis, the linen company interprets that language more narrowly and is suing for the estimated lost profit. The Engelharts offered a settlement, and the company turned them down, so the fight continues, but the Engelharts still think it’s unfair.
"We were more committed to green than to continuing to bleach in ever-increasing numbers," Terces said.
Matthew added that the point isn’t to cast Mission Linen in a bad light but to bring attention to an important need in the restaurant community for more environmentally friendly laundry options.
"We’re not doing this for us," Matthew said. "It’s for everyone, our children and grandchildren." *
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