Diners, Drive-ins and…..Biodiesel?August 13, 2012
When I moved to San Francisco from New York over three years ago, it was not the mild weather or the earthquakes that shook me into a California state of mind, it was the food. Don’t get me wrong, New York City has some of the greatest restaurants in the world and, not to mention, the best pizza and bagels in the country. These are inarguable facts. But in recent years, the great food frontier seems to have migrated West, which might help explain why San Francisco has me salivating. With the ubiquity of entrees that include avocado, the use of fresh farm-to-table ingredients, and the availability of hot sauce to douse on anything, San Francisco is any foodie’s paradise.
I mostly blame my SF food craze on the variety and accessibility of deliciously affordable options. With over 3,000 food service establishments, San Francisco has more restaurants per capita than any other city in the country. As a single person who lives in a small studio apartment and uses their oven for storage, I dare say I have eaten at a lot of them. And like me, it seems that many San Franciscans have a healthy appetite for dining out. Local websites like SFEater and Tablehopper are hotbeds of San Francisco foodie talk, tracking food trends and reporting closures and new arrivals to the eating scene. Michelin stars are aggressively sought and coveted by the city’s restaurants and fuel competition. Recently, in an ode to dining out, the SFChronicle published a list of the Top 100 restaurants in the city. Meanwhile, in the city where they were invented, Yelp reviews can turn largely unknown eateries into hot spots overnight.
On a recent day at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s Biofuel Program, I was giving restaurant reviews of my own. That is, I was compiling data on the 1,200 restaurants currently participating in SFGreasecycle, a free grease pick-up service for food service establishments in San Francisco. As I scrolled down the spreadsheet, I was surprised to find many of my favorite restaurants on the list. From the much-loved Thai restaurant down the street from my apartment to the gastropub where I spend many Sunday afternoons with friends, to the place where I bring my parents every time they are in town, each restaurant seemed to hold a personal memory, story, or reason for being in my life. The list went on and on, but every one of my opinions and assumptions about these restaurants seemed to change. What struck me was the realization that many of my favorite businesses were quietly giving back to their City in a really big way – by donating their used cooking oil. A small act to some, this simple transfer adds up to big benefits for us all.
It’s hard to remember “business as usual” before SFGreasecycle hit the scene in 2007, but the picture was pretty messy. Commercial grease haulers were charging $45 per service just to collect a few gallons of oil from restaurants, leading many to find it more cost-effective to pour used oil down the drain instead. Small restaurants would stockpile jugs of used oil in basements and backyards once they realized pouring oil down drains was clogging their pipes. Nearly 44% of SFPUC sewer work orders were related to grease blockages which meant that the SFPUC had to scramble to fix hundreds of repairs each year at a hefty price tag of about $3.5 million. Residents were not educated to avoid pouring grease down the drain and not offered alternate disposal options besides throwing grease in the trash.
SFGreasecycle has been a game changer, in more ways than one. By implementing this program, the City has been able to incentivize good behavior, protect its sewer system, and save millions of dollars a year. In addition, by entering a market dominated by private interest, the City was able to level the playing field and became a benevolent friend to the small business community, which had been previously overlooked by private grease haulers.
The success of the program shows. The number of sewer repair work orders related to Fats, Oils and Grease (FOG) has decreased significantly. Restaurants continue to sign up to the program every day. To date, over 1 million gallons of used cooking oil has been diverted from the City’s sewer system. If that wasn’t good enough, the really great part is that this collected cooking oil is turned into clean burning biodiesel to run the City’s fleet, such as MUNI buses and SFFD trucks. From restaurant fryer to MUNI bus tailpipe, San Francisco has become the first large city in the United States to locally source its own fuel. Chances are, the MUNI bus you take to dine out on the town is running on fuel converted from the oil used to prepare those sweet potato fries you had with your vegan burger.
San Franciscans love to eat out because they are smothered in options. What they often fail to recognize is choice matters. When I first moved to San Francisco, I organized young and immigrant restaurant workers by conducting outreach to food service establishments throughout the city. I was surprised at the number of reputable restaurants that violated their worker’s rights. Thanks to San Francisco’s strong labor history, restaurant workers have championed their rights and revolutionized an industry which now offers the second highest minimum wage in the country and the right to universal health care. Now, these same restaurants are reducing San Francisco’s reliance on foreign oil. And here you thought dining out was simply a culinary cause. Not in San Francisco.
My basic point is a simple one. You are where you eat. Grease is the great equalizer. Everyone uses it. Everyone needs to get rid of it. And what your favorite San Francisco restaurant does with its oil makes a big difference. The next time you’re in your favorite local haunt, ask them what they do with their used cooking oil. And let them know how their City can benefit from proper disposal. ‘Cause who you gonna call? SFGreasecycle.