Reinventing Food Service With a Focus on Fresh, Honest, Local
Jan. 27, 2017
Slow Food USA is happy to have Epicurean Group as a Small Business Supporter. This member post highlights a great example of how a business can help bring good, clean, fair food to all.
By Peg Champion
Mary Clark Bartlett doesn’t seem much like a radical. She’s a soft-spoken woman with a quick smile, who’s generous to a fault: as quick to pick up a check as she is to sponsor a fundraiser for a local non-profit. She’s an avid ballroom dancer and the CEO and founder of an independent food service management company headquartered in California’s San Francisco Bay Area.
But Clark Bartlett and her company are revolutionary, in the way they have challenged established industry practices and are changing the food system. (Above: Clark Bartlett with co-founders Senior Vice President Rey Hernandez, left, and CFO Marvin Rodriguez, right.)
Clark Bartlett started Epicurean Group in 2003 and based it on environmentally and socially responsible principles. At that time, it was years ahead of other contract food-service companies in its understanding of the financial, health and environmental benefits of seasonal, local food. Epicurean Group has always been on the cutting edge – before the word became trendy, its principles and practices were sustainable. Rather than truck highly processed canned goods from warehouses across the country and fly out-of-season fruits and vegetables halfway around the world, its cafés and restaurants source locally from family farms and its culinary-trained chefs make all their food from scratch.
Epicurean Group has succeeded in disrupting the marketplace, causing industry giants to rethink their bigger-is-better strategy. The industry is learning that clients want sustainable, organic, healthy, Fair Trade food. Other companies have taken notice and are changing their own practices to compete, copying Epicurean Group programs like Waste Not, Go Greener!, Fair Trade Program and LiveWell. “Prospective clients say that competitors are beginning to claim that they are sustainable, too,” Clark Bartlett says. “It’s fulfilling to know that others are following our lead and that we’re truly having an impact on changing the industry.”
Epicurean Group's purchasing practices focus on products that encourage the growth of organic farms and ranches, sustainable fisheries and artisan producers. At its more than 60 facilities across Northern California, Epicurean Group purchases local, in-season fruit and vegetables, including approximately 456 tons of local, seasonal fruit and vegetables annually, all grown within a 150-mile radius from each facility. All the facilities serve grass-fed rather than feed-lot ground beef, and all the seafood is purchased following the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program guidelines.
The goal of Epicurean Group’s comprehensive Waste Not program is sustainable resource conservation, including eliminating food waste and reducing landfill waste through recycling and composting. Thanks to an innovative compostable packaging co-op that Clark Bartlett established in 2009, more than 60 tons of waste is diverted each year from landfills. Epicurean Group recently earned the California Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award for its Waste Not program.
Zero Food Waste, another element of the Waste Not program, focuses on removing all food from the waste stream. By eliminating food waste from the 39,200 meals its cafés serve each day, the company not only keeps organic waste out of the landfill, it also reduces methane production earlier in the food chain. “All Epicurean Group chefs are trained to eliminate food waste through proper planning and correct portion size,” says Rey Hernandez, Epicurean Group senior VP and co-founder. Hernandez oversees the company’s extensive chef education program managed by Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef Phil Wright. “If for any reason the chefs end up with more food than they need, they donate it to food recovery programs for needy individuals in our communities,” Wright says.
The company’s Meatless Mondays program lowers food’s impact on the environment. Last year, Epicurean Group cafés served approximately 1.5 million Meatless Mondays meals, saving an estimated 200 million gallons of water and 6,000 tons of carbon. “We’re also creating innovative culinary programs, such as our Ancient Grains and Slow Beans programs,” says Clark Bartlett. “That way, our customers have delicious alternatives to meat proteins.” She explained that both programs were inspired by her experience at Slow Food’s global conference.
In 2014 and 2016, CEO Clark Bartlett served as a US delegate to Terra Madre Salone del Gusto, Slow Food’s biennial conference held in Torino, Italy. She also serves on the board of directors of Slow Food South Bay. Epicurean Group is a business member of the Slow Food organization and supports its local education and advocacy efforts.
“We hope that our progressive programs and practices will continue to grow, inspiring and encouraging everyone to work to create positive change. Our goal is to bring eaters back to the table, and connect them to the natural cycle of food and its production," says Clark Bartlett. "We are confident that, together, we can build a new and environmentally sustainable food system.”
Peg Champion writes about food and environmental issues from her home in Sonoma County’s wine country. She is a member of Slow Food Russian River and is a three-time Terra Madre delegate.