The Dollars and Sense of Styrofoam

When we first opened, we used styrofoam plates and containers.  To be honest, we didn’t really give it much thought.  It was the path of least resistance.  And the cheapest.  It didn’t take long to realize that (1) our customers didn’t like it, (2) styrofoam is a big pain to deal with, and (3) a dumpster full of styrofoam plates is a depressing site, and one that made us feel pretty guilty.  So we quickly adopted more environmentally responsible practices, both for guests eating in our dining area and for those ordering carry-out.  There was a bit of extra cost, but nothing too extraordinary.

Last month, we started serving lunch on Wednesdays and dinner on Thursdays at the University of Michigan Hospital Cafeteria.  It is wild and fun.  On a typical lunch, we serve over 600 people in three hours (?!?!).  Serving 600 people in that period of time is no easy task.  We have worked long and hard to figure out how to make the process as efficient as possible, while still ensuring that we are serving world-class BBQ.  One of the things we have learned is that when serving lots of people in a short period of time, pennies quickly add up to dollars.

Which brings us back to those styrofoam containers.  When you serve 600 people every week, you feel the true power of multiplication.  Let me be specific.  A Styrofoam container costs  $0.17 less than a more responsible alternative.    So at $0.17 each, and 600 customers per lunch, and 52 weeks per year….Holy Toledo!  That is over $5,000 per year.  With that money, we could finally get that big fancy flat screen TV for our dining area!

This is  why so many folks in the restaurant business have asked us, “Why don’t you guys use styrofoam?  Everyone else does.  And your customers won’t even notice.”  Perhaps.  And to be truthful, we have thought about it.  In our happy little smoked meat empire, $5,000 is a lot of money.  So it is tempting.

One of the reasons our customers have supported us over the years is because we have tried to do the right thing each and every day.  We have tried to provide great service, great food and to follow great business practices.  We don’t cheat the IRS.  We don’t deal under the table.  And we pay a fair wage.  Oh yeah, and we try not to ruin the environment.  If we allow ourselves to start compromising, simply because the financial stakes have gotten higher, then our customers will rightfully wonder what has become of us.  And eventually, we will wonder too.

We are sympathetic with our colleagues in the food service business who use styrafoam.  It’s a tough, tough business, and one in which doing the responsible and right thing is not always rewarded.  We get it.  But we worry that the road to hell is paved with incremental compromises, ones which seem inconsequential but which ultimately determine the character of the business.  Besides, we didn’t really need that TV anyway.