People like you aren’t the only ones that can drive change to tackle plastic waste—so can restaurants! The number of restaurants collaborating with Shedd in our Let’s Shedd Plastic program to use or develop plastic-free alternatives in their businesses has surged to 150, and it’s growing!
We caught up with one of Shedd’s partners, Max Robbins, the culinary operations director at restaurant and entertainment group Land & Sea Dept. (he also serves as executive chef at one of Land & Sea Dept.’s restaurants, Longman & Eagle), to:
- learn more about their journey to shrink its plastic footprint
- what sustainability means to him
- how you can talk to your favorite restaurant about going plastic-free
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Surge: Tell us about Land & Sea Dept.
Max: We’re a creative studio and restaurant group based in Chicago. Our first project was Longman & Eagle, which is now in its 11th year. Since then, we’ve opened Parson’s Chicken and Fish [in multiple locations around Chicago + Nashville]… We also have [Tex Mex restaurant] Lonesome Rose in Logan Square...We have outlets at Chicago Athletic Association, so Game Room, Cherry Circle Room, Milk Room, Drawing Room. … And Lost Lake [a bar in Logan Square]. … And, we just announced, we’re going to be working on a project in Austin, Texas. That’s coming up soon.
Surge: What does a director of culinary operations do?
Max: I work on best practice with regards to food, so whether that is creating standard systems within the restaurant, whether that’s working on making sure we have the best, most inclusive hiring practices, whether that’s ensuring that our restaurants are one that we interact based on empathy and understanding. Definitely, I work in menu development for new concepts, as well as existing concepts. I work to audit the food, systems, the cleanliness, the operations of the restaurants to make sure that things are good.
When we have initiatives and things we believe in, like sustainability, to make sure those practices are not just implemented, but also explained so there’s buy in. A lot of what I do is education, internal education... We’re not just telling someone to do something, but we’re explaining to people why we do it that way and allowing them to learn. Because ultimately, we want to see humans develop and have opportunities.
Surge: Has sustainability always been a part of your practice?
Max: Always. Always. It’s hard because restaurants are really difficult things. The profit margins on restaurants are really, really, really, really low. And you’re generally working in an environment that’s hot and difficult, so I think that the nature of a lot of restaurants is to make things as easy as possible. And that’s kind of our job… We take really seriously everything we say. So, when we say “sustainability” I think it’s sustainability in a lot of things–sustainability in labor practices, sustainability in culture, sustainability of employee treatment, it’s sustainability in trying to increase pay above minimum wage and pay people the most that we can. So, sustainability in general is something that we care about, in an industry that is not sustainable very much for people in it.
Surge: Tell us about your organization’s history with plastic?
Max: We were fortunate. We signed on very early to this [Let’s Shedd Plastic] initiative. Covid is what really brought to light how much frigging plastic everyone is using... For us, [plastic] was something we knew we wanted to reduce and eliminate. But I think it was a real call to action when we ordered in and we were looking at all these disposables. … It was like “whoa this isn’t right.” And all around, we were hearing from the world, “the world’s healing, the dolphins are coming back. We’re reducing greenhouse emissions. I’m sitting here and being like “there is no way.” There is no way we’re that we are reducing any kind of emissions with all the additional production and all the additional boxes and shipping and packing materials to send everything. It was kind of a wakeup call for us.
Surge: Where are you now in your plastic journey? What do you hope to accomplish?
Max: People have gotten a taste for delivery and I think it’ll be around at a greater level than it existed before…
We are committed in our restaurants wherever possible to use the least amount of plastic in those things: paper bags, biodegradable paper boxes. We give people the option of silverware, we don’t just include them. We try to limit the amount of plastic disposables.
And what we’re hoping is, as businesses, the production of these companies [making plastic alternatives] matches the demand, which was a huge problem. Even if you wanted paper stuff for a while, you couldn’t get it. Hopefully as businesses catch up, we’re helping drive the industry in saying we want sustainable, biodegradable paper goods—not plastic. We want them to be affordable so we don’t have to do things that are not affordable for our guests.
Surge: If someone reading this, wanted to convince a restaurant in their community to reduce plastic, how would you recommend they go about it?
Max: I would say “collaborative” is the best way to do it. I think with anything. In general, when I approach someone I don’t know and they’re doing something I’m not in agreement with, the first thing I do is ask questions. “Why are you in this situation? Why are you doing it? What happened in your life or your background? What brought you to where you are,” so I can understand that. … I think connecting with a business and offering support, and saying “hey, can I help fundraise, can I help subsidize, is there a reason, these straws, I know they’re expensive, is there a reason you’re switching from paper to plastic. Maybe you can get together with other neighbors. Maybe you can do a local fundraiser to provide money so that these businesses can operate that way.
Surge: What gives you hope? It’s so easy to be cynical about it all.
Max: I think it’s a combination of things. It’s who I see being involved–really cool restaurants, cool places like Shedd. ... it’s the nature of our industry to be resilient and quickly adapt to changes when there’s a call to action. It’s really encouraging to see these things have become commonplace.
… No one is going to say this isn’t a cool thing to do. In the past many years notion of what’s cool has completely shifted to what’s just, to what’s right and what’s good instead of things that are destructive in nature.