Grown Green: Mission Taco Joint looks to balance profit, environment

Adam Tilford prides himself on running a sustainable restaurant.

Mission Taco Joint, which Tilford owns with his brother Jason, serves Mexican fare with a California spin to it, rather than traditional Mexican-style food. That setup has helped the brothers successfully spawn a total of five locations across the St. Louis region and Kansas City since opening in 2013, with a second Kansas City location set to be constructed soon.

But Mission Taco Joint is untraditional in another way. Back in February, the restaurant chain said goodbye to single-use plastic straws, opting for more expensive compostable ones. The company also directed its employees to stop automatically serving straws in every drink and only give them out upon request by customers.

Grown Green looks at entrepreneurs using environmentally sustainable practices to build businesses.

That comes as some restaurants across Missouri are choosing to reduce their straw use. Mission Taco Joint managed to reduce its straw use by about 300,000 over a four-month period alone, ultimately saving the company nearly $3,000 during that time, according to estimates.

Making sustainable choices isn’t always easy, though, Tilford said, especially with the thin profit margins that come with running a restaurant.

Missouri Business Alert spoke with Tilford about choosing a greener path for his company, and how those choices affected the bottom line.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Missouri Business Alert: What has Mission Taco Joint done to be more sustainable?

Adam Tilford: We’re kind of in a learning phase right now to see what we can do to be more sustainable. The big one, obviously with the straws this year, we were just automatically putting straws in waters and sodas and everything.

First thing we did was go to straws upon request, and now we’ve also moved to using compostable straws. Unfortunately, even the compostable straws aren’t amazing. If they end up in a landfill, they’re still going to stick around for a long time.

So, we’re currently looking at different straws as well. We’re looking at paper straws, they’re just super expensive. And honestly, some people really hate paper straws.

There’s a company, Aardvark, and we’re getting ready to get some samples from them. We’ve read from a national publication that they’re doing a good job with paper straws. They’re not disintegrating and falling apart quickly.

MBA: Besides straws, what else is Mission Taco Joint doing to be more sustainable?

AT: We’ve never had any Styrofoam at the stores. We do have some plastic containers that are recyclable. You just need certain plastic things for sauces or hot items. And then everything else, all our large to-go packaging is compostable.

We do currently have the little ‘thank you’ plastic bags that we use for small takeout orders. We’re looking at swapping those out. We use paper bags for our larger orders, but those are like a dollar apiece. So, if someone wants to take half a burrito home, it’s hard to give them a dollar back for that.

We’re looking into some alternatives for the smaller take-out orders. That’s going to cost us more money and that’s why it’s not as easy of a switch. We have to figure out what makes the most sense there.

MBA: How have these choices affected your bottom line?

AT: The straws, honestly, it was something we just never thought of. You’ve always had straws. You just give straws out. The cost saving came in from putting them on request and not just automatically putting them in every drink. The (compostable) straws themselves are a little bit more, but we’re using way less of them.

The “thank you” bags, those little plastic bags, those things cost like .01 cents. I mean, they’re just nothing. To switch to a paper bag, that size, now you’re talking 40 cents.

Restaurant margins are small. If you’re making 10 percent margin on your sales, you’re doing a really good job. So, if someone buys a $10 burrito, and eats half of it and wants to take that to-go — not only do you have to give them a 25-cent box to put it in, but then if they get a bag as well, that’s another 40 cents on top.

That’s pretty much your profit, it’s gone. We’ve seen other people that do to-go environmental charges, and we don’t want to go that route. It is a balancing act, for sure.

MBA: Do you have any tips for other restaurateurs thinking of making more sustainable choices, too? Are there resources or organizations folks should know about?

AT: Here in St. Louis, we have the Green Dining Alliance. They’re always there when we have questions … and we’re on their website. The marketing of it, it fits our brand. It’s important to us. The Green Dining Alliance definitely aligns with our ideals.

As far as advice … think about the impact you’re going to have before you open the doors. Because it’s actually going to be a lot easier to get these policies set up front and grow them, as opposed to the struggles of trying to implement them later.

We’ve definitely had some issues. We have 200 servers and bartenders that we’re trying to retrain to not bring straws out and it hasn’t been the easiest thing. A server brings out a straw … then it’s all over social media.

MBA: All considered, why did you choose to take the more environmentally friendly route?

AT: We never thought we’d be growing this big, and we’re humbled that we are. People are looking at us as leaders in the industry now in St. Louis. We’re a large restaurant group, and we just saw the chance to be able to help effect change in the industry.

We don’t just do it (regarding the environment), we try to do it with our employees and pay rates, and how we treat our staff and stuff like that. The restaurant business is long known to treat people poorly. Not pay well, hard working conditions, and I think we’re just trying to change that.

Missouri Business Alert’s sustainability coverage is funded in part by the Mid-Missouri Solid Waste Management District.

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