Under the guidance of owner Mike Plesz, the folks at Mind Body & Spirits strive to reduce their collective carbon footprint with the use of sustainable practices, whether for procuring food or for restoring their 1890 building. From solar panels on the roof to gathering rainwater to irrigate their on-premises herb garden, from laying cork flooring to using products that produce less trash, everything leans toward the eco-friendly at the Rochester restaurant, which opened late last year. We dropped in with their public relations director for a chat.
Metro Times: What inspired Mind Body & Spirits' eco-friendly business model?
David Youngman: Mike Plesz had a vision for running a sustainable business, meaning that you leave the world in better condition than you found it. The inspiration for this was his daughters. Looking at the impact that he has and what he's leaving behind, that was the inspiration for it. Then he built a team. He challenged our executive chef, Stuart McWilliams, to build a menu. Stuart spent six months working with farmers to build that relationship. We had a farmer's dinner here with 40 or 50 local farmers who came in to talk about what we could do to make it easier for them to supply us. Most of them were already organic farmers. Some were considering it.
We have a great relationship with Maple Creek Farms up in Yale. They are one of the primary suppliers for produce, and they also start off our herbs in the greenhouse and then bring them to us to grow and maintain here. We researched things like where we were going to buy our furniture. This is 100 percent recycled materials. The tiles here on the rooftop deck are made from old Firestone tires. We found that we had a problem with high-heeled shoes puncturing the rooftop. It's all a bit of a journey.
MT: What about your other operations? Do they, or will they, adopt the "green" philosophy?
Youngman: The vision for the restaurant was born, partly, out of what we were doing at Rochester Mills Beer Company. Long ago we did all the low-hanging fruit over there: removed all the Styrofoam, replaced all the light bulbs, the things that are easy to go through. We don't own that place, so we were limited with what we could do. We're always doing whatever we can do to run a sustainable business for impact on the planet. Our spent grains from the brewing process go to a pig farmer. We are very conscious of the amount of waste we produce. We looked at what could we do if we were to start from scratch. That's where a lot of the eco-friendly ideas for Mind, Body and Spirits came from. On the food side, it is more of a challenge that we laid out for our chef. Could we do a 100-percent organic restaurant in Michigan? Can we do a local food restaurant here? Unfortunately you can't do both. There's not enough locally grown food in Michigan year-round. We have focused on organic for the health benefits. We're not sure what makes a bigger difference on the planet: buying local or buying organic and having it shipped long distances.
MT: Were you involved from the inception?
Youngman: I got involved a few months in, when we were deciding how we were going to present this to the public. Were we going to put labels on everything to identify all the stuff that we did? We didn't want to be in everyone's faces. First and foremost, we are a restaurant. The food has to be fantastic. We don't want people to feel that this place is pretentious, that we know something you don't know. We limited it to table tents, that if people wanted to flip through, they could learn about some of the things we've done. It is all around you, from the cork flooring to the bar in the Higher Spirits lounge made from reclaimed barn wood. The menus are printed on recycled paper, but they are put into our biodigester when they are old. We want to be informative. If someone has questions, we want to have the answers.
MT: What about your personal commitment to the principles of the restaurant when you're not here?
Youngman: I'm a recent convert. My own personal journey began when I became aware of the amount of trash that I was producing. I had this huge garbage can in my driveway and one little recycling bin. I took it upon myself to see what I could recycle. Now I have one bag inside this huge garbage can and two recycle bins that are overflowing because every piece of cardboard and every bit of packaging can be recycled. It's retraining yourself.
MT: Are you doing anything else in the green arena?
Youngman: We do tours for schools so the kids can learn about alternative sources of energy. They can see it here. There's a direct correlation with the use of high fructose corn syrup and obesity and diabetes rates shooting up. We make our own sodas here with agave. Everywhere you turn, there's going to be something. There's been a lot of thought that's gone into everything that we do here. We see ourselves being a source of outreach in the community, to educate when people are ready to learn.
MT: Is it difficult to compete with restaurants that are less environmentally conscious?
Youngman: We have a 100-percent organic menu. One of the misconceptions out there is that organic equates to vegetarian or vegan. You'll find that we do have vegan dishes. We have vegetarian dishes. We also have chicken, grass-fed organic beef and sustainable seafood. We have wine tastings in the Higher Spirits lounge with organic wines and other organic beverages. We change the menu seasonally and encourage the chefs to be inspired by the food and to create different flavors.
MT: Are there tax credits or other incentives for "greening" available in Michigan?
Youngman: It is more expensive to open a green restaurant, but there is a payoff. We monitor our efficiency, everything that we do here. We are confident that we are running about 50 percent more efficiently than any restaurant on Main Street. If you are looking at staying in business for a long time, you will get the payback. If you're not planning on being in business in five years, why are you going in business right now?
Mind Body & Spirits is located at 301 S. Main St., Rochester; 248-651-3663; mindbodyspirits.com.Jeff Broder does this interview column for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org