If you’re looking for good advice on the food industry, a restaurant that’s been serving up award-winning barbeque for the last 40 years is a wise place to start. Since first opening their doors in 1975, The County Line Bar-B-Q has seen some historic changes – orders are no longer taken by hand, the menu has grown to include healthier choices, and even the restaurant’s interior has shifted from the 50’s-roadhouse style it began with to the more eclectic décor it flaunts today. And when it comes to food waste reduction, the techniques have undoubtedly improved over time – not only motivated by the environmental impact, but by the “bottom line” as well.
“Really, if there’s any waste, it’s just money lost,” says Don “Skeeter” Miller, owner of The County Line, Inc. Skeeter’s restaurants primarily use Keep Austin Fed after catered events leave them with surplus food – but even then, he says, they have gotten very, very good at preparing just enough food to feed the event. “No food from catered events is allowed to be brought back to the restaurant. We prepare today to get us through lunch tomorrow,” Skeeter explains. “Nothing is here for two days.” And that’s not easy – The County Line’s signature slow-cooked barbeque is pampered for 18-20 hours before ending up on a hungry customer’s plate, and each side dish is made from scratch. Charts and spreadsheets created over the years have helped the restaurant identify areas of waste and act to reduce that waste. Skeeter tells of how the cabbage used in the restaurant’s coleslaw was ordered in 50-pound recyclable bags for years. After the cabbage was cut for the slaw, massive amounts of leaves used to end up in the trash. Today, the cabbage is ordered pre-cut, and the waste is minimal. A similar tale is told regarding ketchup and salad dressing – condiments used to be ordered in cans, but are now ordered ‘by the recyclable bag’ so waste is reduced. “It does cost more,” Skeeter admits, “but in the end the savings are substantial.”
Although food waste is most often dealt with by The County Line well before a need for food rescue presents itself, the partnership between the restaurant and Keep Austin Fed has covered a lot of ground – Skeeter was first introduced to KAF through co-founder Randy Rosens while speaking at a sustainability event a few years ago, and has been close for years with KAF Executive Director Susan Nahkunst through both family ties and mutual involvement in Austin’s restaurant industry. Skeeter, the current Chapter President of the Greater Austin Restaurant Association (GARA), also called on KAF for one of the food rescue organization’s largest projects – the closing of Cannoli Joe’s back in 2013. That massive haul of surplus food resulted in, among other wins, a beautiful Valentine’s Day dinner for survivors of domestic violence at SafePlace. The County Line has also volunteered their expansive freezer and walk-in cooler space, finding room for emergency storage to prevent thousands of pounds of surplus food from going bad.
Marketing Director Scott Ziskovsky and Special Events Director Vanessa Tobias brought up another interesting facet to the KAF partnership – the mutual marketing advantage it creates. The County Line has begun including the Keep Austin Fed relationship in their contracts with catering companies, conveying the importance of food rescue to brides planning their barbeque-catered weddings, and promoting KAF while hosting events for organizations like the International Special Events Society. Everyone wins as a result – customers of The County Line know they’re doing business with a responsible and waste-conscious restaurant, and the message of Keep Austin Fed is spread to audiences that might not otherwise hear it.
Beyond their relationship with Keep Austin Fed, Skeeter and The County Line have been at the forefront of food waste reduction in Austin’s restaurant industry for a while now – experience that matters especially now, as Austin has set the goal of reducing the amount of trash sent to landfills by 90% by 2040. One major step toward Austin’s Zero Waste goal was the passing of the Universal Recycling Ordinance (URO), which requires owners of properties like apartment complexes and restaurants to provide recycling services to their tenants and employees. The County Line was one of a handful of Austin restaurants to sign up for the URO Pilot Program, designed to provide the city with quantifiable data to aid in the decision to pass the aggressive legislation. Over several weeks, The County Line and other restaurants reported daily on the level of trash, compost, and single-stream recycling from their facilities. Skeeter says one of the most surprising results of those reports was the low level of trash – almost everything was able to be composted or recycled. The restaurant’s willingness to experiment with real-life application of waste-reduction policies also led to interesting discoveries and new ideas regarding recycling encouragement among employees vs. customers, as well as things like using residential-sized trash carts for compost instead of dumpsters. “A standard dumpster filled with compost is literally too heavy for a garbage truck to lift,” Skeeter laughs. “I’ve seen the wheels actually come off the ground!”
Moving forward, the barbeque restaurants plan to continue blazing a trail toward greater food waste reduction, not only finding creative new ways to reduce waste within their own restaurants – one idea being explored now is a way to utilize rib ends, which are too small to serve customers but still incredibly delectable – but pushing Austin’s entire restaurant industry toward practical application of waste reduction policies. “Education over time is the only way,” Skeeter explains. “There’s definitely a learning curve.” But as this legendary Austin barbeque restaurant looks back on 40 years in business, perhaps no one can better attest to the historic changes that can happen over time.