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Running a restaurant is a hard work, but for Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint, the restaurant is just the beginning. With their new downtown San Francisco spot, The Perennial, and the nonprofit they've founded alongside it, the couple is looking to create more than just a successful eatery. They want to use their restaurant as a platform to combat climate change.
It's a lofty goal, but then, Myint, 38, and Leibowitz, 39, have a better chance of pulling it off than most. The husband-and-wife team has been making waves in the food world for almost a decade. Back in 2008, they founded Mission Street Food, an irreverent, cross-cultural pop-up in San Francisco's Mission District that eventually morphed into the mega-popular Mission Chinese Food. The pop-up scene was still in its infancy then, and their confidence in mixing genres to create dishes like duck confit nachos and Vietnamese caprese salads quickly gained them followers and critical accolades.
After Mission Chinese took on a life of its own with their friend, chef Danny Bowien, at the helm, the couple stayed busy. They helped open a few more S.F. restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Commonwealth, and wrote a book, Mission Street Food, about their pop-up experiences. Leibowitz, who was an English major in college, also co-authored the 2015 cookbook, Atelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of Taste, with acclaimed chef Dominique Crenn.
The couple's restaurants have always had a charitable componenta and a portion of the proceeds frequently get donated to organizations like the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, but a few years ago Leibowitz and Myint began to feel like they could do more. They began to focus their attention on climate change, and how they could use the restaurant as a platform to raise awareness about the environmental impact of food and farming.
They chose small strategies, like swapping out energy-hogging appliances and using recycled materials, and big ones, like setting up their own urban aquaponic farm, baking with Kernza, the only perennial grain on the market, and working with a carbon-friendly ranch. Myint also helped co-found Zero Foodprint, a non-profit that helps restaurants reduce their carbon footprint.
All of their research found a home in the Perennial, where they set out to make the most environmentally responsible restaurant possible, without sacrificing the comfort of the diners or quality of the food.
"We've always said we wanted to create a restaurant where there isn't a sacrifice—where you can be sustainable and delicious at the same time," says Leibowitz.
Like their other projects, the Perennial seemed like the product of an outrageous dare, but it's one that Leibowitz and Myint have worked hard to live up to. These are the conditions that help them thrive.
"For me, that sensation of being over my head when Mission Street Food and Mission Chinese Food took off has really been formative for my character as a business person," says Leibowitz. "Anthony and I both enjoy taking on big projects and feeling a little overwhelmed, then learning a lot. We like doing things in a way that no one has done before—which can feel scary, but is also really rewarding."
Now that the Perennial, has been up and running for about eight months, the couple is turning their attention beyond the restaurant. With a third partner, Nathan Kaufman, the couple recently launched the Perennial Farming Initiative, a nonprofit organization dedicated to combating climate change. This means that they're raising money, including through a Barnraiser campaign, to help explore initiatives that could help mitigate climate change and respond to its impacts on the food system. Projects include assisting farmers with buying compost to spread across their fields—the expensive first step of building more carbon-rich soil.
"When you think of a rancher who has 100 acres, a quarter-inch layer of compost to an acre is 35 cubic yards of compost. One acre is like $600 to $1,000 depending on the season and logistics of transportation," Myint explains. "For that farmer to decide to add compost to the whole farm, it's $60,000 to $100,000. Let's have consumers who care about these things help pay for them."
If running multiple restaurants and overseeing two non-profits weren't enough, the couple is also petitioning the state legislature to fund California's Healthy Soils Initiative, which could have a big impact on the way soil absorbs carbon. And Leibowitz is taking notes for a Perennial book, one that could reach an audience much broader than a fine-dining restaurant.
It's a lot for any couple, especially one with a four-year-old daughter, but they manage to find balance. "I wouldn't be able to do this with another person—Anthony and I have really complimentary skills," Leibowitz says.
She also points to all the partnerships they've made over the past decade, and will continue to make, as essential to helping her and Myint accomplish their lofty goals. "Anthony and I have a very collaborative relationship with the people we work with," she says. "We tend to be the ones setting things in motion, but we're not the only ones who are keeping the ball spinning. We have a lot of momentum going."
Support the Barnraiser by September 30: Help Launch The Perennial Farming Initiative - a new 501c3
F&W is thrilled to partner on a this series about the American Food System with the award-winning CivilEats.com, run by Naomi Starkman and Twilight Greenaway. Here, the site's expert contributors will share interviews and news about the entrepreneurs and activists making a difference right now.