Why the 'First Sustainable Sushi Restaurant in the World' Won't Serve Bluefin Tuna
Chances are you’ve heard rumblings about a change of tide in our oceans: The speculation by scientists that the world’s supply of fish could run out as soon as 2048. The prediction that in 50 years, there won’t be any salmon left in California. You may have even recognized—though it may pain you—that it’s partly our love of sushi that may be responsible for sapping our oceans of their natural inhabitants, especially the bluefin tuna, a staple of many sushi restaurants. You want to eat fish—you love to eat fish, even—but the truth is, eating certain types of fish can hurt the environment. Is there a solution? Is there a way to enjoy sushi without the guilt of knowing the process by which it got to your plate is, frankly, destroying the environment? One entrepreneur, who began his career in Silicon Valley, thinks so.
Kristofor Lofgren founded Sustainable Restaurant Group in 2009. He’s now the CEO of the Portland-based company, which boasts two restaurants—Bamboo Sushi and Quickfish Poke Bar—with a total of seven locations, including in Seattle and Denver. It’s Bamboo Sushi that stands out though—it’s the first sustainable sushi restaurant in the world. Lofgren tells Food and Wine that that means every piece of fish that is served at his restaurants must pass the Monterey Aquarium’s sustainability standards (which you can read all about here). In 2017, the restaurant group also achieved carbon neutrality (which means the restaurants have a net zero carbon footprint).
Lofgren says “there was a lot of luck to us being in Oregon,” where businesses can purchase green energy through the power companies, allowing his restaurants to run on solar and wind energy, but that he might have been better off building Bamboo Sushi in a state like New York, where he would have better access to sustainably sourced fish. Lofgren, however, began SRG after working mostly in tech (before that, he graduated from the University of California Berkeley in the hopes of becoming an environmental lawyer). He knew that he “wanted to do well for myself,” but he also had the nagging impression that he just wasn’t doing enough to give back to a world that blessed with better opportunities than most.
“I was a white man born in the United States to two loving parents. That’s as good as you can get,” he says. “I wanted to find a way to give back.”
Lofgren was immediately drawn the restaurant industry, which is the largest employer in America, and one of the “stepping stones” toward the American Dream. It’s a space that “has a huge impact in terms of human health and immigration and childhood obesity,” and so Lofgren decided to focus his energy there.
“It’s fancy and glamorous to work in tech, but if you could do something in the restaurant industry that would pay people, so that farmers and fisherman could live better, who are the backbone of the restaurant industry, and bring healthier food to people—it’s an industry that could use more good people working in it,” he explains.
Once he decided that he wanted to create the world’s first sustainable sushi restaurant, Lofgren set up an arduous, but effective process for screening which animals can be served at his restaurants. Often times, that means traveling to far-flung places like New Zealand (from where he recently returned from) to inspect the fisheries (SRG works with aquaculture farms) that he sources his fish from. He and his team must check that the fish are living in hygienic spaces, preferably in their natural habitat, that the fish are being fed properly, and that the stocks aren’t being treated with antibiotics and hormones. From there, he looks at how the fish are “killed, handled, transported, and iced.” Once he’s established working relationships with a farm, he has to return less and less to make sure their practices are still meeting his high standards—he’s worked with the same salmon fishermen for seven of nine years he’s been in business—but he also notes that he might work with a fishery for a season, and then end the relationship if they don’t “check all those boxes.”
All of this hard work a necessity if you’re running a restaurant committed to sustainability, but Lofgren decided to take his mission a step further: Bamboo Sushi does not serve Bluefin tuna, which according to Lofgren, is considered the “backbone” of many sushi restaurants.
“It was the biggest stand we could make,” Lofgren says. “The stocks of wild Bluefin tuna are coming back a lot, but it’s still technically endangered.”
Bamboo Sushi occupies a lonely place. How much difference can one single sushi restaurant really make by refusing to serve a still wildly popular fish? Even Lofgren often feels conflicted about the role SRG plays in repairing the environment.
“We have made a huge difference,” Lofgren says, rather reassuringly. “[But] 140 million metric tons of seafood get caught every year. Every year we buy a little over a million pounds [of seafood]. Globally speaking, it’s a drop in the bucket. Sometimes it feels like we’re swimming upstream.”
As more and more people are trying out healthy or “clean eating” diets, Lofgren chooses to remain positive, remarking that "we’re more needed in the world than ever before." His fish are caught at the “height of seasonality,” which ensures that the resulting sushi has a “freshness and brightness,” that you can’t find at restaurants where fish is frozen for long periods of time (though Lofgren is quick to clarify that freezing fish does not automatically make it bad). 80 percent of the fish used at SRG restaurants are also caught in U.S. waters, meaning that Lofgren is often times working with “small multi-generational fishing operations.”
At Bamboo Sushi eating raw fish is as much about flavor and texture as it is about social responsibility. Lofgren and SRG have transformed eating into activism, and given customers the opportunity to not just eat something they love, but help preserve the environment at the same time. Lofgren’s restaurants draw a clear connection between the food on the plate and the ocean it came from—and while it that might assuage your guilt a little bit about your sushi dinner, it also goes a long way toward repairing the damage that sushi has already done.