How Claire Sprouse Built a Zero-Waste (and Un-Preachy) Bar in Brooklyn
With its whimsical colored walls, dangling monstera plants, and retro tiling, Hunky Dory has all the markings of another trendy all-day café in Brooklyn. What sets this spot apart is the lens through which owner Claire Sprouse envisions every aspect of the menu, like determining if carrot peels or tops from one dish can serve as a garnish for a cocktail, or if dehydrating strawberries from last summer will result in delicious berry-forward cocktails in the middle of the winter.
For Sprouse, the main goal is to minimize her restaurant waste in a creative, productive way “I had a chef tell me one time that wasted food is wasted flavors and wasted opportunities to learn,” she says. “I just love the idea of using waste to create even better things, so not just throwing together something in a glass so we can say that we’re zero waste, but really taking it to the next level with the flavors and creativity.”
When Hunky Dory opened in the dead of winter, the only things in season were potatoes and “a lot of starchy things,” says Sprouse. Instead of using out-of-season or canned tomatoes for their Bloody Mary, she decided to use a carrot base. “The kitchen uses those carrot tops in the beef cheeks dish, and we do a puree and pickle some of the other carrot parts so it has the same sort of flavor profile [as a Bloody Mary]. It’s unique and tastes really fresh because this is when you should be eating carrots. There’s nothing better than eating vegetables when they’re in their prime, and sometimes, we forget to extend that to drinks.”
Sprouse says that in order to be truly lasting, sustainability efforts shouldn’t just come from a bar manager or a chef. “It really has to be something everyone is aware of and is part of the language we speak, so that we’re all working towards that goal,” she says. From a management perspective, Sprouse says she always takes the time to explain the impact certain choices have. “That helps people absorb it better. Like, having the time to circle back and share these small decisions like changing the heads on our sinks to be more low flow.”
The easiest way to approach sustainability behind the bar is to take down an inventory of where waste is occuring; in a restaurant, that can include water waste from leftover ice at the end of the night, food waste, or even receipt paper. “I also want to be transparent on the fact that there’s a lot of things that we’ll envision will be sustainable, but then we don’t have the budget or the setup to be able to do them,” Sprouse says. “I think that helps make [sustainability] more actionable and approachable for a lot of people.”
When it comes to staying creative and waste-free, Sprouse swears by Hunky Dory’s dehydrator. “If I had to buy one piece of equipment to do more to cut down to food waste, it would be a dehydrator. We’ll have leftover garnishes like citrus peels that we can throw in there overnight, or herbs that might only be good for another day or so can go there to preserve them and use them for spice blends.”
Despite the well-intentioned commitment to weaving sustainable practices into as many aspects of the menu as possible, Sprouse warns against getting preachy.
“Our menu is written intentionally not to just hit people over the head with this. I’d say that 80% of the people who come in are regulars. They’re just here to take a step away from their house, not to get a lecture, so I like to drop hints, in a way,” she says. “We have a drink with sunflower seeds which I use to replace almonds—a traditional cocktail ingredient—but sunflower seeds are so much more sustainable. When people see that, they ask questions and they’re curious and excited about learning, so it’s not just, Oh here comes the soapbox.”
Sprouse isn’t expecting people to leave Hunky Dory to go home and make sunflower seed syrup, rather she approaches the entire sustainability conversation with measured optimism and practicality. “But, they might start thinking about what they do with their apple scraps after they make pie next time," she hopes. "It’s fun to engage and have these conversation, it makes this place feel like an active community member, not just a bar or a restaurant.”