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Restaurateurs react to proposed plastics ban

Local owners give their two cents on how the ban would affect bottom lines

February 25th, 2020 2:22 PM

By Melissa Elsmo

Food Writer

Oak Park is poised to ban single-use plastics and polystyrene foam containers in Oak Park restaurants, after village trustees approved a plan presented by the Environment and Energy Commission on Feb. 10. 

The commission would like to see a law banning single-use plastics to take effect in July.

Highlights of the proposal include defining and subsequently banning all "single-use plastics" from restaurants, taking money from the Sustainability Fund to offer restaurants a one-time $200 incentive to help with conversion costs, orchestrating a "soft implementation" period to help restaurants adjust and introducing noncompliance fines.

"There was no business representation at the hearing and that was unfortunate," said Environment and Energy Commissioner Laura Derks.

Several local restaurant owners had varied reactions and opinions regarding the potential ban. Some were not ready to speak publicly about it. However, most owners were unaware of the proposed ban. All were in favor of green initiatives, but many worried about an ordinance being punitive.

Trattoria 225 owner Bill Quick said he tries to do the right things for the environment and his customers, but thinks village trustees and commissioners do not understand how their decisions impact small businesses -- especially independent restaurants with tight profit margins.

"The idea of a $200 rebate is insulting, really," said Quick, "especially when all the policies that affect restaurants, from liquor licenses to sidewalk fees are always going up in Oak Park."

Trattoria 225 has voluntarily eliminated all Styrofoam from operations and has curbed the use of single-use straws by 80 percent just by asking customers if they would like one. 

The bags the establishment uses for to-go orders, however, cost less than half a cent each; replacing those bags with a paper equivalent would raise the cost per unit to 10 cents or more, said Quick. Carry-out and delivery orders account for approximately 10 percent of Trattoria 225's business.

"This is a tough business in Oak Park," said Quick. "I would like to see the village work with restaurants to help change habits rather than just handing down ordinances that cost us more money without our input."

Derks said she recognizes such an ordinance would represent a "culture shift" for restaurants and patrons. She suggested restaurants "should raise their prices" to ease the burden of added expenses the ordinance may cause eateries.

"The proposed ordinance had broad support on the board," said Derks, "but the board also understands the need for input from restaurants to define the ordinance."

Kettlestrings Tavern co-owner Rob Guenthner chimed in via email saying, "If passed, a proposed plastics ban in Oak Park, while disruptive to historical operating methodologies and impacting operating returns, is an operating challenge that can and will be overcome with innovation and ingenuity. There simply is no other choice because, as a business, we ultimately must deliver what our customers demand and desire."

 Michelle Mascaro of The Happy Apple made eco-conscious choices when building her business and suggested cooperative economics could help restaurants get on board with the ordinance should it pass.

"For places that will be challenged to retrofit their takeout packaging, I can see how it will require rethinking," wrote Mascaro via email. "We are Oak Park, so why not do something creative and different? Food businesses might consider ordering together in bulk to substantially reduce costs. This is a concept to be explored."

The Environment and Energy Commission put a year and a half of research into their recommendation. Derks indicated the commission knows education will be an essential part of implementation but opted to recommend a strong ordinance banning single use plastics, because voluntary efforts were not working effectively to curb their use in restaurants.

Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, who owns a restaurant in Oak Park, cast the lone vote against drafting the proposed ordinance. He is supportive of an educational program, resolution or proclamation encouraging eco-conscious practices in Oak Park restaurants but does not see how this ordinance could be enforced village wide. He openly questioned who would be responsible for inspecting restaurants' supply purchases.

"We only have one planet and I am the first person to say green choices are the best choices," said Abu-Taleb of the proposed ban, "but I will not support any ordinance that makes restaurant owners intimidated to do business in Oak Park."

Abu Taleb said his own restaurant, Maya Del Sol, is largely compliant with the proposed ban. He noted, however, this type of ordinance would not impact operations at premium casual restaurants in the same way it could potentially impact fast food establishments.

The mayor went on to indicate that Oak Park has more supply than demand when it comes to available restaurant spaces. Abu-Taleb is convinced those vacancies are a result of the high taxes and regulations small businesses face in the village. 

"People who don't have small businesses don't understand what small businesses go through," said Abu-Taleb. "They have changes coming at them all the time from local and non-local agencies and all levels of government."

Restaurants should expect to receive information about the proposed ordinance and a request for feedback from the village in the coming weeks.

Contact:
Email: melissa@oakparkeats.com

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