In the quickly growing world of sustainable, local, organic healthy food, "chain" is something of a dirty word. Ever since I left the suburb where I grew up, I've turned my nose up at most restaurants that require their servers to wear corporate-regulated flair, for example, or that serve iceberg lettuce. And I'm not ashamed of my snobbishness. Ubiquitous chain restaurants, which often serve culturally bland food in identical branded settings, stifle the potential charm and uniqueness of many neighborhoods.
But in seeking a sustainable world, is the answer to eliminate the problem entirely, or to re-imagine the chain business model in a way that's respectably sustainable? Last week, a few of us from the Worldchanging office had lunch at a new Capitol Hill outpost of a chain that's trying – and, in many ways, succeeding – at changing the chain paradigm for the better.
Pizza Fusion, which opened recently on the ground floor of the Trace Lofts on 12th Ave. between Madison and Pike, is the 9th working location in a Florida-based chain that's growing at breakneck speed (there are already 11 more at various stages of startup development around the country).
To be sure, the buzzword-loaded marketing surrounding Pizza Fusion -- Fresh. Organic. Earth Friendly; Saving the Earth, One Pizza at a Time. -- had me primed for some impressive greenwashing. I had a long conversation with the franchise co-owner, Kevin York, to see what "walking the walk" means for a chain establishment.
Though a longtime entrepreneur, York admits he's a newcomer to the world of sustainable business. He credits his 8-year-old daughter, the self-appointed recycling czar of his household, with inspiring him to change his thinking. When we met, he proudly rattled off the list of green accomplishments. Among the most visible boasting points: the building is LEED certified (Washington state's first restaurant to earn the distinction), delivery orders are transported via bike, scooter and hybrid, and there's a monthly free "organics" class for kids (the Capitol Hill location will start this up in January).
There's the slightly less obvious: Most of the furnishings, including the tables, chairs and hardwood floor, were salvaged from local institutions including the Sunset Bowl and Garfield High School. And the all-organic menu includes many options for vegetarians, vegans and those who can't tolerate gluten or dairy.
Finally, there are sustainability points even below the surface: the chain offsets its carbon emissions with wind power certificates, and offers benefits to full-time employees.
One thing that impressed us most was the freedom that Pizza Fusion allows its franchise owners. York told us that many of the building and decorating materials he selected are unique to his restaurant, and sourced in Seattle. Though the slick interior design still includes clear nods to HQ, the local materials and salvage do a lot to preserve character. York also has the option to look locally for ingredients and menu items if he chooses. He has already added Molly Moon ice creams and sorbets, which are made in Wallingford using organic, Washington-produced ingredients, to his dessert list. And he earnestly listened and noted our suggestions for sourcing more of his vegetables and other ingredients from Washington farmers. We liked his willingness to admit he's still learning, and his open attitude toward make changes to the restaurant as he goes.
Could Pizza Fusion be a precursor to a wave of more sustainable large-scale businesses? As the now-modest chain continues to grow in size and scope, we'll have to keep an eye on it to see whether "sustainable" and "mass" can find a long-term happy medium.
Photo credit: Pizza Fusion