Jennifer Ellis Hughes and son, Mibby, show some of the biodegradable straws Jennifer has introduced at her Elizabethton restaurant, City Market, which made the switch from plastic straws earlier this year.

Balancing the demands of running a business with concerns for the well-being of the environment is sometimes a difficult balance to strike, but some area eateries are trying to do their part with small steps that they hope will lead to great good.

Banning plastic straws is one step, many say, in the right direction.

According to the organization, plastic straws are one of the top 10 pieces of garbage polluting the ocean. The question for small businesses is often what can be done that might make a difference in the problem while also being economically viable.

Hard to find

Smoky Mountain Bakers in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, is an establishment offering brick oven-fired pizza and other baked goods. Owners Tim and Crystal Decker made the switch to biodegradable straws “awhile ago.”

“We have to order them special online because they’re hard to find, and they’re much more expensive, but we feel good about the switch,” explained Crystal Decker.

“Some people notice and are appreciative,” she added.

In many ways, small independent eateries can point the way forward even as some of the largest food and drink chains in the world have already begun exploring ways to eliminate single-use plastic items from their menus.

For example, Starbucks has announced plans to discontinue the use of all plastic straws in its 28,000 stores worldwide by 2020 with the objective of creating less plastic waste. Fast-food giant McDonald’s announced a switch to paper straws in the United Kingdom and Ireland, but the chain is still testing non-plastic straws for its U.S. locations.

The Deckers and others demonstrate that there’s a great deal that small business can do to take little steps toward satisfying a commitment to a healthier environment for everyone.

Work in progress

For some business owners, the search for the perfect alternative to the plastic straw is still a work in progress. Nicole Dyer, the owner of White Birch Juice and Food in Abingdon, Virginia, made the switch to biodegradable straws about a year ago.

“Currently, we offer a compostable paper straw,” Dyer said.

She’s still looking for a better one, though. “The current ones we have are not our favorite,” she said. “They fall apart way too easily. We are actually in the process of switching to compostable corn ones.”

The process of finding an alternative to plastic straws has been a slow process of trial and error for the eatery.

“They are a bit trickier to find through our distributor,” Dyer said. “They were not even in stock when we first started to order them. … Now there are more companies producing these straws, so we don’t have near as much trouble stocking them.”

The decision to make the switch from plastic straws wasn’t a difficult one to make, Dyer said. “We deeply care about every product we use, from the fruits and vegetables, meat, containers and even straws,” she said. “We strive to be the most sustainable, eco-friendly business we can be.”

Dyer said that she is “extremely conscious” about the ingredients used at her eatery.

“We support dozens of local farms and businesses on a daily basis and choose to use only local, sustainably raised meats, eggs and as much produce as possible,” she said. “We even feed our juice pulp scraps to a local pig farm, where we also purchase pork sausage.”

By taking small but workable steps, Dyer hopes that she’s leading by example, and other restaurants may follow the trend in dumping plastic straws.

“We have already seen many other eateries doing the same,” Dyer said.

Trial and error

Jennifer Ellis Hughes, the owner and operator of City Market in Elizabethton, Tennessee, experienced the same trial-and-error approach to finding the right alternative to plastic straws. She began experimenting with paper straws in the first quarter of 2019.

“We originally went with a lighter-weight paper straw due to expense and lack of experience, but customers were unhappy, and it was not durable,” Hughes explained.

Responding to feedback from customers helped her select another alternative. “We changed to a heavier-duty straw,” Hughes said, “and it was approved by the majority of our customers.”

Like Dyer, she had difficulties finding a source for such straws. “My food service company does not offer paper straws, and I had to utilize an online supplier,” Hughes said. “I believe food service suppliers will add this item in the future.”

Two of Hughes’ sons, Mibby, 19, and Matthew, 17, helped encourage her to make the switch to non-plastic straws.

“We were traveling when we first used paper straws,” Hughes said. “This initiated a conversation regarding environmental friendliness and the danger of plastic straws in oceans and waterways.”

Hughes said that Mibby, especially, and Matthew both encouraged her to make the change. “The younger generation,” she said, “seems much more committed to protecting the environment.”

Mibby works at City Market while he attends college, and his mother noted that he is especially passionate regarding the environment.

Hughes worked hard to educate customers about the benefits of non-plastic straws.

“There has been some resistance,” she said. “In many cases … when we explain the reasoning, most customers agree.”

For those customers unconvinced, they bring their own straws or simply do not use a straw, which is still a win for the environment.

Hughes said she understands why some people might resist alternatives to plastic straws. “There is a significant difference in texture that takes getting used to,” she said. “In most cases, the customers have grown accustomed to the new straws. However, there are a few that will not give it a shot. I value those customers and understand their desire to use a product more comfortable to them.”

Hughes noted that she has a very faithful City Market customer base. “We are very appreciative of their continued support and are honored to serve them,” she said. “Our customers often times become friends. Those friendships/relationships are so important to the City Market family.”

Small step

For Hughes, getting rid of plastic straws at her eatery is only a small step on the path to greater environmental sustainability.

“There are many environmental ways in which we need to improve,” she said. “It is a slow process, but I am committed to making some changes.”

For instance, City Market has begun to utilize some reusable serving baskets.

“Change will not happen overnight, but it will come,” Hughes said. “It is difficult to make several changes at once because it is uncomfortable to the customer.”

Mibby and Matthew, as well as an older son, Nathanael, who is 26, continually encourage their mother to implement practices that support environmental sustainability.

“One suggestion by my boys has been to compost our scraps,” Hughes said. “This is very common in other areas of the country. We have a good relationship with ‘Friends of Roan Mountain.’ They always encourage us to be more environmentally conscious.”

World always changing

Hughes has in many ways been a pioneer in operating a business while still remaining friendly to the environment.

“I am especially proud that City Market was the first eatery in Elizabethton to go smoke-free,” she said. “We made the change to smoke-free in the mid-1990s prior to the legislation that required other eating establishments (in Tennessee) to do the same.”

At the time of that decision, she said her restaurant offered too small a space to please everyone. “There just was not enough room to offer smoking and non-smoking sections,” Hughes explained. “There was a lot of resistance at first to going smoke-free.”

Some longtime customers stopped supporting her business. However, many new people gave the eatery a try.

“The smoke-free atmosphere actually became an advantage in the restaurant market place,” Hughes said, which makes her feel that ending single-use plastic by implementing such changes as non-plastic straws will do the same.

“Our world is always changing, and we have to be ready to change with it,” Hughes said. “One thing that will not change is our desire for good food.”

She expressed confidence that City Market can weather coming changes and continue to offer good food well into the future — a future made more secure through some small steps taken today.

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