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Local restaurateurs incorporate sustainable building practices into their eateries

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Designing, building and integrating sustainable features into the restaurant industry is picking up steam here in San Diego.

Several restaurant owners and chefs have been teaming up with farmers and other entrepreneurs to incorporate locally grown foods in their menus to provide fresh, organic food to customers and foodies. Some, however, have gone a step further to incorporate sustainable design into the restaurants themselves.

Trish Watlington, owner of The Red Door Restaurant & Wine Bar and The Wellington in Mission Hills, is one of these people. Her establishments are neighboring restaurants that serve farm-to-table eats and water-to-plate dishes like fish from off the coast of Baja California and San Diego. She even uses ingredients grown at her own farm at her home in Mt. Helix.

“We are trying to educate our guest as well,” Watlington said. “Over the year, you can’t get anything at anytime, like asparagus or certain fishes because they are not in season.”

The hanging wall garden at Terra American Bistro, designed by the Good Earth Planet Company, provides chef Jeff Rossman with herbs for his dishes. Rossman and other local chefs have made an effort to operate in restaurants built with green practices. Photo courtesy of PlainClarity Communications

Watlington said that 99 percent of customers understand and know they are giving up selection for freshness, adding that certain menu items change at least once a week because of what’s in season.

“People are making choices,” Watlington said. “There is a big movement to eat local and eat green.”

In her restaurants, Watlington uses materials like recycled denim jeans instead of fiber glass for insulation, as well as recycled furniture from secondhand stores and garage sales.

“We use recycled materials and get locally grown ingredients because we are trying to reduce our carbon footprint,” she said. “We are trying to eliminate the use of trucks and diesel-fueled engines to make our dishes.”

Another sustainable feature and trend in the restaurant business is to harvest your own ingredients like fruits and vegetables.

Jim Mumford, owner and president of Good Earth Plant Company Inc. and GreenScaped, has been leading the urban agriculture movement and building green walls for several years. Green walls act as a garden for fresh vegetables, fruits and ingredients that chefs can pick and use that day.

Three years ago, Mumford received a call from renowned chef and restaurateur Mario Batali, who wanted Mumford to build an edible garden atop one of his Hollywood eateries.

As Mumford tells the story, the restaurant had an old roof and no reliable access to it, so he proposed a vertical garden on the side of the restaurant next to the front door. “They loved it,” Mumford said.

“Green walls are something that goes in fast and relatively easy,” Mumford said. “They are expensive per square foot, but you don’t have to worry about water proofing (like green roofs) and you don’t have to worry about engineering. It’s almost like living art on your wall.”

What goes on the vertical garden at Mario Batali’s Pizzeria Mozza is ingredients that the chefs and cooks will use on a daily basis — like rosemary or mint — but only when the particular item runs out and you don’t have time to run to the store that second.

Mumford added that the challenge with vertical gardens is letting the chefs and whoever is picking the veggies and fruits off the wall that the garden is not a farm. It is meant to be more of a beautification of an eatery, and to tell a story of locally grown organic food and the sustainable slow growing movement.

“I can’t design it where you are cutting this on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and you get down to Sunday and boom you are back to cutting it on Monday,” Mumford said.

“At 6:30 p.m. when your restaurant is cranking, you can have a guy run out there with a pair of scissors and a colander and cut some things off and create the illusion that everything is coming from that wall.”

At her home in Mt. Helix, Watlington and her husband have a half-acre garden where they harvest tomatoes, lemons, arugula, turnips, radishes, strawberries and anything else they would need.

Trish Watlington, owner of Red Door and The Wellington in Mission Hills, uses ingredients from her farm at her home in Mt. Helix. The terraced garden was built by Urban Plantation. Staff photo by Marie Tutko

“Every morning I will go out and plant and pick what is needed,” she said.

“We also have a management company that maintains the garden and does everything but the harvesting.”

Watlington added that she hired the management company because it’s too time consuming to run two restaurants and maintain the garden, as well.

“It takes about 20-30 hours a week to keep up the garden,” she said.

Watlington said sustainability and reducing her carbon footprint have always been important to her and her husband of 30 years, who is a silent partner in the family businesses.

“I grew up in the 1960s, we have both always been lovers of nature,” Watlington said. “We are hikers and backpackers.”

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