Why is it that a Google search for “unique restaurants in the United States” offers 4,690,000 results, a Google search for “sustainable restaurants in the United States” offers 1,220,000 results, and a Google search for “unique sustainable restaurants in the United States” offers only 665,000 results?

Is it really that difficult for a local restaurant to be unique AND sustainable?

The answer is a solid NOPE.

Here are 5 local restaurants that effectively demonstrate how unique business models work well when they also focus on being sustainable.

Sloco, Nashville TN

What does a neighborhood hangout that makes amazing sandwiches with a focus on sustainable ingredients have in common with the fast food industry?

The answer… more than you would think.

This is the story of a successful merging of two culinary, and polar opposite, worlds – just one of the many feats that make Chef Jeremy Barlow and his passion project something to keep an eye on.

Welcome to Sloco – the unique sandwich shop that sustainably cures and brines their meats from whole animals, makes their own mustard, and bakes their own bread daily – all while offering this food, well, fast.

If you’re wondering how that is possible just ask the chef himself.

In a 2012 interview with QSR Magazine Barlow summed his restaurant up saying, “Sloco is a made up word… In the beginning, it did not mean anything, but it has grown into a concept: making affordable sandwiches with real food, and the potential to bring this food to lots of people. It is also about the opportunity to mimic the success of the fast food industry, the industry that changed our food system, with new a ‘food fast’ system.”

Fast-forward six years. Barlow’s “food fast” system has proven to be successful, without sacrificing his commitment to offer community-oriented, sustainable, local, and organic food.

To make sure he achieves optimal restaurant sustainability, Barlow lives by the motto “If it’s not in season, we don’t have it.” This and the fact that Sloco provides their source farmers with compost ensures that the restaurant maintains a healthy and productive relationship with local farmers while allowing costs to remain affordable for all involved.

In an effort to keep things green Sloco not only offers recycling, but also makes the division of said recycling easy for customers through the use of clearly marked bins – trash, recyclables, compost, and glass.

In addition to being a sustainable restaurateur, Barlow is also an author (Chef’s Can Save the World) and lobbyist who has addressed local, state, and federal governments to create positive change for his community. His lobbying efforts earned him the 2012 Sustainable Business Leader Award from Lipscomb University.   

Despite all of his accomplishments, Barlow is more than happy to keep Sloco as “that spot in a neighborhood where the locals gather.”

One Eared Stag, Atlanta GA

How do you make sure your story is heard in a city that many foodies consider to be a southern juggernaut of culinary excellence? If you’re Robert Phalen, the chef, and owner of One Eared Stag, you focus on sustainability and let your restaurant speak for itself.

Phalen may have been labeled Best Farm-to-Table Restaurant in Georgia by Travel + Leisure in 2016 but his understanding of food sustainability and love of fresh selections began much earlier when he spent summers picking peaches on his family’s farm as a child.

As Phalen grew through high school it became clear that he was destined to be a chef. After graduation, Phalen drew inspiration from education in Mississippi and Charleston until the peaches from his youth called him to the fresh markets of Atlanta.

Before Phalen became the widely respected chef that he is today, he cut his teeth in a variety of Atlanta’s American flavors from Mumbo Jumbo to MidCity Cuisine–Atlanta magazine’s 2003 award of “Restaurant of the Year”.

In 2008 Phalen made the move to venture out on his own and has never looked back. Phalen’s first venture, Holy Taco, was a restaurant that Hot Dish Review called “Phalen’s shrine to the tortilla” and a “Quirky spot that fits right in its East Atlanta neighborhood.”

After his taco days had run their course, Phalen took a big step up to open his farm-to-table One Eared Stag in 2011. Barely any time had passed when it became apparent that Phalen was doing things the right way. After only a year of business, StarChefs.com gave him their Rising Star award.

The awards haven’t stopped there. Today One Eared Stag is thriving and Phalen, it would seem, has fully returned to the sustainable experience from his childhood summer roots. As noted on their website, “Few Atlanta chefs source their ingredients as locally or sustainably as Phalen.”

From his locally sourced heritage pork chop and bone marrow with toast, to his radishes and goat cheese; Phalen looks exclusively to the local organic sustainable farming and fishery community to determine what comes next.

Boloco, Boston MA

It all started in Cincinnati, OH with some dog walking…

That may not sound like the start of a darn tasty burrito, but it makes a lot of sense when you take a closer look at the full picture.

The story of Boloco reads like an adventure novel. In over 30 decades of business, founders Greg Harris, Adam Leibman, and Jason Pepper have run through a variety of business models and business names while seeing many successes and just as many failures.

They refer to this on their website by saying, “Years ago, we made a choice to be different; to push the boundaries of what a restaurant can be. Inspired by our customers, we tried new things. Some of them worked, some of them didn’t. These successes and failures have made us who we are today.”

While the Boloco founders have no problem acknowledging their deficits it is important to draw attention to the fruitful results of their continuous trial and error.

Short for Boston Local Company, it is evident from their name that Boloco is community driven. Beyond the name, Boloco community efforts include Free Burrito Day fundraisers, English classes provided for all “English as a second language” (ESL) employees, and their continued work with Community Servings to provide food to people living with chronic illnesses.

When it comes to awards Boloco has acquired quite a few in the decades since they officially opened. Some were silly – “Boston’s Best” award from the Improper Bostonian for “Stupidest Name Change” and some were groundbreaking –  First fast-casual chain in New England to be Certified Green by the Green Restaurant Association (GRA).

To earn this green certification, Boloco committed to using all-natural meats, instituting a comprehensive recycling program with the aim of compost, and replacing all styrofoam cups with corn-based versions.

Even though Boloco’s green certification was awarded in 2008, they haven’t wavered from the sustainable efforts that grabbed the attention of the GRA.

Boloco explains their understanding of what it means to be sustainable saying, “It’s simply about using our restaurants to make our planet a better place. Today, it’s corn cups and bamboo bowls. It’s naturally-raised meats and organic tofu. It’s composting and recycling and reusing building materials… [using] LED lighting, low-flow waterheads, and Paperstone table tops and countertops [to] make a difference today. Tomorrow, who knows – the list will only grow. One thing that we do know, we’ll be there. Quietly leading the pack and slowly blazing the trail. Doing our part to help the earth without making a big deal of it. One baby step at a time. One burrito at a time.”

Bellagreen, Houston TX

With green in the name, it is easy to see all the wonderful sustainability they have to offer. The twist in this story is the amazing food that comes with it.

To understand why the food at Bellagreen is so good we have to first look at what makes them so, well, green. Let’s start with the stars, three green stars to be exact.

Bellagreen is a 3 Star Certified Green restaurant. This means that each of their 6 locations conducts their business in accordance with the qualifications set by the Green Restaurant Association (GRA).

In the eyes of the GRA, all Certified Green restaurants operate with a commitment to conserve water, utilize best practices in regards to waste reduction and recycling, use sustainable and durable goods – including building materials, use sustainable food, the conservation of energy, use reusable and environmentally preferred disposables, and chemical and pollution reduction.

These qualifications are easy to list in a neat little paragraph but the dedication required to make sure that every Bellagreen location keeps those three green stars takes more than just process. It takes a true belief in the functionality required to be an eco-conscious and sustainable restaurant.

Now let’s look at the other side of Bellagreen’s green… namely, their food.

Cooking with the freshest and highest quality ingredients is the only option at Bellagreen. They demand this because they strongly believe that these two traits are what make their food as flavorful as possible.

So, from their organic chickpeas and quinoa to their “Best Agricultural Practices” (BAP) certified seafood, Bellagreen sacrifices nothing to ensure that each dish will be the best that it can be.

When ordering one of Bellagreen’s made-from-scratch soups, salads, pizzas, entrees, and deserts, there is no bad choice – when it comes to freshness, Bellagreen is hard to beat. But… just to make sure that no one can even come close Bellagreen uses their fresh food preparations to address many dietary restrictions.

Because they prepare everything from scratch, Bellagreen can ensure that meals are modified to accommodate Gluten Free, Dairy Free, Vegetarian, Keto, paleo, Whole 30, and other restrictive diets.

Café Gratitude, Kansas City MO

Café Gratitude is proving that having a 100% organic plant-based menu can also provide some strong community roots.

They have developed this strength through a unique business practice they call “Sacred Commerce.” This means that they operate with the sole purpose of providing inspired service, honest and transparent communication, and express gratitude for the richness of life.

If you want proof that Sacred Commerce positively affects the community just ask those who enjoy Café Gratitude’s free Thanksgiving meal every year or those in the community who benefit from their various sponsored workshops and classes. Sacred Commerce isn’t the only sustainable Café Gratitude quality.

In an effort to increase their restaurant sustainability, Café Gratitude has installed solar panels, made all but one of their tables from reclaimed wood (some wood is from the restaurant’s second floor and some came from an old Kansas farm), made lights from old wine bottles, and repurposed lath (a thin strip of wood) from their second floor into many aspects on the first.

In addition, only offering biodegradable “to go” materials, they recycle anything that can be, including glass that they collect and take to a participating bin.

As you might expect, Café Gratitude composts any and all food scraps for use on their farm in Edgerton, KS. This farm is also responsible for producing as much of the Café’s organic produce as possible but, as Café Gratitude only serves the finest organic ingredients, and produce not available through their farm comes from their network of local farmers. Those farmers, in turn, utilize sustainable agriculture and environmentally friendly practices, which keep the positive cycle in full swing.

Café Gratitude is a positive and unique small business who invites anyone who steps inside to “enjoy being someone that chooses: loving your life, adoring yourself, accepting the world, being generous and grateful every day, and experiencing being provided for. Have fun and enjoy being nourished.”

Editor’s Note: Rubicon is not affiliated with the companies referenced in the blog post, and any references to companies in the post are not meant to convey an endorsement of Rubicon by those companies in any way.