Introducing sustainable and greener systems into a small business is believed to be costly, but some restaurants have found a way to make it work and cover their costs simultaneously. 

Plastic, food waste, and energy consumption are just some of many factors contributing to the climate crisis not only in South Africa, but the whole world. Recycling and zero-waste systems such as composting and reducing use of electricity are just some of the small ways to contribute to the fight against climate change. Even though the issue needs to be addressed on a much larger scale, by holding major corporations responsible, everyone can still do their bit. That is what some small locally owned restaurants and cafés in Johannesburg have done.

Baha Taco, The Little Deli and The Gourmet Grocer are three small businesses that have tried to implement more environmentally friendly methods in their businesses.  

Baha Taco is a Mexican restaurant in Norwood, Johannesburg. David Small and his wife first started the business at markets and various festivals in Johannesburg before settling for a brick-and-mortar space in Norwood, on Nellie Road. Their aim was to make authentic street food that also catered for vegetarians, as there were not many street food businesses that did this at festivals.  

“It is not as expensive as people think sometimes, and we are trying to keep that. If you eat a sausage that is 100% meat, you eat a lot less of it and you feel satisfied… whereas if you eat junk food, there is so much hidden salts and sugar, you keep consuming because your body starts craving it.”

Small had spent many years working around the world in countries such as America and even England, where he met his wife. They continued to work around the world, opening their own restaurants in countries they visited around Europe. Their menus consisted of various cuisines from around the world, but they chose to focus on one when they settled in South Africa. Apart from its focus on authentic Mexican food, Baha Taco takes a serious approach to implementing environmentally friendly methods throughout the restaurant and its operations.    

Baha Taco does not stock beverages produced by major corporations like Coca-Cola, for example. Small said they “do not sell Coca-Cola or any Coca-Cola-owned beverages because Coke is one of the largest contributors to pollution. Even though we are very small, we do not want to spend our money contributing to that.” 

Instead, some of the beverages they sell come from local suppliers in the area. For example, the kombucha they stock comes from an outlet nearby that makes and supplies it, and the water on sale is bottled and delivered by a local business down the road. The water comes in glass bottles and any empties are returned to be used again.  

Small said that at Baha Taco they have disconnected the hot water from their geyser. Hot water geysers contribute to energy consumption, in which power plants generate electricity that release fossil fuels. He said they are now able to save money on electricity and water bills. 

They also found another way to save water in the restaurant through the ice machine. While using their ice machine, Small found it was wasting up to 20 litres of water, so they decided to collect that water instead. “We made a small hole and connected a pipe which we use for anything like washing the dishes or watering the plants,” he said. 

Small said these ways of going green do not necessarily cost more money; if anything, they actually save. This is because by using suppliers in the area they eliminate the costs of more people, logistics and distribution. “There are less people involved and the circle is smaller, so the logistics and distribution cost less,” he said. 

In 2020, Alberton Record reported that an estimated 10 million tons of food go to waste in South Africa each year, and in January 2022 said food left rotting in landfills releases a greenhouse gas called methane that is “25 times stronger than carbon dioxide”.   

All things considered, at Baha Taco they are attentive and aware of the waste they produce. “Compared to how we handle our waste, and our neighbours handle their waste, they spew out 12 black drums a day, we do two thirds of one… We choose suppliers that can sell us loosely: I don’t want Styrofoam containers, punnets, the plastic from the meat… so we buy everything loose,” said Small. 

They are even able to help nearby grocers reduce their food waste. As Small was talking to Wits Vuvuzela, someone from the vegetable store across the road came with a box of slightly overripe bananas and brinjals. “When his stuff is a little bit wobbly, he brings it to us… for free, so we find ways to use them like the bananas as part of our dessert and stuff like that,” said Small.  

He added that they also get tomatoes from a nearby suburb. “They always have tomatoes that don’t look beautiful any more; they keep them and then call us. We sometimes get 40 to 50 kilos of tomatoes for, like, 100 bucks. Our red salsa that we make, we essentially get for a fifth of the price, so we are rotating and recycling stuff people won’t buy. It benefits us cost-wise a lot,” he said.  

The Little Deli is a small deli and café in Linden that Andrew Johnson and his wife opened after their catering business was forced to close because of the covid-19 pandemic. The lockdown meant they could not operate as a catering business, as everyone stayed home and such services were not needed during that period.  

Biodegradable straws and packaging are some of the many environmentally friendly initiatives that the Johnsons have introduced at The Little Deli in Linden as they believe that to be a better alternative to even recyclable plastic. Photo: Tylin Moodley 

Growing up in Zambia, Johnson was not accustomed to “junk food”. Upon having children, he became increasingly distressed over the amount of junk in food, and saw the differences between his lifestyle in Zambia and South Africa. Their ethos centred on food that used sustainable farming and 100% pure ingredients. 

With regard to “healthier food” being more expensive than “commercial” food, Johnson said, “It is not as expensive as people think sometimes, and we are trying to keep that. If you eat a sausage that is 100% meat, you eat a lot less of it and you feel satisfied… whereas if you eat junk food, there is so much hidden salts and sugar, you keep consuming because your body starts craving it. People who think it through, they actually eat a smaller portion and then that price balances out.”

Other than healthy food, The Little Deli takes recycling and food waste very seriously. The report stated that food waste “contributes towards 20% of the global greenhouse gas emissions released” and a proper system to combat this could stop 11% of the emissions. The Little Deli makes use of composting to help reduce their food waste.

“One thing we are manic about is recycling,” said Johnson. “For many years in the kitchen side, we separate everything, so we have buckets that take… any peelings, any vegetables or fruits. We have massive composts at the back. We separate everything out and recycle. We have people who come fetch from us or we take to known places that properly recycle.” 

Mpact is a packaging company that has seen an increase in demand for paper packaging. In August 2022 Business Live reported that roughly three or four years ago, Mpact did not produce a single paper bag for home deliveries. They now have a demand for “products that are considered to be more sustainable by brand owners and retailers”. 

At the Little Deli they have also taken a step towards sustainable packaging and replacements for plastic. All the products in their shop are biodegradable, even though Johnson said it is significantly more expensive. “I’m a big believer in biodegradable over recyclable because a lot of stuff, as we know, isn’t recyclable and ends up in a landfill. I personally think the future is biodegradable, because then it doesn’t matter where it ends up. Ideally you want it to end up in the proper place, but at the end of the day I’d much rather know that all that litter in a landfill, it might take two years, but it will biodegrade.”

The one way they are able to cover the costs is by absorbing them. The Little Deli combines different functions such as deli, café and catering, “so we can spread the costs around a little bit”, said Johnson.  

Larry Hodes, the owner of Gourmet Grocer in Birdhaven, Johannesburg, says they try to stock products using the least amount of plastic as possible which is why they choose sauce bottles that are packaged in glass. Photo: Tylin Moodley 

Similarly, The Gourmet Grocer is a grocer and café also created through the struggles of the pandemic. Larry Hodes, to help his business and local businesses in the area, opened The Gourmet Grocer, in which they only stock local brands and products. 

Originally called Voodoo Lily Café, the restaurant had to close only a year after Hodes bought it in 2019 due to lack of customers during the pandemic. As Mother’s Day approached in May 2020, the Hodes were trying to figure out what to do. They decided to reach out to anyone that had bespoke artisanal products they wanted to sell, and within 24 hours The Gourmet Grocer was born.  

“We’re all about local, small suppliers so a majority of the products here you are not going to find in larger supermarkets and places like that. This business is built around local suppliers,” said Hodes. 

By supporting local businesses there are not only benefits to those businesses and the local economy, but also benefits for the environment. This is because food miles are reduced. The basic definition of food miles is the distance a food item travels as a unit of measurement of the fuel used to transport it. This means that less transport is involved when sourcing from local businesses, thus reducing carbon emissions.  

Hodes said going local is something that is more expensive, but they “charge accordingly, otherwise it would just be another supermarket, just another café and that’s not our unique selling point”. 

Although they sell plastic water bottles, Hodes said it is better suited for their shop. “The only reason why we go with this water… with the plastic solution, was because a lot of people come for walks, and you don’t want to carry a glass bottle, so that’s how we found these. A lot of our products, you will still find plastic here and there, but anything that we package, we try to use environmentally friendly. Yes, it costs a little bit more but that’s just part of what we do,” he said. 

Information sourced: Green Matters

Their water is called Mountain Falls and they have their own recycling initiative, called ZeroPET, to recycle plastic. Their aim is to recycle two bottles for every one they produce. At the Gourmet Grocer a one-litre water bottle was made from two plastic bottles. A 12-pack of one-litre bottles from Mountain Falls costs about R210. Hodes said, “You know if you take glass or plastic here, glass would be four times more expensive.”  

In March 2022 Daily Maverick reported that “about 2,371 million tons of plastic waste are generated in South Africa every year, with… about 80 000 tonnes of plastic leaking into the country’s oceans and rivers each year. From that, 70% is collected, but just 14% of it (including imported waste) is recycled.” 

Monica Bylos works at the Bryanston Organic Market, where they supply various goods including organic fresh produce. They also have a recycling system which she says they hope to improve as well as reduce the use of plastics at the stalls. However, it is something she carries in her personal life as well. “I try to make sure I buy sustainably packaged products, and I refuse to use plastic straws and bottles. I will also take a reusable cup when getting coffee instead of buying takeaway disposable cups,” she said. 

When going to places that include these “green” initiatives in their costs, Bylos said she “would be willing to pay because too many restaurants cut costs at the expense of the environment. I would rather spend more money on organic and natural food than support the conventional business model of making things as cheap as possible.” 

On the other hand, law student Robyn Helling says the way everyone does their bit towards climate change “should be proportionate to that person or business’s capacity… Most of the damage is done by big corporations, so they should be the ones shouldering most of the burden to fix it. That doesn’t mean individuals and small businesses shouldn’t do what they can.”

She believes that if costs are increased, they should remain reasonable. “Most small restaurants cannot afford to implement greener initiatives unless they raise their costs, and accepting these costs is the only way to encourage them to make these changes. Small restaurants are not responsible for significant damage to the environment, so I don’t think that they should have to suffer when they try to contribute to positive change. Because of this, I think it is justified for them to raise their prices to an extent,” she said.

Even though there are many big corporations that should be held responsible for their contribution to climate change, the issue should not be ignored on a micro-level. Recycling, zero-waste, composting, energy and water reduction are just some ways to make a small difference like Baha Taco, The Little Deli and The Gourmet Grocer. However, the question as to whether they are cost-effective is something that these small businesses have found an answer to. Whether it is something they find cheaper or are able to cover, they are still able to remain true to their values.

FEATURED IMAGE: The owners of Baha Taco in Norwood, Johannesburg, implement zero-waste as one of their “green” initiatives. They use maize husks to wrap and steam tamales (a corn-based dough that sometimes has a filling). Photo: Tylin Moodley