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Dining Green

By Jon Reidel Article published February 21, 2007

Magnolia
July Sanders and Shannon Reilly take a rare break from work at their eco-friendly restaurant in downtown Burlington. (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

The eco-friendly practices used by Magnolia's restaurant are the ones that co-owner July Sanders, a senior environmental studies major, has been using all her life. The transfer student from Los Angeles applies what she’s learned in operating Burlington's hottest new eatery, which also happens to be her senior thesis.

Sanders and her partner, Shannon Reilly, a local chef of 10 years, had long wanted to start a local restaurant using primarily organic food from local growers and as many environmentally sound practices as possible. In fact, they have set a goal to become the areas' ‘greenest’ restaurant. With finances being the main obstacle, the relatively inexpensive opportunity to lease a space at One Lawson Lane on the corner of College and St. Paul Street came in December of 2006, and they grabbed it.

Seven weeks after opening, Magnolia's is serving more than 500 people on the weekend and drawing steady lunch crowds during the week. Sanders says she and Reilly have managed to strike a balance between attracting people who really care about frequenting businesses that use green practices and those who just want a great meal at a reasonable price.

“It's more expensive to be eco-friendly, but not as much as you'd think,” says Sanders, who transferred to UVM two years ago. “We do the best we can. We've had a lot of repeat customers who say they love the food, but not always because it's healthier. Our goal was to be eco-friendly and put out the best food. You can do something because you think advertising it will help your business or you can do it because you believe in it. This is what we lived before we opened the restaurant.”

How green are you?
There’s a hint of contempt in Sander’s voice when talking about businesses that claim to be green. In her eyes, someone who makes that claim should be scrutinizing every aspect of the business to see if it could be done in a more environmentally conscious way. Things like recycling and composting are givens. Restrooms are stocked with Seventh Generation toilet paper made from 100 percent recycled paper. Office supplies come from Green Earth Office Supply and include customer bills and napkins on recyclable paper and pens made from corn starch. The list extends to using biodegradable cleaning chemicals that are free of VOC's (volatile organic compounds) and toxic chemicals to ordering forks and spoons for to-go orders that are made of potatoes (non-GMO of course).

Taking it a step further, Sanders set a goal to become the state’s first certified member of the Green Restaurant Association, a national, non-profit organization that provides ways for all sectors of the restaurant industry to become more environmentally sustainable. Magnolia’s has finished three of the four major requirements for certification: switching to compact florescent lights (95-watts to 23); switching the dishwasher sprayer valve from a four-gallon per minute unit to 1.2 (a 75 percent savings); and changing restroom faucets from one-and-a-half gallons per minute to one-half. They are in the process of replacing toilets that use four gallons per flush to ones that use one gallon.

No (good) food, no business
Although the idea to start a restaurant was hatched before Sanders transferred to UVM, she says the interdisciplinary nature of the environmental studies program was instrumental in exposing her to larger environmental issues such as energy policy, which helped her make smaller decisions about her business. “I wish I enrolled in the program earlier,” she says. “I learned a lot and felt totally at home the first time I walked in the door. They wanted me to specialize more, but I got a lot of ideas from taking a wide range of courses.”

Starting with the food, making sure it was organic and as local as possible, was an obvious one. Sanders, who grew up in a family that practiced conservation, and Reilly contacted farms in the Burlington Intervale and plan to use more local food in the spring and summer. “We'll run specials depending on the vegetables and fruits that are available at the time. We plan to make jam in-house during the high berry season.”

Sanders and Reilly knew from the start that without good food, it wouldn’t matter how environmentally conscious they were. The current menu offers breakfast items served all day including eggs benedict, waffles, French toast, pancakes, organic salmon, sesame tofu scram, oatmeal, huevos con Diablo and the Vermont Omelet with maple sausage, cheddar cheese and apples. Lunch offers soups and salads, including a mango shrimp salad, and sandwiches. The garbanzo burger and the tarragon chicken are also popular. The coffee is Mexican organic fair trade brewed in Winooski and the maple syrup is from Lyndonville. Roughly 20 wood tables, placed throughout the brick and stone interior, were crafted by a local carpenter in Lyndonville.

“We want to raise the bar around Burlington so that other businesses can see how eco-friendly you can be,” says Sanders. “Pretty soon people will have higher expectations and start asking if places are green certified. We’re planning on putting out literature so people can learn more about it. We really want to have an impact on other restaurants. It’s a major part of why we opened this place.”