No less than 1.15 billion animals are killed for meat each week. This and other such facts about vegetarianism and our carbon footprint are flashed across a plasma TV at Otarian, a new casual fast-food restaurant in New York. It was started by Radhika Oswal of Australia, a self-confessed “travelling, hungry, grumpy vegetarian”, who found it difficult to find satisfying vegetarian cuisine when she was on the road.
Wanting to show the world that vegetarian food was more than just rabbit food or tofu, and combining her passion for the environment with this, she has created the concept of Otarian—an all-vegetarian restaurant where everything from decor to dining is either recycled, composted or made sustainably.
Each of the 30 items on the menu shows us exactly how much is being saved by having one of the meals, compared with a similar meat dish. For example, making the Portobello Mushroom sandwich uses 1.3kg of carbon while a Tex Mex Beef Burger at regular fast food restaurant uses 2.28kg carbon—an Otarian meal saves 0.98kg.
The menu could be a bit confusing to read and Oswal admits her customers are still “trying to get their heads wrapped around the whole thing”, but they love the fact that the restaurant is “green”. “Even if you have one vegetarian meal, and it saves 1kg of carbon emissions or grain, or a litre of water or oil, the cumulative benefits of vegetarian eating can save the planet from its current trajectory. And I wanted to provide a quantifiable and measurable benefit for people to do that,” says Oswal.
The menu includes a range of items from starters such as soups and salads, quick bites such as burgers and wraps, heartier meals such as tacos, biryani, noodles, lasagna, and a few dessert items. A first-time customer at the mid-town restaurant, Amy Mehta, says: “The concept is amazing. It’s amazing when you’re here and actually eating the food to know how much they’ve put into this. It makes me feel good.” As for the food, she says, “The veggie burger is definitely one of the best that I’ve ever had. And the tacos and the sweet potato fries have a good balance of flavours.” Best-sellers include the Tex Mex Burger, the Roasted Vegetable Lasagna and the Vegetable Biryani. The Choc O Mousse is a favourite for dessert. As for the restaurant itself, the tabletops are made of recycled plastic, the chairs of bamboo as much as the floor tiles of recycled glass and the ceiling of recycled aluminium. She uses 100% green energy to run the place and has hired a private vendor to pick up her garbage, which is 100% compostable. All this costs about three times what it would for a regular fast food joint. “It’s sad but true that using recycled materials and sustainable materials are a lot more expensive because they’re not mainstream,” says Oswal.
This is Oswal’s first venture in the hospitality business. She says she spent three years and millions of dollars doing studies on the 500 ingredients needed to make each of the items on the menu to make sure they were as environmentally sustainable as possible. That meant looking at a combination of how they were grown, where they were grown, whether they were organic, conventionally farmed, in season and a host of other factors. A common misconception, she says, is that organic farming is the most sustainable way of farming, or that sourcing local produce is more environmentally sustainable than transporting it from somewhere else. She maintains it’s not so. For example, she’s planning on opening three Otarian restaurants in London in July, but won’t be sourcing tomatoes from local British farmers because of its very high carbon impact. “It’s five times the carbon impact as Spanish tomatoes because the tomatoes grown in Britain are made in greenhouses that are heated with gas,” says Oswal. She makes it clear that nothing is shipped by air—which will add to the carbon footprint.
What makes this restaurant different from other “sustainable” restaurants is its approach. “Other restaurants may be sustainable in one element. For example, they either concentrate on local food, or on making their food or decor sustainable. Or perhaps they pay a premium for their energy. But Otarian is the first restaurant that is completely sustainable in all elements,” says Oswal.
Oswal plans to open Otarian in trendsetting cities such as London and New York. It has already launched in two locations in New York City: 154, Bleecker Street, and 947, 8th Avenue. She expects to have 10-13 stores in New York in two-three years, and then expand to other parts of the US and Europe. Some day, she hopes to trade carbon credits.