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Blog article 7 min read

Meet the caterer leading the way for sustainable events

Preslea Jane

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Photo credit: @allisonsullivanphoto

Is a carbon-neutral, zero-waste world possible? Not only is it possible, says the co-owner of Purslane, it’s the only option. Their mission is to create positive change without losing what people love when it comes to food and events.

As the only zero-waste, carbon-neutral catering company in New York, Purslane is a leader of environmental change within the food industry, and a quintessential vendor in the event industry.

In speaking with them, it is clear that they go far beyond the surface in thinking critically about sustainable choices, action and education. Setting the bar for environmental practices within the food industry, they are making strides to create change in a field that has a major impact on our planet.

The catering company has its home in The Oberon Group, a collection of other businesses within the food industry centred around community and sustainability. They operate in Brooklyn, New York, Manhattan and the Catskills.

Setting the tone of sustainable catering in New York

10 years ago, out of high demand from their other restaurants, venues and projects, The Oberon Group set out to create a catering company for those needs, and that is Purslane.

One of the driving forces behind both is Henry Rich, CEO of The Oberon Group and co-owner of Purslane.

The allure of the landscape of restaurants and bars in Brooklyn back in 2010 led him to open the first natural wine bar and other projects in relatively underserved neighborhoods. While sustainability wasn’t the original focus, when it came into view, it was something he couldn’t ignore.

“Food, as an industry, is responsible for a quarter of global emissions and that number felt very high,” Henry said. “It felt like we had to have a point of view on it, we had to do something, if we were going to continue opening places in the 21st century.”

Having started his first company at age 22, Henry dove headfirst into the dream of the New York food scene and has since been transforming it one sustainable event at a time.

The potential and inevitability of a carbon-neutral, zero-waste world

The way Henry explains it, events are temporary in nature, which lends to every element of the production being optimized for speed and cost. For many, sustainability is very far down the line in terms of priorities.

What this means is that eradicating the first 90% of trash from events is fairly straightforward, he says. “A lot of events don’t even compost, a lot of events don’t even recycle.”

For such a commitment, there’s an even bigger belief fuelling it. Henry says he believes in the possibility of a carbon-neutral, waste-free world, “Simply for lack of other options in the future. When you do the math there is not a scenario in which the world's industries and people continue to emit carbon at the same pace, along with all the carbon that's already been emitted.”

At events catered by Purslane, either they provide and service everything, or they work alongside other vendors.

Kendra Thalman, Sales and Event Director at Purslane, mentioned that when working alongside other vendors, the difference they make becomes even more clear.

“We've worked with some clients who hire specialty, craft mixologists, and they'll bring plastic cups to the event, and it creates so much trash,” she says. “That's been the most eye opening thing to me, and it makes it that much easier to be hyper-focused on sustainability. When you see other vendors taking out so much waste, it’s a little bit more rewarding to know that we don’t.”

An evening with Purslane

At a glance, you may not notice anything out of the ordinary — ordinary meaning the elegance and class of events in New York — when at an event catered by Purslane. Their team works diligently to ensure the promises of sustainability are carried out without any imposition.

And yet, there’s something sweeter in the air when you can feel that everyone is operating in a more mindful way.

As they explain the order of operations to me, I envision the Polar Express scene of the train crew and the hot chocolate, you know the one. Moving swiftly through the aisles with golden trays of exquisite beverages, whisking away the empty cups, and leaving you wondering whether you might still believe in magic.

While it may only appear to be magic with Purslane, it is the result of their unwavering efforts.

Generally, there aren’t any receptacle bins on the floor at their events, so everything is brought to the back of house. Kendra explains, “We'll have a compost bin, and we'll have a recycling bin. Anything that needs to get composted, we take back to our kitchen. Same with recycling, if the venue doesn't have recycling, we'll take that back as well. So there are bins in the kitchen for our front- and back-of-house staff in order to put everything in the right receptacles so it can get discarded of appropriately.”

Not only is there the signage for the individual bins, they have a sanitation staff overseeing everything and guiding the team if they don’t know where something goes.

As for the food and beverages, Kendra says, “It’s not from some abstract universe.” They still serve the options one would find elsewhere.

While meat may not be the most environmentally-friendly option long-term, they see the value in having options that will encourage clients to choose sustainable options, encouraging progress over perfection. As well, they go to lengths to counter any carbon emissions generated from their catering, end-to-end.

However, they emphasize, the food and beverages with Purslane is in no way standard, it’s exceptional. After having them cater our event in New York City, we can attest to this.

Speaking of high standards

In a sea of sustainability claims, Purslane goes the extra mile to ensure their services are as sustainable as they can be. Kendra spoke to this in terms of educating stakeholders and differentiating between local and sustainable.

While they make efforts to do both, “What a lot of people don’t realize is the most sustainable sourcing isn’t always the local source,” Kendra says, emphasizing the need to do further research.

“We’ve had to educate ourselves on things like: How are these fishermen actually fishing? How are these farmers actually farming?”

At times when clients suggest a nearby farm, they hold off an accepting before ensuring it is in fact the most sustainable option.

As well, she notes how thoroughly they’ve had to educate themselves, their team and their clients on an ongoing basis, while working with vendors who have expertise in other realms of sustainability.

The choice of the price we pay

For the high-quality service and attention to detail, the price is reasonable and accommodating for varying budgets.

“We’re selling quality, we’re not price trapping our way to events. Sustainable catering is frequently less expensive than people selling luxury. We’re selling sustainability and high-quality food,” says Henry.

Budgets are talked about constantly in events, but what about the carbon budget of the planet? What good are these events if they play a part in the demise of the planet they exist on?

The cost of sustainable caterers pales in comparison to the greater cost of the environmental impact of food and events.

Depending on a client’s budget, Purslane encourages either renting glassware and china, or using compostable plates and cups.

As Kendra notes, “The thing with compostable products is that they’re actually worse when they get thrown in the trash. So that’s when our team comes in hand.”

If compostable products are sent to the landfill, there have been studies that show the materials within them break down to emit methane, “a greenhouse gas that is about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.”

This makes proper disposal of these compostable products essential.

Growing interests on a global scale

It’s a process that’s relatively new and requires the embrace of change, but the interest is there.

“We had the privilege of doing a sustainability event with Deloitte,” Henry shared about the time he spoke with their sustainability department.

“They invited me to speak to their clients about the food and what’s going on in regenerative agriculture and sustainability. Why zero waste? Why Scope 3 carbon neutral?”

Henry explained the importance of that specification, “When we talk about carbon neutrality, it’s important to define what kind: Scope 3 is the entire carbon impact of our business: upstream (farms, transport, supplies); on site (electricity, heating); and downstream (waste).”

As for how Purslane ensures carbon neutrality, “We work with Zero Foodprint to create an estimate for all of our emissions, 80% of which are created in the production of food that we serve. Having measured the carbon cost of all our vendors and downstream outputs, we arrive at an amount of metric tons per year emitted by Purslane. We then invest in carbon sequestration projects to sequester that amount of carbon and bring our impact to zero.”

He said of the blue-chip, Fortune 500 companies in the audience, people were truly engaged, curious and receptive. A heartening thing to see in the field of sustainable catering and events.

The perspective and persistence of Purslane

When you choose Purslane, you’re choosing the Oberon Group: a network of restaurants, natural wine bars, local breweries, farmers, it goes on and on. Their extensive knowledge about the food and beverage trends and dynamics of the city gives them an edge, and an ability to take events to the next level.

The shared value prop of working with Purslane is a unique one. On one hand, clients who choose Purslane are supporting a business doing everything it can to do good. On the other, Purslane’s facilitation of sustainable choices makes hitting climate goals easy.

While environmental issues can often be complex, Henry speaks to the quantitative nature of carbon. “There is a finite amount of carbon that we know can be omitted. Between now and hitting certain temperatures, there is a number on it.”

“Is what we do for sustainability easy? No. But it’s easier than decarbonizing certain other industries and certain other parts of the world. So, we feel an obligation to do everything that we can, as quickly as possible, which is to say: right now.”

With plans to take on aviation catering, Purslane is pursuing sustainability near and far — an inspiration within and beyond the food industry.

From their perspective, the attention to sustainability has been prominent on an individual level for some time. Now, it seems the world is awakening to sustainability at the corporate level. 

The expansion in working with larger corporate companies has significant potential to create positive environmental change, and Purslane will be at the forefront of it.

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