The story of how Holly Elmore became a champion of sustainable food service practices is filled with plot twists and turns. Most are detailed on her eclectic resume, except for the light bulb moment when her seemingly illogical career decisions crystallized into the perfect opportunity.
It came during a conversation with Patrick Gebrayel, executive chef of Dunwoody Country Club. “I loved food. I always tried to be conscious. There was a flame inside of me, and he lit it,” Elmore said.
That flame was her desire to move the local food service industry toward more sustainable and green practices in both food preparation and disposal. She began with an informal meeting attended by 30 local chefs and Ron Wolf, CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association (GRA). When a second meeting drew 90 chefs and representatives from several Atlanta institutions, Elmore knew the time was right.
The Green Food Service Alliance was born.
Elmore is founder and executive director of the organization, which currently operates as a division of the nonprofit GRA, provider of some financial assistance and political muscle. Initially, Elmore simply hoped to encourage more restaurants to use locally produced foods by linking chefs with area farms and educating them on the benefits of the slow food movement. But in just a year, the Green Food Service Alliance has gained national attention and support from the Environmental Protection Agency for creating a program to reduce and recycle waste from food service providers.
“On the sustainability side, restaurants have been trying for years to get more local foods onto their menus. The barrier was always the sense that it had to take on incremental cost,” Wolf said. “Holly was instrumental in breaking down some of those [barriers] and figuring out how to get things done.”
Wolf was impressed with Elmore’s passion and commitment. “Her willingness to educate herself was just remarkable. She has immersed herself in understanding everything from composting to recycling.”
Still, sustainability is a fast-growing movement, even for Elmore, who 28 years ago planned to make Atlanta a four-year stop on the way to somewhere else. She had hopes of becoming a CFO but quickly learned what the late ’80s glass ceiling was all about. So she did what many bean counters would never do — opened a catering company even though she had never so much as boiled an egg. She gained major corporate clients and later opened two event facilities but after 15 years, she moved on.
“I knew I wasn’t going to get a job. I wanted to create a lifestyle that was fluid and flexible,” Elmore said. She embarked on a series of experiences including stints as sales and marketing director for Wine South and advertising director for Restaurant Forum, the GRA’s official magazine, which all prepared her for her current role.
Elmore, as the sole staffer of Green Food Service Alliance, is as likely to give presentations to food service partners about energy-efficient appliances or nontoxic cleaning supplies as she is to organize chef tours to local farms such as a recent trip to Sweet Grass Dairy in Thomaston where 20 Atlanta chefs spent the day making cheese, observing farm operations and enjoying lunch.
While Elmore believes chefs are on the front line in educating the public on sustainable food, she also recognizes the need to manage things from the other side. She drafted a proposal for a waste reduction and recycling program, lobbied a friend to create a brochure and received funding from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Within months, downtown Atlanta became the first Zero Waste Zone in the Southeast with 13 participants, including the Georgia World Congress Center and the Georgia Dome, the Westin and Hyatt hotels, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and Ted’s Montana Grill. Member organizations have three months to comply with standards such as collecting spent grease to be used in the local production of biofuel, donating excess food to feed the hungry, using organic waste for composting and recycling common materials.
Participation enabled Ecco restaurant to discontinue use of Dumpsters. Part of Fifth Group Restaurants, Ecco in Midtown was sending three 8-yard Dumpsters of trash to the landfill each week, said partner Steve Simon. Seven months ago they began a complete recycling program including glass, paper, plastic and metal and three months ago they began composting. Now the restaurant generates just a few bags of trash each week. “It was shocking for us,” said Simon, who serves on the Alliance board. “The best part of it for us is it hasn’t had to come at a financial expense.”
Larger operations such as GWCC found they were able to better direct their green efforts. “If green is a mountain, there are a lot of different paths to get up the mountain and there are efforts going on everywhere,” said Kevin Duvall, assistant general manager of the GWCC. “[GFA] brings a knowledge base to the equation that says, ‘It’s OK, you can go this way, but have you thought about this way?’ ” GWCC invested in a baler to make it easier to recycle corrugated board and the company began composting.
Elmore’s strategy is to appeal to economic sense as well as a sense of responsibility. She encourages companies to get involved because they want to and because, she believes, years from now everyone will wonder why they are not doing it anyway.
For now, Elmore says her goal is to see Green Food Service Alliance through the entrepreneurial phase. But down the line she envisions it as a national resource with case studies and prototype programs showing how it’s done.
The era of sustainability, she says, is here to stay — and so is she, until the next venture calls.