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Northland restaurants single out plastics

Mike Acheson, owner of Sammy’s Pizza in Cloquet, (from left) talks with Chris Kelly while Michael Acheson, Cody Stevens and Dylan Gerard make frozen pizzas Monday, Feb. 25. The restaurant has stopped automatically giving diners straws with their drinks. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 3
A box of Empress Earth paper drinking straws sit on the a table at the Barkers Waterfront Grille on Tuesday morning in Superior. The restaurant inside the Barkers Island Inn has switched from plastic straws to paper straws. Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com2 / 3
Mike Acheson, owner of Sammy’s Pizza in Cloquet, sits in a booth with a glass of Coke and no straw before opening Monday, Feb. 25. The restaurant has stopped automatically giving diners straws with their drinks. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 3

The scene and setting are familiar: a supper at Sammy's Pizza and Restaurant in Cloquet. A family settles into a booth. Even before the menus come out, a sign on the table draws their collective attention: "Say Naw to the Straw."

The family discusses it, nodding in agreement with the policy, which says the restaurant will no longer supply its plastic straws unless requested in order to reduce the impact of plastics on oceans and the environment.

"In 15 years you'll ask, 'How do you feel about your restaurants getting rid of plastics and chlorofluorocarbons?'" Sammy's Cloquet owner Mike Acheson said. "I'll say it's amazing we ever had the conversation whether we should or shouldn't."

One of the messages explaining Sammy’s policy on straws. Photo by Steve Kuchera / News TribuneAcheson is one of a growing number of restaurateurs in the Northland taking a stand on single-use plastics. In Superior, Barkers Island Inn switched to paper straws earlier this year, following the lead of the city's Shamrock Pizza, which converted to paper straws and compostable to-go containers last summer.

In Duluth, members across the Duluth Local Restaurant Association are moving toward straw policies and away from other single-use plastics such as styrofoam to-go containers.

"It's encouraging to see the movement and hear the different stories of restaurants doing their part," said Jason Vincent, vice president of the association and co-owner of Boat Club and Vanilla Bean restaurants in Duluth and Two Harbors, respectively. "Our businesses aren't perfect, but we're moving in the right direction."

In doing so, they're receiving plaudits from customers and little, if any, push-back. They're also getting ahead of the public hand of government, which in 2017 took an unsuccessful run in Duluth at charging customers for single-use plastic bags at grocery stores and other retailers.

Jerry Joos, general manager at Shamrock Pizza, said he works for a progressive owner, Sandy Thomson, who drove the change. But he, too, noticed the waste every night at the close of business. The sink into which drink cups were emptied of liquids and ice were filled with straws needing to be fished out and thrown away.

"You think about the amount of plastics going into landfills and it starts to hit home — especially at the end of a busy Friday night and the sink is just full of straws," Joos said.

Last year, the News Tribune reported microplastics were being found inside both Lake Superior fish and beer brewed using the lakewater. In that report, it said global plastic production had skyrocketed from 30 million tons in 1970 to 322 million tons in 2015. The Washington Post reported on a study in 2016 which concluded there could be more plastics than fish in the ocean by the year 2050.

"We're all concerned," Joos said of the Shamrock Pizza management and staff.

A paper straw sits in a glass of root beer at a table at Barkers Waterfront Grille. Photo by Jed Carlson / Superior TelegramShannon Olson is the general manager at Barkers Island Inn. She acknowledged that paper straws come with a different experience for the user — the potential to be flimsier with something of a taste. But she said the restaurant needed to be more eco-friendly.

"It may be something really small," she said, "but small things end up making a huge impact when you continue to improve."

Both Acheson and Joos compared the move away from single-use plastics to their restaurants voluntarily becoming non-smoking in the early 2000s. Looking back, they said, it was a no-brainer. Acheson explained he started to consider reducing the restaurant's plastics imprint after his daughter, Alyssa, and his girlfriend's daughter, Jessica Anderson, began to "strongly suggest" the move.

"This is something near and dear to me, because it's the right thing to do," Acheson said. "It's not about politics. I think it needs to be a choice and not done forcefully."

The transition away from customary restaurant supplies doesn't come cheaply.

Vincent and Joos explained that paper straws come from a limited number of suppliers and can cost double what plastics cost. Independently owned restaurants operate at a 2-5 percent profit and not all new costs can be incorporated into menu prices, because that's when customers will start to push back, they said.

"I think it needs to be up to the individual business," Vincent said.

At Shamrock, it took four months to receive its first order of paper straws. Some states out west had banned single-use plastics, sending Shamrock deep into the queue of backorders.

Once the straws finally arrived, they were a hit with customers.

"It amazes me still," Joos said. "I didn't think it was as big of a gesture as it's been received."

Acheson finds the same response.

"Ninety-five percent of the feedback I've gotten has been so favorable and so positive I can't believe it," Acheson said.

Olson credits the small measures with the positive response. Customers are more apt to accept change when it comes incrementally, she said.

"When it's not a bunch of changes at once, they can adapt and understand why we're doing it and get on board," she said.

Earlier this month, Boat Club Restaurant hosted a themed Sunday brunch. It was a four-course meal served with cocktails. When Vincent announced to the roomful of diners that it was going to be a strawless event, several customers clapped.

Said Vincent, "It was really encouraging."