The Venus Company owns a chain of cafes in Cornwall and Devon, and is setting the agenda for environmentally-friendly catering.
The chain’s most recent initiative is fully compostable palm plates from India, and co-owner Michael Smith, says his company is the first commercial cafe chain in the UK to use them.
The Venus Company’s palm plates are sourced from India, through a business that employs families from low-income backgrounds. They degrade in normal compost heaps, rather than having to go through high-heat industrial processes like recyclable materials.
Smith’s company’s sustainability ethos extends much further than palm plates, though.
“We’ve been taking an environmentally sustainable approach to catering for years,” Smith says. “We eliminated plastic straws as an obvious no brainer 19 years ago and stopped serving straws entirely three years later.”
The plastic straws campaign only kicked off in 2015, after footage of a turtle with a plastic straw lodged up its nose went viral.
The Venus Company already uses bagasse – the dry pulpy fibrous waste left over after sugar cane has been crushed – to make lids for coffee cups, as well as takeaway pots.
There’s stiff competition when it comes to beach cafes, with Brit “staycations” on the rise, but Smith believes his chain’s environmental ethos sets the company, which owns four cafes, apart.
“Our business mission is to be the greenest beach café and shop operator. Being ‘green’ to us isn’t about having a ‘sustainability policy and department’. It is in our core and every business decision we take considers the environmental impact.”
Smith says his company sacrifices short term profit in return for long term brand building.
“We were the first in the market place with non-plastic coated hot cups, plant based lids, banning plastic straws, banning crisps with plastic packets, serving water in can, and so on.
“We are faced with an array of amazing beaches and other, mainly independent, operators on the other beaches. There are no chains doing what we are doing but the independents are often very strong which keeps pushing us to improve what we are doing.”
The company’s biggest challenge is sourcing products. “In the early days environmental products just weren’t available as they are today,” Smith says. “And even now, there is still such a lack of real supplier knowledge that often we have to innovate to end up with the product we want.”
Smith recalls an incident where he attempted to buy phosphate-free cleaning materials. “We were told they didn’t exist as there was no demand for them.”
Smith has big dreams for the future of the catering industry, and hopes to start by “closing the loop” in his business.
“I see a future where we are taking all of our compostable waste stream back to the centre daily and composting it. That we then use that compost to grow products for the business.
“What an amazing contribution that would be to minimizing our footprint. The technology is beginning to make this dream a reality and I would imagine this would be possible in 10 years time.”