Kristofor Lofgren wants to move the conversation about sustainability in the restaurant industry “beyond just the food.” Lofgren founded Sustainable Restaurant Group in 2008 in Portland, Oregon, first with Bamboo Sushi, the world’s first certifiably sustainable sushi restaurant. QuickFish Poke Bar opened in 2016 as what he calls Bamboo’s fast-casual “deconstructed sushi in a bowl” sibling.

“Food needs to be more about impact than just art,” he says. “I think for a long time media looked at food as either art or a commodity. The commodity side being fast food, how cheap can it be and how tasty, how fast. The arts side being Eleven Madison Park or Alinea, how pretty it can be and all the negative space you can create on the plate. We really want food to be more about conversation about impact.”

Sustainable Restaurant Group has grown out of the City of Roses and now has locations in Denver with plans to expand in San Francisco and Seattle, an eventually, as Lofgren tells us, worldwide.

In June, SRG launched a carbon calculator dedicated to showing just how much carbon emission can be traced back to the food served at their restaurants, an important step at a time when climate change experts are calling for urgent decarbonization. We spoke to Lofgren about the possibilities of serving high-quality, sustainable fish to landlocked areas, what he’s learned from creating the carbon calculator and more. Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Tell me a little about the impetus for the carbon calculator.
The goal is pretty simple, which is our beliefs that our restaurants need to do more than just serve sustainable food. Obviously the most important environmental initiative that we see in this generation is climate change. So, to be a restaurant that takes a low or no carbon initiative is the best that the restaurant can do on top of serving local sustainable food. With our restaurant being one that sources food from all over the world — because we do sushi, we have to have a global supply chain sourcing from oceans around the planet — it’s even more important to be able to highlight what we’re doing and also the fact that it could be done. We were really excited to put together a really beautiful, easy-to-interact-with carbon calculator that would allow people to see where the fish comes from and the carbon impact that dining has and also to show them that we can become a carbon-neutral restaurant or even a net-positive restaurant through our partnership with the Ocean Foundation through planting seagrass.

Businesses more and more need to do their part to make the planet have a lower footprint. We feel like restaurants have a huge impact and food actually, humbly speaking, has the largest carbon footprint of any industry, more than transportation, airlines, hydro-chemicals, anything. Food is actually the biggest user of carbon and emitter of methane in factory farming.

Kristofor Lofgren
Restaurateur Kristofor Lofgren

How did you decide on sushi as the sustainable platform? Can the same model be used in a different kind of cuisine?
Absolutely. I’ve had sushi restaurants since 2008. It’s my favorite food, and it’s one of the fastest growing food trends in the world. It was something where we were able to have a conversation in an area that was often overlooked. Because we were the first sustainable sushi restaurant in the world, we were able to bring that conversation to the forefront of sustainable seafood. We did it in a very complex way because we have to serve so many different types of seafood in an evening in a sushi restaurant.

As far as the any other types of cuisines, this can apply to anything. The example I often give people is that hamburgers are the number-one most consumed food item in the world, the most popular food on the planet. They’re very, very, very heavy on carbon emissions and methane from cows. One of the easiest ways, if you have a hamburger shop you can do this, you can potentially take profits from your business like we’ve done and instead of doing sea grass, you could do methane digesters at dairy farms or cattle ranches. These essentially sequester the cow feces to power the entire ranch from poop. You sequester the methane, turn the turbines and create electricity. So there are a lot of cool different ways that something like this can be done where essentially you’re creating a more closed-loop system to be able to make a more sustainable restaurant.

So you guys are based in Portland, Oregon and are expanding up and down the West Coast. In terms of sustainable fish, could the same be done in landlocked areas?
Absolutely. Our goal is to expand globally and so we want [Bamboo Sushi] to be the preeminent sushi or sustainable seafood concept in the world. Really, the trick that changed food in general is the ability to freeze seafood. We use cryogenic freezing for our fish as much as we can. What that does is two things: It allows us to be able to actually increase the quality of the flavor because when you freeze a fish at negative 50 degrees for 15 minutes, it stops the cellular division of the animal. Whereas if I go out on a boat and catch a fish and I throw it on ice, the animal is still decaying over weeks when I’m out at sea. Then I come back to the shore, go to a distributor and it gets to a restaurant or gets to a grocery store, so often the fish is between 10 and 14 days old already. Our fish is actually much fresher and more high- quality through this freezing technique. The other thing is that allows us to have no waste. In a year the average global catch of wild seafood is about 130 million metric tons and anywhere between 80 and 90 million metric tons make it to people’s mouths, so you end up with a loss of 30 to 40 million metric tons, maybe more, of seafood. By being able to freeze the seafood, you’re able to then have zero waste because you can maintain it almost indefinitely.

How has the attitude towards sustainable sushi and fish changed since you’ve started?
We’re really excited by seeing the direction things are going now. We became the first sushi restaurant in the world to be certified by the Marine Stewardship Council and the first restaurant in the United States to gain the certification and we were the first sushi restaurant to have that sustainability focus. After that, like a year or two later, McDonald’s called us, which was a weird phone call to get, and said, “We’re really interested in being more sustainable, we’re actually the largest buyer of seafood in the world.” Just for the fish fillet [sandwich]! They actually buy by ton, in weight, the most seafood of any company on Earth, even though they only buy one type of fish. And so they said ‘we want be more sustainable, we want to do what you guys have done, but we don’t know if it can work on that scale.’ So, we helped them get over that hurdle and now Mcdonald’s only serves MSC-certified Filet-O-Fish sandwiches.

We helped Whole Foods write their guidelines when they were destroyed by Greenpeace a few years ago for not being sustainable enough in their seafood counters. They were looking for an example of a company that was doing it the right way so they found us through the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, and so they became our partners and basically copied our model. We only serve things on the green list or the yellow list, but never anything on the red list.

I think that we’ve now seen a tremendous increase in not only large corporations globally and nationally but also a lot of mom and pop restaurants are talking about line-caught fish and seasonality for oysters and seasonality for different types of sardines and anchovies. It’s not as prevalent, still, as farm-to-table or organic chicken, but it’s getting to be much more a part of the daily conversation of food. We’re really excited to see that, and proud to have been a kind of part of starting it.

With that business model in mind you’re obviously going to run out of some fish sometimes. Is there an educational curve when it comes to that with customers? Do you have to explain that things will run out when they’re not in season or have you noticed a general understanding among consumers?
It’s both. You have some customers who of course are like, “Hey, look, I don’t care. I want to eat what I want to eat every day of the year.” We really try to be sensitive to that. The most popular fish we serve is salmon. Salmon from Alaska runs generally from the end of June to the beginning of August. That’s the peak season. We serve salmon 365 days a year, and we can do that because salmon has a tremendous amount of fat content. That makes it a really good fish to freeze, if you freeze it the way that we do. It’s a delicious fish, people love it, they want it all year round. We’re not going to tell customers, “Look, it’s September, you can’t have salmon.” That would be too difficult a challenge, but we figured out a way to allow it to be sustainable. When we buy salmon, we buy 120,000-200,000 pounds at a time. We’ll literally go to a fisherman and buy all their salmon and go to another fisherman and buy all their salmon. That allows us to have our stock of fish for the whole year until the next fishing season.

This carbon calculator tracks the emissions from restaurants belonging to the Sustainable Restaurant Group.
This carbon calculator tracks the emissions from restaurants belonging to the Sustainable Restaurant Group.

With regards to things that have smaller runs, take for example Oregon coast sardines, which are amazing and run for about two weeks out of the year. People love them. We’ll put it on Facebook, we’ll put it on Instagram. We’ll say “Look two or three weeks from now, we’re gonna get Oregon sardines in.” When it’s out, it’s out. So we talk about it in restaurants and we share that experience with guests. We certainly want to highlight the seasonality of fish. Some people really understand it, they get it, they love it. Other people don’t get it as much. Sometimes they get a little angry, but for the most part, the fish that people really want — salmon, tuna, albacore, shrimp, crab, scallop — we have year round, and we have the ability to freeze it the way we want to.

I saw on the calculator’s site it said that a lot of fish served in America is processed in Asia and then shipped back to the U.S. That sounds like a lot of energy being wasted.
It’s because of cost. It’s kind of the same reason iPhones are made in China. It’s less expensive for people to catch fish in the United States, ship it to Asia, process it and then send it back because in the United States you might pay somebody $1 or $2 per fish, which when you’re trying to keep fish $4-$6 a pound, it’s just unattainable from a price standpoint. So, you can send it to Asia and you can pay somebody $2 for an hour and they process 100 fish.

One of the things we wanted to do when we were looking at supply chain and when we were looking at what we do with our partners is we make sure there’s no — and it’s not really talked about that often in the media — but there’s a lot of slavery in seafood. There’s a lot of indentured servitude around the world, especially for people in developing countries,  processing product and shipping it to wealthier, more developed countries. We make sure that we have an anti-slavery supply chain and we’re also working with distributors or processors who are paying fair wages. We think that that’s an important part of the sustainability story. It’s not just about you know the food, not just about the environment, sustainability also has to do with people. But, yes it is true, that the basic reason why people do it over in Asia, is because they have an ability to do it at a much lower cost.

What was the most surprising thing that you found out or realized going into this business and creating the calculator?
I would say that the most surprising thing that I found out was when we started the company was every person told me that it would never work, that it was a really dumb idea and nobody care about it. They said that sushi was already so popular, everybody wanted to eat bluefin tuna, regular unagi eel and other stuff. My belief was that people were really moving in a different direction where there was sort of this sense of consciousness around the way they ate and also the quality, similar to how we eat farm-to-table vegetables. They just taste much better. The quality and freshness is there. I knew that that would also transfer over to seafood. The most surprising thing I would say would have been the fact that we ended up being right as a company and as a team.

The thing that we were most surprised by [about the calculator] was that we had actually a reasonably low carbon footprint due to all the initiatives that we had put into place over the years. We were expecting a much bigger carbon footprint because we have this global supply chain, but because our restaurants are using the lowest-flow toilets and dishwashers, Energy Star appliances and reclaimed wood. We power all of ours using solar, geothermal or wind power so that the actual operation of the restaurants is very efficient. Our biggest area of carbon emissions is when we fly fish in, let’s say from Japan, but for the most part then when we’re able to put things on boats or trains or things like that, we’re able to actually have a pretty good offset.