The Surprising Reason Why A Chicago Restaurant Hasn’t Taken Out The Trash In Two Years (VIDEO)


Sandwich Me In sandwiches. (Courtesy of Sandwich Me In Facebook page.)

Anyone who’s ever waited tables knows how much waste a typical restaurant can go through — even your average diner knows how much waste can be left on your own plate from time to time, if not daily — but 36-year-old Chicago restaurateur Justin Vrany’s quick-service eatery is anything but typical. In the two years that Sandwich Me In has been open in the north end of Chicago it has produced exactly zero waste.

Sandwich Me In’s entire collective waste output in the past two years has been equivalent to what most restaurants go through in a single hour — around eight gallons. In fact, according to owner/operator Vrany, most of the trash that has been collected is actually left over by customers, things like paper Starbucks coffee cups.

Vrany stated:

If I can do this with a quick service restaurant, I hope I can help other restaurants do that, too.


Sandwich Me In logo. (Courtesy of Sandwich Me In Facebook page.)

Vrany states in a short film produced by NationSwell that he used to go about his life doing whatever he liked like everyone else, but then he went back to school and studied sustainability, completely changing his life and lifestyle due to his newfound understanding of how people generate and deal with waste. Sandwich Me In was conceptualized and designed to be a zero waste establishment from the start.

“I practice the five R’s” Vrany said, echoing an environmentalist credo (reducing, recycling, reusing) to which he adds “reject” and “refuse” — a practice most used for dealing with excessive packaging and junk mail.

Achieving such a lofty goal as zero waste was not an easy process to come by, though, Vrany admits. To reach its goal, the restaurant runs on sustainable energy. Food arrives minimally packaged from local farms and vendors. Details like pre-packaged shortcuts have been dismissed. Vrany says in the film:

The crispy smoked skins of the chicken go onto the Cobb salad and the chicken bones make the broth for the chicken soup.

Everything was made by hand, and still is. Leftover vegetables might go on a burger or in a salad the next day. Food scraps are donated to local farmers for chickenfeed in order to feed chickens that are in turn sold to the restaurant. All menu items are made to intersect with each other in a sustainable fashion, and every scrap Vrany can scrape up is repurposed or reused.


The amount of waste generated by Sandwich Me In after two years, before a local artist picked it up to create a sculpture with it. (Courtesy of Sandwich Me In Facebook page.)

Such attention to quality and zero waste has found its way into every aspect of the restaurant. At one time Vrany even ran the restaurant for six months all by himself to keep costs low. For these reasons, in an age when the average restaurant folds in six months, Sandwich Me In has managed to turn a small profit in its first two years of operation. After all, zero waste is both economically sensible and friendly. Costs are lowered when waste is lessened. Imagine if it can be wiped out completely!

Vrany states, though:

For me it’s not a money issue. I’m looking at this more widespread. If I don’t do this now, it’s not going to be done. It can be done, and it can be done for reasonable prices.

He continued:

I have kids, and their future — they’re not going to be able to live the way I lived… I want to see [my kids] live the same life that I had. I don’t want to risk it, I’m not a gambler. I want to take care of the things I love the most.

And there’s another unexpected accomplishment of which Vrany feels quite proud:

Customers come in and they eat a reasonably-sized portion, and when they’re done they still feel like they have energy. They feel good.

It seems Justin Vrany has a lot he can feel good about these days. And that mere eight gallons of waste produced in two years? A local artist picked it up to create a sculpture with it, officially making Sandwich Me In a zero waste eatery. Hopefully, Vrany’s example will help set a new precedent as it proves that sustainability can also be profitable.