Broadening Their Sustainability Base

Project Green Fork’s new process aims for inclusiveness 

Photography by Chip Chockley

When chef Kevin Sullivan opened Kitchen Laurel in the spring of 2024, he had a lot of decisions to make—but one of them was really easy. He knew he wanted to work toward being a Project Green Fork-certified establishment. 

And, as it turns out, Project Green Fork (PGF) had just revamped its certification process. Instead of having restaurants make all of their recommended changes at once, PGF’s new process includes tiers that restaurants work through one step at a time. Kitchen Laurel is the first restaurant to start PGF’s revamped tiered certification process. For busy chefs in today’s particularly challenging restaurant environment, Kevin believes the new step-by-step process is just what they need. “It lets people gradually move their way into it,” he says.

Whatever the process, becoming PGF-certified is a no-brainer for Kevin. He went through the original process as chef at Tsunami and knows its value firsthand. Years ago—when Project Green Fork founder Margot McNeely reached out to Tsunami about certification—sustainability wasn’t really on Kevin’s radar. “We were like, ‘What is she talking about?’” says Kevin. 

They weren’t against the idea of sustainability, but they weren’t part of the solution either. But once Margot presented the facts about what a restaurant could do to make a difference, Tsunami knew they wanted to get on board as the first PGF-certified restaurant.

Tsunami committed to Project Green Fork’s six steps: using sustainable products; waste management (including source reduction, composting, and recycling); choosing green cleaning products; reducing water and energy use; making plans for leftover consumable food; and taking other steps to benefit the environment (like properly maintaining grease traps and kitchen hoods, cleanliness, and landscaping with native plants).

 “It gave us the push to go ahead and make the jump to do the right thing,” he says.

Leann Edwards, Project Green Fork Program Director, says there are a lot of Memphis restaurants that are in the same place Tsunami was—not opposed to reducing their environmental impact but not really aware of how they can make a difference either. And for many of these restaurants, it seems like a big ask to go from being unaware to being committed to all six steps of PGF’s certification.

“Especially coming out of the pandemic when everyone is recovering financially, sustainability could take a back seat to keeping their doors open,” says Leann.

“We want to make sure PGF is inclusive of our whole Memphis-Shelby County audience.

So we started thinking about how we could broaden our audience a little bit to restaurants new to this conversation about sustainability.”

That thought process led to a new, tiered PGF certification process. Businesses can choose from four levels. At Level 1, they take on three of the PGF steps. At Level 2, they take on four steps, and at Level 3, they take on five steps. When they complete all six steps, they become fully certified.

As businesses embrace each new level, they become eligible for more benefits. For example, Level 3 businesses can take part in events like Reharvest Memphis, Loving Local, and media events. Fully certified restaurants are listed on the Project Green Fork website and get first dibs on events and media opportunities. “It’s more beneficial to the restaurant to move up the ladder because they get more visibility,” says Leann.

Restaurants kick off the process with a waste assessment. “We take their waste, sort it, and give them feedback,” says Leann. At the same time, her team walks through the facility to check for things like proper handling of recyclables, not using styrofoam, and not wasting water. 

“It’s a snapshot, but it lets us make recommendations,” she says. Those initial recommendations help a business reduce food waste before it happens and help them know how to repurpose, compost, or donate unused food.

Kitchen Laurel began the new leveled certification process with a waste assessment. “I would have said, ‘I don’t waste a lot; I don’t need this assessment,’” says Kevin. But, through the assessment, he realized waste was happening that he was unaware of. 

“In my waste assessment, there was a bag of mixed greens that went bad because I simply forgot about it; it got to the back of the cooler,” says Kevin. “[The certification process] keeps you informed and keeps you on top of things. It makes me see reality more often—instead of just my perception of what I’m doing.”

Leann emphasizes that Project Green Fork wants to work alongside restaurants as a partner. “We work really hard for the restaurants to see us as support and not us coming in to get onto you about all the things you’re doing incorrectly in our eyes,” she says. “I was a chef for several years, and you feel such a sense of ownership over the work you do because it’s your heart and soul. We want to be careful that we are honoring that, supporting that, and also giving some very simple recommendations.”

Having been part of the process twice—first at Tsunami and now at Kitchen Laurel—Kevin is well-versed in what it takes. “When you’re first introduced to it, it seems like a nuisance. It takes you out of your habits,” he says. “But a couple months into it, it’s a new habit, it’s a new part of what you do. Now I couldn’t imagine not doing it. If you go about it the right way, the entire venture is helpful. It keeps you mindful of everything.”

That mindfulness even leads to happier employees, Kevin says. When employees work together to reduce waste and to do things like send unused food to people in need, it improves overall morale.

And there’s a monetary benefit. “The extra attention translates into dollars,” he says. “You’re not ordering as much because you realize what you have on hand.”

And the benefits—both to the individual restaurant and to the planet in general—will be worth it in the long run, he emphasizes. “What good thing doesn’t come with a little bit of pain? It will be a little bit of stretching your comfort zone, but sometimes you need that.

We should be as creative about making the world a better place as we are about putting food on our plates. It’s in our best interest,” he says. 

“Nothing feels better than a clear conscience—knowing you did all you could. We’re all just trying to pitch in, and knowing you did your part is a great feeling.”

Manda Gibson is copy editor at Edible Memphis. She loves the whole storytelling process—from getting to know all the wonderful people she interviews, to weaving together a story, to being entrusted with editing other writers’ work. 

Chip Chockley, an attorney by day, has been a professional photographer since 2008. Things that make him happy include tacos, mai tais, and his wife and kids. @chipchockley