I recently had the chance to chat with Court Desautels, the Chief Executive Officer of the Neighbourhood Group. This umbrella organization owns Borealis Grille and Bar in Kitchener and Guelph and is obsessively local. We discussed sustainability, building upon heritage, and how the restaurant and umbrella company give back to the community and look forward to the future.
How did Borealis Grille come to be?
Borealis started around 2006, and we were just trying to define what a local restaurant meant. With any restaurant, food and drinks were paramount–so that’s what it was. However, my father had opened a pub in Guelph known as The Wooly Pub in 1990. It focused on craft beer and local foods, so local foods and drinks weren’t anything new to us, but there’s so much more to a restaurant than those things, and we wanted Borealis to be a combination of defining local and beyond. It’s what we’re eating, what we’re drinking–it’s the materials used to build the restaurant, the uniforms employees are wearing, where the plates and cutlery are coming from, paper goods, and the cleaning products we’re using. So we started digging and figuring out what things we could buy locally and what we couldn’t or just wasn’t feasible. If we had to import something, we would make sure that it’s built to last. In terms of why we chose the name, Borealis comes from Aurora Borealis. Aurora means light, and Borealis means from the north, so this was the name we wanted to represent Canadian foods and Canadian cuisine and further define our local obsessively local brand.
What sustainability practices have you implemented in the restaurant?
There are lots of sustainability practices we’ve implemented, and there’s still more to do. The first and foremost sustainability practice we’ve put into practice is knowing where our food and drinks are coming from–from farm to table. We were also one of the first restaurants to ditch plastic straws. It’s funny; we haven’t used plastic straws at the restaurant in seven years, and when people started to pay attention to eliminating plastic straws, people said to us, “you should eliminate plastic straws.” So, we said, “we did,” five years ago to replace them with corn-based, plant-based straws. We have also continued to move away from single-use plastics by using QR codes instead of paper menus, generating usable websites and driving people to those websites to order food instead of having paper products. Plus, we’re also conscious of what cleaners we use; we try to be environmentally friendly within the realms of the rules from public health. So, we try to use naturally derived or enzyme-based cleaners where possible.
We’re also continuously doing audits of our restaurants, and we’ve been buying carbon offsets through an indigenous group called Watton and pivoting our lighting to L.A. Lighting. Plus, we’ve jumped on public use of Bullfrog for the buildings. Additionally, we’ve calculated how much waste we’re generating per pound, per guest. After an analysis, we found that the average guest generates 1.3 pounds. It included everything from garbage and recyclables–even if we removed recyclables from this calculation, it didn’t make much of a difference and worked out to 1.1 pounds generated per guest. We faced a significant issue because there was no place to compost this waste as we are located in a plaza. So we started using a pig farmer, and more recently, Carol at Chastain Farms. These farms can use the vegetable scraps we freeze, and they’ll pick it up bi-weekly.
Furthermore, to cut down on waste, we put ketchup on fries, rather than placing ketchup in cups that get wasted or the customer-use of ketchup bottles. We call this efficient practice auto-ketchup. We reduced our ketchup consumption by 50% in the restaurant by asking our patrons if they even wanted ketchup.
Lastly, we use a lot of solar panels on the roof at Borealis. Solar energy is where we get all of our hot water and use power from our solar panels at our pub. Also, did you know that our Kitchener location has been converted from an old schoolhouse? This schoolhouse would have been torn down but is now an existing building, but we’ve tried to reuse a lot of materials as we can as well. This schoolhouse was initially built in 1889 and is the second oldest school in the region. We’ve brought back the original yellow brick, refinished the floors, and even some of the chalkboards are still visible. History, right?
To help the community, we do a lot of river restoration work. It started back in 1992 at our first River Dinner to raise money for the Grand River Conservation Foundation to help with riverbank restoration, habitat, tree planting, etc. We continue to hold those dinners every year since then.
You’re B Corp Certified. What does that mean for business?
It means we’re super awesome! Okay, but actually, it means that we’re using business as a force for good–and being able to prove it. We’ve audited a lot of our environmental, social, employee, and customer initiatives, our social initiatives, our employee initiatives, customer initiatives, and our governance initiatives. It’s a new way of doing business–it’s more transparent and is a holistic approach to what a typical capitalist model would be because we’re still a for-profit model. We take a circular approach to business and do something that benefits somebody and is helping somebody else, and then hopefully, in turn, it comes back to us.
What flaws do you see in the restaurant industry when it comes to sustainability?
That’s easy! Restaurants are very wasteful, and even we’re wasteful. We’ve got a long way to go, but we try. However, the industry is backed on various low margins where there’s very little room for failure. The standard business model for restaurants is getting your inputs cheap, and your output is more expensive to make money. Just as we’re a restaurant and we’re responsible for waste, our consumers drive the behaviour. And that’s the bottom line; it’s consumers who drive the behaviour, so businesses are trying to meet consumer demands. However, our perceptions and values need to change. Instead of quantity, it’s quality. Borealis’ motto is better before cheaper, and we hope that people see that value.
There are flaws in the restaurant industry, like styrofoam containers, plastic cutlery and all that, and at least it’s getting a bit better and not worse. However, it’s super hard not to consume a lot of energy in a restaurant. Say we open at 11 o’clock, our equipment may be on, but there’s no one in the restaurant. Because of these giant machines, we can’t necessarily turn them on and off at our leisure, as someone could walk in and want a hamburger, a salad, etc., we need to have the lights and heating on. That’s why restaurant owners need to be more aware of saving energy and seeking alternatives for lighting and heating wherever possible.
I see you have a “Neighbourhood Good Fund.” What is it for, and why was it created?
We’ve always had some sort of fund that supported various initiatives, and we only gave it a name very recently. It started in 1992, at our first River Dinner, where we were raising funds for the River System, and that’s what we do! We partner with many organizations such as Grand River Conservation, Women In Crisis, Black Heritage Society, Food for Kids, Kids Ability, and more!
We’ve helped raise money for a new nature centre for kids at the Grand River Conservation Authority. Plus, this nature centre can teach kids about the Indigenous people or our native plant species, or money for a therapy session for a child to help them walk. The more people support us, the more we can give back to the community.
We’ve even used the neighbourhood fund for our staff! At the beginning of the COVID-19, the hospitality industry was hit harder than any other industry. Plus, the hospitality industry employs 1.3 million people, making it the fourth largest employer in Canada. Essentially everybody lost their jobs. We said, well, we’re constantly raising money for other organizations. Is it okay to ask for help? We’ve never asked before. We weren’t sure what it would look like, so we just advertised that when you buy a gift card to Borealis, one hundred percent is going to our Employee Relief Fund under the Neighbourhood Group. I thought if we raised $10,000, it would be nice, and in two and a half weeks, we raised $56,000! We created Google forms for our employees to apply anonymously. This money helped pay for groceries, medical bills, laptops for their kids, and more.
Borealis puts a focus on locally sourced products. Describe why other restaurants should source locally?
I think the most significant advantage is that you’ve created a great relationship with some of those people whose food you’re serving at the restaurant. There’s an emotional connection to something that allows you to appreciate it more. I think it just tastes better when you know where you got it from. You also understand the people who made the food, all of the things they’re doing there, and the struggles they face.
On the sustainability front, we could look at tomatoes. Is it better for us to get tomatoes from California, Florida, or Mexico than a hothouse tomato in Ontario? But, again, it depends on the type of energy that’s being used. For example, Ontario has removed coal power and focuses on hydro and nuclear, and it becomes efficient over time. Here, sometimes we also have stricter government mandates on food production regarding sustainability, so it’s also more environmentally friendly to source local foods.
Any sustainable practices that you would like the restaurant to implement in the future?
I want to look at energy consumption to gauge how we can reduce the energy we use. For example, we’ve done many lights out campaigns like Earth Hour and turning off our lights during our off-peak hours once a week.
I also want to look at our menus to learn what people are eating and how things are being grown and moving towards regenerative agricultural practices. I’d love to be a leader in utilizing those practices. We do have a few suppliers that have been regenerative for years, so I’d like to dive more into that.
I think that also lends itself to a more extensive conversation of sustainable proteins and what that looks like, and how do we make sure that the meats that are on our menu are sustainable. Plus, we need to think about shifting further away from less-sustainable proteins as a plant-based diet?
What’s next for Borealis Grille?
It’s our tenth anniversary, which is crazy! But, we aren’t going to let that [COVID] stop us. We’ve curated a nice little dinner, plus we’re even renovating the Kitchener restaurant right now.
We’re doing some things that we needed to get done. And, and I think for us, it’s always, you know, what are our next steps? I think it’s more inclusivity. I think we lack in that regard. I don’t think we are as diverse of an organization as we should be. I might be the leader or organization, but we’re striving for more equality and inclusivity. It’s important to note that four of our restaurants are managed by women, and that’s always something we pride ourselves on. In terms of diversity, it’s a 50 – 50 split on that. Still, I think there just needs to be a lot more diversity, especially trying to reach out into the indigenous community and finding out how we do more than we have in the past.
Plus, I think there’s a lot of opportunity for one of our restaurants, Majida, which is an indigenous name, which means let’s eat in Ojibwe and trying to figure out what our role is in trying to break down a lot of barriers that people have been facing. And that’s just a journey we need to stumble through.
Borealis Grille and Bar operates consciously with the community and planet in mind. As of July 16, 2021, Borealis Grille and Bar has officially opened both indoor and outdoor dining under provincial public health measures! So if you’re looking for a new local restaurant to try out, visit their Kitchener or Guelph location and enjoy the sun on the patio, or pop by to pick up a delectable take-out meal.