Perking Up the Green Movement

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Katie Hughes outside her first Perk On Main in Durham, CT.

Take crepes and coffee, mix in a passion for social and environmental justice and what do you get? A winning combo for Katie Hughes, owner of three of Connecticut’s greenest restaurants.

Hughes’ trio _  Perk On Main in Durham and Middletown, and Perk On Church in Guilford _  have their own look and personality. Durham’s homespun, with white cafe curtains softening plate glass windows and folksy signs; Guilford’s industrial minimalist with exposed steel beams, a concrete floor and mod bench seating, and Middletown is college chic with aged brick walls, a copper ceiling and weathered wooden floor. But the theme’s the same _ laid-back, comfortable, and above all, socially and environmentally aware.

“We’re all chill here,” said Kendra Milnes, one of the crew at the Guilford shop in a curved corrugated metal garage called a Quonset Hut. And chill they are, from friendly staffers to customers bussing tables and sorting waste at recycling stations. Perk’s upbeat vibe spans generations, drawing moms with toddlers, workers for lunch and seniors tackling the New York Times crossword puzzle.

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A customer scrapes scraps into a composting bin at Perk On Church.

Blending her love of crepes and coffee with her concern for the environment, Hughes is queen of growing green empire that could be a model for other Connecticut eateries. Perk’s three locations generate no more garbage than an average household each week, largely due to Hughes’ untiring efforts to cut waste.

Hughes is at the forefront of the so-called “Food Movement,”  a sub-group of the Green Movement.  Time traces its roots to the food safety scandals of the late ’80s and ’90s. It gained steam with exposes like Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation,” and Laurie David’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” advocating healthy family dinners to promote kids’ health and scholastic achievement. The Food Movement is thriving where other green efforts failed  because it focuses on food _ a source of pleasure and health, Time asserts.

Environmental responsibility can only take a place so far. Food is key to a restaurant’s survival and at Perk, it is. Best known for its offbeat crepes, the menu features everything from the Curious George (house-made almond butter and bananas _ my fav) to the Olive Oyl _ spinach, onions, garlic, tomatoes and feta. What’s neat is that the crepes take on a slightly different incarnation at each shop.

Hughes, who is gluten-free, offers wheat-free crepes, cookies and scones made from scratch. Her menu includes omelettes, burritos, cold sandwiches, wraps and salads, and she’s always open to employees’ creations. “Everyone has contributed to the menu board,” she says.

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The Curious George.

Hughes has reduced her carbon footprint for 15 years, but food waste is a growing national crisis:

  • 40 percent of food  _ 63 million tons per year _  goes to waste in the U.S.*
  • About 52.4 million tons of food ends up in landfills. Decomposing food emits methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more lethal than carbon dioxide.*
  • More Americans are chronically hungry.  About 1 in 7 Americans today suffer from “food insecurity” _  lacking enough food for a healthy and active lifestyle. In Connecticut, 500,000 residents are chronically hungry.*
  • Some states are tackling the issue of waste and hunger:
  • Vermont requires restaurants to recycle, compost and donate leftover food to non-profit groups to reduce waste in landfills and feed the hungry.+
  • Arizona offers restaurants state tax deductions if they regularly donate excess food to non-profits for the needy.+
  • Colorado offers state tax credits for businesses that donate crops (grains, fruit, veggies), livestock, eggs or dairy to hunger relief groups.+
  • Massachusetts has a food waste ban prohibiting businesses that generate more than 1 ton of food waste weekly _ including large restaurants _ from throwing food in the trash.+
  • By 2020, California wants 75 percent of waste that would previously end up in landfills to be reduced, recycled or composted. It recently adopted an organic waste ban like Massachusetts.
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A convenient work station at Perk On Church in Guilford when you’ve got to get out of the house.

Connecticut has no tax incentives for small businesses like Perk, but Hughes believes it should. “I’ve looked into it, and I believe there should be recycling tax cuts,” says Hughes, who pays about 20 percent more for wind energy. She also pays $600 a month to Blue Earth Compost to haul away organic waste _ a lot more than traditional haulers.

Small food businesses are not required to recycle organic waste in Connecticut. The law only applies to giants (supermarkets, wholesalers) producing more than 104 tons per year of separated organic waste and within 20 miles of a recycling plant. The number drops to 52 tons per year in 2020, but still excludes smaller establishments like Perk.^

Though she’s under no requirement, Hughes feels obliged to run her businesses based on her conscience. Reminding customers that Perk uses wind energy, a sign reminds them to turn off bathroom lights. Bins are outside her shops for anyone to pick up coffee grinds for fertilizer. Hughes diverted 36 tons of waste from landfills last year, but she wants to do more.

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Perk’s recycling stations make it easy for customers to sort waste.

“I just wonder if we’re ordering the right amounts of food,” says Hughes, 44. “I hate waste, and that seems like an awful lot of it.”

One of the first businesses on the Shoreline to embrace the green movement, Hughes opened Perk On Main in Durham in 2002. Just 29 when it opened, she ran and expanded her operation as a single mom for 10 years. Hughes remarried last year, and lives with her husband, 12-year-old daughter and 13-year-old stepdaughter in Durham.

Hughes has always been an environmentalist, noting in high school she boycotted tuna caught with nets that killed dolphins. Now she’s a tireless activist, posting her mission in Guilford:

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Hughes’ mission statement outside Perk On Church in Guilford.

Hughes is proof that you can succeed with a dream, drive and grit. After majoring in communications at Southern Connecticut State University, she was a reporter at the Greenwich Time in the mid-90s. She earned so little she moonlighted at Chili’s, leaving journalism to be a recruiter at an engineering company. When she was shifted to a sales position, she shifted careers.

Hughes fell in love with crepes during a trip to France in her mid-20s. Add her obsession with coffee and she had the makings of a business. The first Perk On Main was in back of a commercial building on Main Street in rural Durham. What she lacked in visibility she made up for in views _ rolling hills, weathered red barns and Powder Ridge Mountain.

She only knew how to make crepes, but that was enough. Slowly, steadily, her business grew and moved a larger space on Durham’s main drag. She even kept her stunning vistas with a rear deck for outdoor dining.

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Everybody at Perk knows John, who brings a friendly flair to everything he does.

Hughes said her desire to reduce waste at Perk grew out of necessity.  Supplies arrived in boxes, forcing her to reduce mountains of cardboard. She decided recycling was the answer. She began “buying cleaner,” replacing Styrofoam cups with compostable cups and lids. Today, virtually everything in her shops is compostable, from napkins and paper plates to plastic utensils.

Perk On Main in Durham and Perk On Church in Guilford have recycling stations with signs showing customers how to sort waste. Two bins are behind the counter for employees _ one for coffee grinds and another for compostable food waste. There’s no room for a self-serve recycling station at the Middletown shop near Wesleyan University, but employees sort waste and recycle.

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Bins behind the counter make it easy for employees to recycle grinds and compostable materials.

Hughes buys local whenever she can, purchasing maple syrup from the Durham Sugar House, and yogurt from Deerfield Farm in Durham.  Roses for Autism in Guilford supplies fresh roses for tables, and there’s a book and magazine swap for patrons. Hughes also promotes local businesses, from paintings and photographs on the walls to greeting cards and glass terrariums created by NatureWorks in North Branford. In her spare time, she often hosts kids’ groups to explain recycling.

Hughes is always on the hunt for more ways to help. When she sees a legally blind customer who visited her shop several months ago, she apologizes for not investigating braille menus. And when she hears about a potential source of fresh vegetables in the winter, she jots down the name to investigate.

About the only thing Hughes is guarded about is her crepe recipe, which she whips up 7 to 10 gallons at a time. She estimates Perk goes through 20 gallons of crepe batter per week at the Durham shop alone. Her crepes are light and thin, but sturdy enough to fold without breaking. I’d guard that formula too.

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The Olive Oyl, a heavenly combo of spinach, onions, garlic, tomatoes and feta cheese.

Sales are on par with last year, but Hughes says it’s time to tinker with the menu, maybe change up a few things. She enjoys all aspects of running her businesses, which includes catering and a roving crepe truck, but has no plans to expand.

“Three is enough,” she says, much like a mother saying her family is complete. “I’m just learning so much and I want to fine-tune what I have. I really like every aspect of it, but I get burned out if I spend too much time in one area, like the kitchen. I’ve got to be on top of everything. If I’m not, I’ll lose my edge.”

For hours and complete menu information, visit https://www.perkonmain.com.

A Love Note to Perk

The following was written by 80-year-old Sam Jackson, a regular with his wife Margaret at Perk on Church during the six years they lived in Guilford. They moved back to Pennsylvania in late March, but their love for Perk endures.

“It was the outdoor patio in front of Perk On Church that drew us in for a coffee in the sun, but the pleasure of a good cup of coffee hooked us as did Perk’s focus on using recyclable containers and connecting with the community. As we became familiar faces, the warmth and joviality of the employees made us feel like family, a feeling that’s prevailed from the days of Hayley and Jackie through more recently Sam, Kendra, John, Quiara, Pierce, and Justin, all of whom became our NYT crossword consultants as we’d hit a clue calling for knowledge beyond our scope or were stumped by a computer problem. Then there were the crepes, both sweet and savory, and, oh, the oatmeal raisin cookies. Finally, one day Sam flipped the computer face toward us to show us a tab on it with our name on it because we’d become such regulars. Thanks, Perkers, for embracing us so with your goodies and your warmth of spirit.”

                                                                                                                                         _ Sam Jackson
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Perk’s outdoor seating is one of its greatest attractions.

Keeping Food Out of the Landfill: Policy Ideas for States and Localities released last fall by Harvard’s Food & Policy Clinic.

+ The Huffington Post

^ Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection

Epilogue

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 I bought a backyard compost bin after writing this piece.

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