When Kermit the Frog sang, “It’s not easy being green,” he probably didn’t know decades later it would actually be pretty easy to be green — in the environmental way, of course. Millions of people visit the Cincinnati Zoo every year to see lions, tigers and bears, but now they can further their environmental education through Base Camp Café, which recently was anointed the title of greenest restaurant in the entire U.S.
Green Restaurant Association (GRA) rates restaurants on a point scale which includes categories like energy, sustainable food, water efficiency and waste reduction; Base Camp accumulated enough points to knock out the former greenest restaurant, Chicago’s Uncommon Ground.
“When the remodel was starting, it was more of just to go and get a GRA certification,” says Jordan Miller, green manager of Service Systems Associates, the zoo’s concession partner. “Then about halfway through the process we started summiting our documents and realized that this restaurant in Chicago is only 100 points ahead of us. So, ‘Let’s go and get that record!’ One thing led to another and all of a sudden we attained 487.1 points.”
The score garnered Base Camp a four-star rating, not only making it the greenest restaurant in the U.S., but also the greenest zoo restaurant in America — by a lot.
“You don’t think of the greenest restaurant in the U.S. being at a zoo, by any means,” says Travis Kight, SSA’s corporate executive chef. “We knew we had a good shot, but it was an awesome accomplishment for us to actually hit that goal and get to the highest rating.”
Kight manages several other zoo restaurants and eateries, including a two-star GRA-certified restaurant in Detroit.
“That was our goal — to at least beat that,” Kight says. “We just like to highlight one property and really kind of brag about that.”
Through the recent renovations (thanks to architect Dean Violetta), they’ve added 100 indoor seats and 300 outdoor seats, a small greenhouse and, to coincide with the newly opened African exhibit, they built a sprawling deck made from reclaimed wood that overlooks the African savanna, featuring roaming lions and cheetahs. The jaw-dropping safari vista is unrivaled by any other view in this city.
Unlike a lot of restaurants, Base Camp has four types of environmental containers set up: compost, chip bags, recycle and landfill, a type of waste they’re trying to reduce to zero. As for the customers, they find the green initiatives and healthy food surprising.
“You walk in and you’re expecting something old and ragged but they don’t expect to walk in and see fresh and vibrant and fun,” Kight says. “We look at it almost like a regular quick casual restaurant. We want people to not think they’re necessarily in a zoo when they walk in here.”
“I think that’s our biggest goal is change the vision of what a zoo restaurant can be,” Miller adds. “I think starting here for us as a company is a good start in changing that experience for our guests; that at a zoo you can get more upscale restaurant-type food — that’s what we’re offering now.”
To help collect GRA points, Base Camp started serving grass-fed beef that’s sourced from White Clover Farms in Hillsboro, Ohio. Besides the burgers, they offer daily specials, rotating salads, coconut water (in compostable containers), a vegan burger and “core items” like chicken tenders and pizza for families.
Much of their food comes from the zoo-owned Mason farm called EcOhio that leases 50 acres to Green B.E.A.N. Delivery, which Base Camp uses for their produce and products.
“They send us a list of what’s in season and then we send them an email saying, ‘Hey, we need 10 cases of romaine,’ and then they’ll ship us romaine,” Kight says. Even the zoo animals eat a lot of the produce Green B.E.A.N. grows on the farm.
Even though they’ve already obtained such a high status, there’s always room for more progress.
“I think our main thing is not stepping backward and keep going forward,” Kight says. “We can always improve perception in people’s eyes.”
Looking ahead, Base Camp will soon be certified LEED Gold. They’re installing an aquaponics system, and, most importantly, they’re challenging us to evaluate the way we, the visitors, live. “Being green in here can really improve life outside of the zoo,” Miller says.
Base Camp Café
Go: Cincinnati Zoo, 3400 Vine St., Avondale
Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily through Labor Day