This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Greening the neighborhood deli

City Provisions’ new deli location (Chicagoist photo).

By Judith Nemes

City Provisions, a catering company that emphasizes food from local farms and small-batch artisans, is extending its brand to a new sustainably minded delicatessen set to open its doors Friday in Ravenswood.

Cleetus Friedman, City Provisions’ owner, started his catering business with three employees in early 2008 during some of the darkest days of the battered economy. His philosophy of showcasing seasonal, mostly organic food from farms and producers within a 250-mile radius has earned him accolades. Wedding bookings have tripled this year compared with 2009 and his staff size has mushroomed to 40, including his new deli crew and about 20 temporary servers for events. He also runs a monthly farm dinner series. 

Cleetus Friedman (GapersBlock photo)

Mr. Friedman, 39, is known for pushing the envelope on putting green, sustainable practices to work in the daily operation of his business and in his catered events. The new deli features shelving reclaimed from a burned-down Chicago home and sandwiches wrapped in soy-based wax paper instead of petroleum-based.

There’s been lots of buzz about City Provisions’ upcoming deli. Mr. Friedman tells Crain’s how his locally sourced green business stands apart from your typical catering outfit and delicatessen, and why he’s betting people will pay more for what’s in his deli case. 

Crain’s: Why was it important to you to have a catering company and now a deli that focuses on local and organic food producers?

Mr. Friedman: My model was simple: local, sustainable, organic. My attitude towards food is the closer it is to home, the fresher it’s going to be and the better it’s going to taste. I also believe in the local food economy and supporting local businesses and local farms. I think it’s a smart way to live and it keeps our carbon footprint down. Besides, when there’s a big scare with an egg recall, I have nothing to worry about. I’ve been to all these farms, I know the animals.

Crain’s: Why did you decide to expand beyond catering and open a storefront deli?

Mr. Friedman: My 10-year plan was to start with a catering company, open up a deli, then a bakery. The delicatessen is a response to the local food movement. I didn’t plan on opening a deli for another couple years, but people are ready now. I want to be ahead of the curve. If I wait two years, someone’s going to do it before me.

The deli is simply a brick-and-mortar extension of our catering business and a little extension into grocery. There’s a fantastic synergy between catering and the deli operation because items like shrimp salad and quinoa are being made on a daily basis anyway, so why not have a place to sell it out the front door?

Crain’s: How is your new storefront different from a run-of-the-mill deli?

Mr. Friedman: This is not your Katz’s Deli or Second Street Deli in New York. This is my East Coast influence mixed with a local-sustainable-connect-you-with-your-food type of deli. We have all these great deli meats, but they’re all made from local ingredients. Everything in the deli has a story about the farmer or local artisan that brought it to us.

Crain’s: City Provisions has a reputation for being a highly sustainable company. Can you give an example that shows how committed you are to being green?

Mr. Friedman: I don’t want to hang a green flag out here, but we’re a really green company.

We do something called skip composting. Every person in our kitchen has a bucket at their station. Throughout the day they save all of their organic waste and at end of the day that goes into a big trash can. Twice a week we see our pig farmers. They pick up that waste and feed it to their hogs. On Wednesday half a hog was put on our table and we fed that hog with our food. You talk about a closed circle in sustainability — it doesn’t get crazier than that.

We’re the guinea pig for a guy who’s taking our fryer oil and trying to create a generator to run our fryer using that oil. If we can get off the grid by 20% in two years, it would be a beautiful thing. I’m also constantly challenging my Sysco (Corp.) rep to find me better eco-friendly products for our disposables. Styrofoam isn’t allowed in the building, and I don’t want foil because that just recycles. I need something better.

Crain’s: Can you be both green and profitable in the food-service business?

Mr. Friedman: Yes, because I think people are willing to pay for it. The $9 sandwich that you’re buying from us is more than just the sandwich. You’re paying for the story about helping specific local farmers. There’s been a disconnect with many shoppers and Whole Foods. You can spend $100 there, but you’re not really sure where that money’s going. You might spend $100 here, but you’ll know who’s being helped with that money. This idea of local and understanding where your food is coming from is not a trend, it’s a movement.

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