Customers aren’t the only ones enjoying a meal at Bittercreek Alehouse in downtown Boise.
Below the restaurant, through a maze of long hallways, past the prep kitchen is a room full of thousands of worms busily munching through pounds of rotting food. The invertebrates are part of a program, called Urban Worm, started by restaurant owner Dave Krick to help dispose of food waste from three of his restaurants on 8th Street.
A better way to run a restaurant
Started in 2006, Urban Worm was born out of Krick’s frustration with the piles of vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and other organic matter going into the landfills from his businesses. Table scraps cannot be fed to the worms because it includes animal fats. But by using this method, Krick can divert up to hundreds of pounds a day of organic waste from the landfill.
“I was really struggling with the restaurant industry because of how wasteful it was,” Krick said, surveying his two worm bins. “My wife’s a pretty big influence on me and I don’t think we could have stayed in this business in her mind because it’s so wasteful and it frustrated her. We decided if we were going to do it, we needed to do it in a way that was more thoughtful and wasted less.”
It starts in the prep kitchen. His employees working at Bittercreek Alehouse, Red Feather Lounge and Diablo Sons collect organic matter eligible for Urban Worm into bins and every couple of days they feed it through a processing machine. It chops up the waste and squeezes the water out of the food scraps to make it easier for the worms to digest.
From there, it goes into the worm bins every other day. The large bins are filled with worms, food scraps, spent grains from local breweries and topped with shredded newspaper and discarded wood from the oven at Diablo and Sons. There they eat through the material and discard the material in casings, which creates compost material.
‘Rich in life’
He said this form of compost is particularly prized by gardeners and farmers because the worm casings release nutrients slowly over time, instead of all at once like waste from chickens or other animals. Those waste materials will cause plants to grow rapidly, but not produce any fruit because the nutrients are released all at once.
“Because what we’re trying to do is produce a compost that is not just rich in biodiversity and rich in life, but rich in a balanced life that is coexisting with each other,” Krick said. “I mean microorganisms all the way up to centipedes.”
In years past, Urban Worm sold worms and its compost material at the Boise Farmers Market, but Krick said he quickly realized it wasn’t a way to make a profit for his restaurant. Now, he just creates the material and takes it home for himself or gives it away to his staff members so they can get into gardening themselves.
Once COVID-19 shuttered restaurants last spring, Krick said Urban Worm went into hibernation. But, now that his restaurants are open and getting busier as the pandemic begins to let up, he said they are in the process of building up the worms population and increasing capacity for food waste disposal.
Could there be a city-wide system?
Before the pandemic, his worms were going through enough waste he had enough to take on scraps from other nearby restaurants. At full capacity each of his two bins can process up to a total of 400 pounds of food waste per day, but his restaurant only produces roughly 200 pounds of waste.
“We have the capacity to far exceed what we have in our restaurant,” he said.
Krick is pleased with the impact of Urban Worm on food waste and some of the other environmentally conscious measures he’s taken in his restaurants, like finding water-efficient dishwashers and using the city’s geothermal system. But, he thinks the long-term solution for the region should be a commercial composting service, like the one the City of Boise operates for residential customers.
“It’s unnecessary to send organic waste to the landfill,” he said. “It completely works against everything we should be working towards in our society. We need to build biodiversity in our soil to be able to continue to grow our plants and feed us. When we take and throw away food waste we’re losing a huge component of how we feed ourselves.”