When Squatters opened 16 years ago, owners Peter Cole and Jeff Polychronis had little money to put into their new business, Salt Lake City’s first brewpub and microbrewery. “Jeff and I did it with smoke and mirrors,” says British-born Cole.
So partly of necessity, fiscal frugality partnered with environmental stewardship in the design and construction of Squatters. The wall separating the bar from the brewery, for example, was made from recycled beams that used to be part of a bridge to the Anaconda Mine in Tooele. The large stone fireplace that takes up a healthy portion of the east wall in Squatters’ dining room was once part of a street. “Back in 1989, when we were under construction, I was walking to the bank one day and came across an excavation site where the city was digging up part of West Temple,” says Cole. “There were all these original cobblestones in piles and long blocks of sandstone which had been the curbs. So we got the city to dump a couple of loads of sandstone and cobblestones out back â€¦ I spent a few weeks in a sort of frogman-spacesuit outfit sandblasting tar off the top of the stones, and we used them to build the fireplace.”
Since that time, Squatters has become a case study in how to do well by doing good. Recently, I sat down with Cole and Squatters chef Eric Bell to talk, not so much about food and drink, but about the ways that a business can have a large impact on its community while striving to have a small impact on its environment. It’s not often that I chat with restaurateurs and chefs and find the discussion to be more about karma and community than about the latest food fad or celebrity chef.
If you picture a professional chef as a temperamental guy who screams continually at his incompetent staff, you should meet Eric Bell. He’s been Squatters’ chef for six years now, and I can’t think of anyone who smashes the chef stereotype like he does. He begins most days by sitting meditation at the Kanzeon Zen Center. “When I come to work there’s so much to do that we don’t even talk in the kitchen for hours. It’s almost like a continuation of sitting Zen: cutting the carrots, peeling the onions. It’s the same mindset. You’re very focused and in the moment. Shunryu Suzuki once said, â€˜When you cut the carrot, cut the carrot. When you peel the onion, peel the onion.’”
A while back, Bell joined an organization called Slow Food (www.slowfood.com). “My mother was an amazing gardener,” he says. “And I kept meeting kids here in the city who didn’t know where tomatoes came from. So I thought it would be a cool thing for us to support Wasatch Community Gardens. Eight hundred kids go through the Gardens in the summer, and they’d just lost 20 percent of their funding. So in conjunction with Slow Food we hosted a fund-raising dinner for Wasatch Community Gardens at Squatters last spring: Perry from Metropolitan cooked; Greg Neville [Lugano] came over and cooked; I cooked.â€
The result was that proceeds from the dinner were able to replace the funding that Wasatch Community Gardens had lost. “It’s great to see kids play in the dirt and learn where food comes from.” Bell says with a smile. “You might come to Squatters and have pesto that was grown by 8-year-olds; it’s pretty cool!” In the fall, Squatters buys as much basil, tomatoes and other herbs and produce as they can from the kids at Wasatch Community Gardens, helping to complete the circle.
A short list of organizations to benefit from Squatters’ community spirit are Guadalupe School, ARUP Blood Services, Alliance House, Community Nursing Services, Save Our Canyons, No More Homeless Pets and the 4th Street Clinic. As I say, that’s just a short list, since the complete rundown would take up the remainder of this column.
How does Squatters decide where to contribute? According to Cole, “Over the years the way we run the company has changed. It’s no longer a hierarchal model. We really try to listen to everybody. For example, we now have an employee council, which has tremendous input as to where we give our donations. There’s a quote I like that goes something like, â€˜Brains are distributed equally throughout a company: one per person.’ Good ideas are found throughout the company, including about where to put charitable donations.”
That all sounds great. But what about the bottom line? Cole says, “We have to make a profit, and we do. Some of our employees have been here for 16 years, from the very beginning. As the business has grown we now have a responsibility for employees’ families, their home mortgages and the like. At the same time, we want Squatters to be a responsible citizen in our community.
“One of the fundamental problems of our society is that the cost of the environment and damage to the environment and maintaining the environment was never built into any of the equations. There’s no cost built into a barrel of oil for the environmental degradation and problems we’re going to cause for our children and grandchildren. So when you think of your responsibility in those terms, it’s not too difficult to say, â€˜Yeah, this is what we should be doing; this is the right thing.’â€
To that end, Squatters is committed to reducing their power needs and purchasing renewable, non-polluting energy where possible. High temperature dishwashers, wind power, waterless urinals, energy-efficient lighting, recycled glassware (see Food Matters), a water-wise garden, cloth (vs. paper) linens and recyclable “to go” containers are a few examples of how the folks at Squatters are attempting to “do the right thing.” There’s even spent brewer’s grain in the fresh bread baked at Squatters, and their delivery truck runs on bio-diesel from used kitchen oils.
Of course, all of that would be beside the point if Squatters’ food and beer weren’t also terrific. But they are.