Local readers may be surprised when I confess that I’ve walked past Three Stone Hearth on University Ave in Berkeley a bunch of times over the years and never gone in. I didn’t go in because I didn’t know what it was.
If I had gone in, I would have discovered a nearly plastic-free, zero waste mecca full of gloriously delicious food and friendly people. Thank goodness the shop owners reached out to me this year to come and talk to their customers about my plastic-free journey. I wish I had known about Three Stone Hearth when I was writing my book because they would have definitely been included!
It’s All About Those Mason Jars
Three Stone Hearth is a Community Supported kitchen (like a CSA for prepared foods) serving up delicious, organic, nutrient-dense foods based on traditional diets. (Weekly offerings include choices for vegans, vegetarians, and meat-eaters.) Customers can come to the store to purchase foods or sign up for delivery. (Groups can create centralized delivery locations to reduce transportation miles.) But whichever way they choose, nearly everything a customer buys will come in a returnable mason jar.
Including frozen foods!
Customers pay a refundable deposit for each jar and receive their deposits back when they return them, either by bringing them back to the store or by including them in their delivery box to be picked up by their next delivery driver.
In order to be eligible for a deposit refund, customers must thoroughly clean those jars! (Your mother doesn’t work here.)
At the store, the return system is self-serve. Customers sort their jars into bins labeled for the different sizes.
Customers can bring back not only jars, but rings, lids, and even the plastic caps from Claravale milk bottles.
Jar rings are sterilized and reused if they are in good shape and not rusty.
Jar lids and milk caps cannot be reused, but they are collected for recycling.
Bottles, jars, and rings are then sterilized in the kind of super-hot dishwasher used by commercial kitchens.
This method eliminates any concerns about contamination from customer’s using their own bottles and containers.
Delivery customers are asked to return not only the reusable crate but also all the packaging inside. Styrofoam and cold packs are used to keep foods cold, but they are reused over and over again. In fact, co-founder Jessica Prentice says the foam is so sturdy, she doesn’t think they’ve had to throw one away. But she is looking forward to the day when mushroom foam becomes a viable alternative to polystyrene.
Spreading the Mason Jar Habit
In addition to the foods they prepare in their kitchen, Three Stone Hearth also carries some foods from outside vendors, and they encourage those vendors to deliver their products in returnable glass jars as well. The challenge is convincing vendors to place their labels either on the lid or inside the jar, so they don’t have to be removed when the jar is returned. Here are a few companies that made the switch:
Kaleidoscope Foods vegan kale chips and bone broth kale & seaweed chips. (A small silica gel pack in the bottom of the jar keeps them crisp.)
Strong Arm Farms Seaweed. This company slips the label inside the jar to avoid gluing it to the outside. I was very excited to discover this East Bay source for package-free kombu (which I use when cooking beans), as previously the only source I’d known about was the bulk bin at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, and I’m pretty sure it’s delivered to Rainbow in plastic packaging.
Evergreen Acres Dairy delivers raw goat feta to Three Stone Hearth in a returnable mason jar as well.
You get the idea!
Keeping It Local
Like the zero waste grocery store in.gredients in Austin, TX, Three Stone Hearth sources its ingredients and products locally. By supporting local businesses, they can reduce food miles and also make their reuse programs feasible. It’s easier and less resource intensive to exchange glass containers with local customers and vendors than it would be to ship glass long distances. As small businesses scale up for nationwide distribution, they often drop their reuse programs. It happened with St. Benoit yogurt. And now, it looks like the most recent casualty is Revive Kombucha.
I’m not saying businesses should never scale up, but I am suggesting that the business model of shipping products all over the country is not sustainable, and not only because of the environmental impact of transportation. Nationwide distributors require uniformity of product and packaging and that means reuse programs are out and a lot more plastic is required to keep foods fresh longer. It may be more difficult and costly to decentralize your business into local shops that source ingredients from whatever is fresh and local, but I would support any company that valued the health of its customers and the planet as much as monetary profits. </rant>
Plastic-Free Behind the Scenes
It’s also disheartening to fall in love with a product in plastic-free packaging and then discover that behind the scenes, the company is using a lot of plastic to produce it. For example, back in 2013, I visited a kombucha maker in Kauai that sold its tasty beverages in returnable glass bottles. But during my tour, I discovered that they were actually using big plastic drums to brew the kombucha. The drums were reusable, yes, but what chemicals were leaching into this supposedly healthy beverage from all that plastic? As we’ve learned from the recent study of processed cheeses, even organic foods can become contaminated with hormone disruptors when plastics are used in the production process.
Three Stone Hearth’s kombucha is brewed in glass.
The finished product is bottled in reused glass sparkling water bottles.
Krauts are fermented in ceramic crocks.
And because glass and ceramic can easily break, the company has been switching to stainless steel to ferment some of its products.
Here’s a glimpse of kitchen staff filling steaming mason jars.
Plastic-Free, Zero Waste Samples
Ever wonder how many disposable paper and plastic containers are wasted every day at stores like Costco and Trader Joe’s that regularly give out samples? Um… a lot. Three Stone Hearth has a samples bar and broth bar inside the front door. The only disposable items are wooden toothpicks for cheese samples. Foods are served in small mason jars with metal spoons.
Today, sweet corn custard samples were displayed on metal spoons.
Broth from the broth bar is served only in ceramic cups and mason jars.
A few Disposable Items
Packaging at Three Stone Hearth is not entirely reusable. They do carry a few items from outside vendors that come packaged in plastic. But like I said before, they are working on persuading vendors to make the switch. They also bake a few items each day in recyclable aluminum trays lined with parchment paper. They haven’t been able to find a better alternative. (You can’t exactly serve baked egg custard in a mason jar.)
Educational Programs at Three Stone Hearth
In addition to inviting people like me to come and table and talk to their customers, Three Stone Hearth offers eduational programs, including tours of the kitchen, classes and workshops on food and nutrition, and intensives on the business of creating a community kitchen.
What a fun way to spend an afternoon!