The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

July 23, 2017

Three Stone Hearth – Much More Than Delicious Food in Returnable Mason Jars

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.

Three Stone Harvest foods in glass mason jars

Including frozen foods!

Three Stone Hearth frozen foods in glass jars

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.

Three Stone Harvest mason jar return

In order to be eligible for a deposit refund, customers must thoroughly clean those jars! (Your mother doesn’t work here.)

Three Stone Hearth bottle and jar return

At the store, the return system is self-serve.  Customers sort their jars into bins labeled for the different sizes.

Three Stone Hearth mason jar return

Customers can bring back not only jars, but rings, lids, and even the plastic caps from Claravale milk bottles.

Three Stone Hearth customer returns her mason jars

Jar rings are sterilized and reused if they are in good shape and not rusty.

Return Three Stone Harvest jar rings

Jar lids and milk caps cannot be reused, but they are collected for recycling.

Return Three Stone Hearth mason jar lids

Return Three Stone Hearth Claravale milk caps

Bottles, jars, and rings are then sterilized in the kind of super-hot dishwasher used by commercial kitchens.

Three Stone Hearth sterilizes returned jars and rings

Three Stone Hearth bottles sterilized in super hot dishwasher

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.

Three Stone Hearth delivery packaging

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:

Golden Gate Neighborhood Honey

Golden Gate Neighborhood Honey in returnable glass jars


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.

Three Stone Hearth brews kombucha in glass jugs

The finished product is bottled in reused glass sparkling water bottles.

Three Stone Hearth uses secondhand glass bottles for kombucha

Krauts are fermented in ceramic crocks.

Three Stone Hearth ferments kraut 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.

Three Stone Hearth ferments products in stainless steel containers.

Here’s a glimpse of kitchen staff filling steaming mason jars.

Three Stone Hearth employees filling mason jars

Three Stone Hearth employee fills mason jar


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.

Three Stone Hearth samples bar

Three Stone Hearth samples

Today, sweet corn custard samples were displayed on metal spoons.

Three Stone Hearth corn custard samples


Broth from the broth bar is served only in ceramic cups and mason jars.

Three Stone Hearth broth bar Three Stone Hearth broth bar Three Stone Hearth broth bar

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.)

Three Stone Hearth egg custard in aluminum tin

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.

Three Stone Hearth tote bag and jars

They also sell books.  I’m honored that Plastic-Free is one of their offerings!

Plastic-Free at Three Stone Hearth
Three Stone Hearth co-founders Porsche Combash and Jessica Prentice and staff members Kathe Boyd and Shannon Lott

What a fun way to spend an afternoon!

Plastic-Free Beth Terry at Three Stone Hearth


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Rosie (@greenrosielife)
6 years ago

This is wonderful and a great insight into what can be achieved. Fabulous!

6 years ago

So great! Enviable. I am forwarding this post to my food coop to see if we can up our game.

Christine Liu
6 years ago

This is so beautiful! I must go visit the next time I’m in the area. Thank you for sharing as usual Beth (:

Amanda van Niekerk
6 years ago

You are amazing Beth, and a really prolific taker-of-photographs! I live in South Africa and I’ve been avoiding plastic at all costs since discovering your site. Thank you :)