The California Drought’s Impact on Local Restaurants

Water glass

Much has been discussed regarding the current state of California’s local industry in light of the severe drought plaguing the state.  Suffering for more than four years without substantial rainfall, last year California was declared to be in a state of emergency.  And while the local agriculture industry seems to have been hit the hardest, the drought’s effects permeate into every sector of the state’s local industry, including the local food and beverage industry.  But despite the immense impact, there are some Los Angeles restaurants fighting back.  

Restaurants Suffer Under Drought Conditions

In response to California’s severe drought conditions, Starbucks recently moved its bottled water operations out of the state and Nestle is currently drawing fire for refusing to halt their bottling of water sourced from the state’s scarce water supply.  Reports of drought-induced rising costs for avocados threw the internet into a panic over a rumor that Chipotle may stop serving their famed guacamole.     

On a smaller scale, local restaurants are also suffering from the effects of the drought.  Recently, legislation was enacted that restricts the serving of water in restaurants unless upon request.  While this new restriction may draw the ire of demanding customers, many of the top restaurants were already following suit before these restrictions were enacted. 

“We were already conscious before the drought” explained Gilberto Cetina Jr of Chichen Itza restaurant in Downtown Los Angeles.  “And not just for the environment but for costs – we have to wash every glass used.”

Yet what is even more concerning to local chefs is the drought’s effect on the cost, availability and even flavor profile of local produce.  At a panel dedicated to exploring the LA food scene, famed Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold explained that the drought has effectively worked to throw certain crops out of cycle.  This affects both the pricing and availability of local produce, he furthered.   

Water

The drought also resulted in poor yields for a variety of crops.  With Los Angeles’ growing obsession for utilizing local produce in its array of restaurants, this brings the issue of the state’s drought conditions even more into the spotlight.

At the same panel, Chef Christine Moore of Pasadena’s Lincoln Restaurant also spoke to the changes she has noticed in local produce since the drought. 

“The drought has made stone fruit even sweeter,” Moore explained. 

While sweetness may seem a favorable quality, the change to traditional flavor profiles of local produce presents a very real risk to farmers looking to sell their produce in competitive markets, as well as for the restaurants looking to purchase local ingredients.

And farmers are not alone as this agricultural impact has also affected the state’s local wine industry, the largest wine producing region in the nation.  While many wine regions have actually experienced record crop sizes since the drought began, the lack of rainfall is still taking its toll on the vines, often pushing harvest into record-setting early seasons.  Furthermore, for many of the state’s wineries who employ dry farming, which is the refusal to irrigate their vines, the yields over the last several years have been severely limited.

How Some LA Restaurants Are Fighting Back

With California’s record-setting drought, water has become a scarce resource and is thus more precious than ever.  In response, some restaurants are taking steps to conserve this valuable resource.

At Silver Lake newcomer Alimento, a surcharge of $1.50 is attached to the bill of every patron ordering water.  A percentage of this modest fee is then donated to the Silver Lake Reservoirs Conservancy, a fund that is dedicated to preserving the reservoirs located nearby the restaurant.  While this controversial fee has been much criticized by consumers and food critics alike, the environmentally conscious restaurant is one of very few in the city that recognizes the dire situation that the state is currently in. 

In Big Sur, Chef John Cox of Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn, has addressed another aspect of water wastage in restaurants by introducing an air compressor to replace the restaurant’s dish sprayer.  While regulations have been enacted to control the water being served to guests, the EPA estimates that over 50% of water utilized in restaurants are used for dish-washing.  By utilizing an air compressor to spray dirty plates before loading, alongside using a water-efficient dishwasher, Cox estimates that he can save up to 1,000 gallons of water per day.  Following Chef Cox’s lead, LA based Faith and Flower is following suit and is set to transfer over to this water-saving system as well.

While there may not be a foreseeable end to the ongoing drought, these restaurants are setting a prime example on how to run a successful business while still remaining environmentally conscious.