Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, the prominent Chicago-based restaurant company known for restaurants like RPM Steak and R.J. Grunts, plans to phase out the use of plastic straws by Oct. 1.
Lettuce Entertain You isn’t the first to take this step. More than 100 Chicago-area restaurants and bars have made similar commitments as part of the Shedd Aquarium’s “Shedd the Straw” campaign. But Lettuce’s sheer size and influence within the Chicago restaurant scene could accelerate the growing movement to eliminate plastic straws, which are difficult to recycle and often end up in the ocean.
Lettuce plans to transition all of its 120 restaurants in nine states to alternatives, including paper, hay and even biodegradable plastic straws, though customers will be encouraged to not use straws at all, said R.J. Melman, president of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.
“There’s always going to be some pushback, but that’s how change happens, right? Hopefully our customers understand that we’re doing what we think is right,” Melman said.
This movement has been rapidly gaining steam in Chicago and throughout the United States. Earlier this year, the Chicago White Sox organization announced it would no longer offer plastic straws in the ballpark. And though McDonald’s — under pressure from environmentalists — hasn’t yet made the same commitment, the Chicago-based global fast-food chain says it’s studying the issue and will test alternatives later this year.
Though much smaller in scale than McDonald’s, Lettuce’s decision to phase out plastic straws will still be a sizable undertaking, Melman said. The company is known for its diverse portfolio of restaurant concepts — everything from a Navy Pier stand selling ice pops and pretzels to top-grossing restaurants like RPM Steak and Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab.
Part of the challenge is finding alternatives that work for each concept, Melman said. For example, biodegradable plastic straws likely only will be used at Three Dots and a Dash, the River North Tiki bar known for extravagant cocktails often served with bendy straws, he said.
And the supply chain for plastic straw alternatives hasn’t yet caught up with demand, Melman said.
“I’m very sympathetic to (McDonald’s) position. Logistically it’s much more difficult than you might think. There’s truly not enough supply,” said Melman, who credited his brother Jerrod Melman for first nudging the family-owned company to explore the possibility of phasing out straws.
The movement in Chicago could have local impact. Millions of pounds of plastic debris each year end up in Lake Michigan, said Maddie Caldwell, conservation action coordinator for the Shedd Aquarium.
More than 125 Chicago restaurants have joined Shedd Aquarium’s campaign, making the commitment to only offer plastic straws upon request and to seek out alternatives, Caldwell said. The campaign had already worked with Shaw’s Crab House, a Lettuce restaurant, to limit plastic straw use, Caldwell said.
“To hear the rest of the restaurant company is getting on board is really exciting,” Caldwell said. “It’s huge.”