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This bartender wants to lower your cocktail’s carbon footprint

Claire Sprouse, the owner of Hunky Dory, is passionate about sustainability in an infamously wasteful industry. With the pandemic, she's getting even more creative.

Ideally, I'd love to grab a drink in-person with Claire Sprouse, the owner and mastermind behind Hunky Dory in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. But with the pandemic, neither one of us is going to hop on a plane and fly to NYC or New Orleans anytime soon, as much as I'd like to. Plus, the carbon footprint of a roundtrip flight would completely negate the purpose of our chat: how can we make the food and beverage industry less wasteful and more sustainable?

Sprouse lives just a couple doors down from her all-day café now, but she hasn't always been a New Yorker. Originally from Texas, she moved to San Francisco in 2014. It was there, working in notable bars and restaurants like ABV and Rickhouse, that she became interested in agriculture, climate change, food waste — and water conservation. “I'm particularly interested in water issues,” Sprouse says. “At my bar, I built a low-water usage program…people take water for granted so much, because it's everywhere, and relatively cheap, but people don't think about wasting it.”

Having previously worked as as a sustainability consultant before opening her own bar in 2019, she is accustomed to looking at issues in food and beverage through a social and climate justice lens. “I feel like eating and drinking, just like anything.else, is a very political act. And I wanted to bring that to life.”

When governor officials mandated all NYC bars and restaurants to shut down on March 15, it forced Sprouse to take stock, and dig deeper into a community project that had been brewing in her head for a few years. “Just because the world's on pause, and New York's on pause, doesn't mean climate change is on pause,” she says.

What she ended up producing this spring was an online resource called Outlook Good. “The long-term goal is to build a larger platform that will be a resource hub for food and beverage news and ideas in sustainability,” Sprouse explains. In the immediate term, she's focusing on three projects. First, she's releasing three separate volumes of digital cocktail books, called “Optimistic Cocktails: Reimagined Food Waste & Recipes for Resilience.” The first one is available now for $15, and all proceeds go to the bar's staff and undocumented worker funds.

The recipes are gathered from Sprouse's colleagues and fellow bartenders around the U.S., and consist of wildly imaginative recipes that can transform an old banana peel into a delicious cinnamon syrup, or teach you how to fat-wash a bourbon with the leftover juice from a roasted chicken dinner.

Also on the docket: a sustainability-focused how-to guide for bars and restaurants to re-open post-pandemic. “This is an opportunity to reset in a lot of ways and ‘not go back to normal,'” Sprouse explains. Sprouse views her industry as having the potential to not just practice greener policies, but to actually lead the charge. As Outlook Good bluntly states on its website: “We are using the power of food, beverage, & hospitality to address climate change and climate justice.”

At her own café, Sprouse is also walking the walk. In an earlier interview with Food & Wine, Sprouse said, “I had a chef tell me one time that wasted food is wasted flavors and wasted opportunities to learn. I just love the idea of using waste to create even better things, so not just throwing together something in a glass so we can say that we’re zero waste, but really taking it to the next level with the flavors and creativity.”

Some of these ideas have manifested into seriously delicious-sounding cocktails. For instance, when tomatoes are out of season, Sprouse makes Bloody Mary's with a carrot base instead. “There’s nothing better than eating vegetables when they’re in their prime, and sometimes, we forget to extend that to drinks” she told F&W. Instead of using onions year round in a Gibson, she makes the gin-and-dry-vermouth cocktail with pickled rhubarb, cherries, or persimmons, depending on the season.

Sprouse almost always avoids most nuts, especially almonds, because of their heavy water usage and California-only location. Instead, she's become an avid fan of sunflower seeds. “They're super drought-resistant, there's no GMO risks, and they're good for soil,” she explains. The kitchen also uses the leftover solids from straining the seeds in some of their dishes.

While Sprouse is an advocate for squishing the carbon footprint of every drink and plate, she's also a numbers boss. When she leads sustainability workshops and events, she makes a point to emphasize that wasting less food is also wasting less money. “A lot of these practices can save you money. Every dollar and every penny really counts right now,” she adds.

Outlook Good's site states that “for us, inclusivity is paramount.” That's also something Sprouse practices at Hunky Dory. “Everyone has to be aware of the plan. It doesn't work if it's just a top-down approach.”

Claire Sprouse is the owner of Hunky Dory in Brooklyn and passionate about sustainability in an infamously wasteful industry. With the pandemic, she's getting even more creative.