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Sustainability on a tight budget

Sure, you want to serve sustainable seafood, but you're also trying to stretch your purchasing dollars. Can you do both?

Sarah Stegner, chef-owner of Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook, Illinois, has developed some cost-effective sustainable strategies. "Managing seafood to minimize waste is very important," she states. Stegner buys whole fish that she breaks down, cutting filets and saving every scrap. "With wild Alaska salmon, we even scrape the flesh off the backbone and use it in our Crispy Salmon Rolls," she explains. She also saves money by purchasing more costly wild species, like Copper River salmon, in the middle of the season when it's most plentiful—not at the beginning or end.

Last month, Stegner partnered with Chicago's Shedd Aquarium for a "Right Bite" dinner "to celebrate delicious sustainable seafood options." Courses included Tempura Dungeness Crab Legs, Mussels with Saffron Aioli and Wild Striped Bass. Prior to the dinner, Shedd sent experts out to Prairie Grass to educate staff about sustainable practices. Stegner feels this adds value to the guest's dining experience, even though her margins may not be as high.

"Think about the value associated with sustainable fish," agrees Ned Daly, North American director for Seafood Choices Alliance. "Mentioning sustainability on the menu and talking about where a product comes from—especially with today's concern over traceability—adds value that people seem to be willing to pay for." He also cautions against going sustainable all at once—advice that Prairie Grass has followed. "Not everything we serve is sustainable, but we're moving in that direction," says Stegner. "Little steps make a big difference," adds Daly. "Start with some of the more reasonable choices, like [farmed] mussels and oysters."

Seafood Choices advocates identifying and promoting good practices rather than ranking seafood as "good" or "bad" in the sustainability spectrum. "Ask suppliers lots of questions about catching and farming the seafood they sell," Daly suggests.

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