Why you should care
This is a creative — and tasty — way to cut back on garbage.
The latest addition to the cocktail menu of Empyrean Events and Catering in Fort Wayne, Indiana, is one that Jeremy Miner, the general manager and chief mixologist, is especially proud of. It’s the Truffled Pear: a mix of vodka and a simple-syrup reduction of pears and white truffle honey, topped with a white chrysanthemum. The cocktail is served not in an ordinary tumbler but a fully edible, matcha-flavored cup, made of agar. “It’s kind of like a mix between a Fruit Roll-Up and dehydrated fruit,” Miner says.
It may sound like a trend geared toward experimental foodies, but edible dishes are primed to become more commonplace. After all, restaurants have been serving up salads in taco shells and chowder in sourdough bowls for decades. But these new edible dishes aren’t just novelties — they can actually stand in for paper plates, bowls and cups. They come in a variety of ingredients, from shrimp crackers to potato paste. One even tastes like bran and smells like bread crust.
Besides the novelty factor, edible dishes are a green alternative to standard disposable dishes, and they don’t require composting. Edible dishes make it much easier to be eco-conscious, and that’s a growing priority in the industry, says David Kincheloe, president of Denver-based National Restaurant Consultants. Each year, the industry buys $1 billion worth of disposable plates, according to the research firm Technomic. That’s a lot of trash destined for the landfill — but also a huge market opportunity for a fun, earth-friendly alternative.
In the past, edible dishes were a tough sell, mainly because they cost so much, says Melvin Pascall, professor of food science and technology at Ohio State University. But that might be changing. Earlier this year, for instance, KFC announced it would test selling coffee in an edible sugar-and-cookie cup in its U.K. locations. Binky Hyde, the creative studio manager of the Robin Collective, which designed the cup, tells OZY that the London firm has since fielded many similar inquiries from other companies.
They’re actually quite delicious. I was impressed with the spot-on flavor profile.
Jeremy Miner, mixologist
In fact, there’s an international array of businesses that now make similar products for both commercial and at-home chefs. Trentuno, a company in Rovereto, Italy, sells customizable dishes made of flour to restaurants. Munch Bowls, in Cape Town, South Africa, makes edible, flour-based bowls in two varieties, for sweet and savory dishes. There are even gluten-free options. Do Eat, based in Brussels, sells small dishes for appetizers that are made from a potato-based paste.
Jerzy Wysocki is taking advantage of the trend in his company’s new line of edible plates and bowls, called Biotrem. He stumbled upon the idea while working as a miller in Zambrów, Poland, where he was trying to eliminate leftover bran from producing flour and also preventing the mill from going bankrupt. He found a way to turn the bran into biodegradable dishes sturdy enough to withstand an oven or microwave and to hold soup — for up to 30 minutes. (Once tossed, the dishes dissolve within 30 days.) Wysocki’s company now sells the dishes online and in Polish shops with organic food, for $1.90 for a set of 10. “People are sending inquiries from all over the world,” says Anna Wysocka, a Biotrem spokeswoman.
But is scarfing down the equivalent of a giant bran cracker — let alone potato paste, which, we admit, sounds a little weird — the most appealing way to cap off dinner? It’s unclear whether these edible dishes pair well with all types of meals, warns Kincheloe. And when OZY correspondent Julia Szyndzielorz tried Biotrem’s bran plate at a Warsaw café, she noted it “wasn’t very tasty but was definitely edible.”
Some companies are experimenting with flavor. FoodieSpoon, based in Schiller Park, Illinois, makes edible spoons, designed to hold appetizer bites, with a variety of ingredients, including coconut and blue corn. And New York City-based Loliware, maker of the agar cups Miner uses for his cocktails, also offers them in tart cherry, Madagascar vanilla and citrus flavors.
There are other concerns, too — mainly about a dish’s germ factor. After all, that plate is in direct contact with the table and, in a restaurant, other people’s hands. “That opens up a whole different realm of operations issues,” says Kincheloe. Yet that hasn’t stopped restaurants, bars and other venues from taking a chance on them, especially as a way to create buzz.
Loliware, for one, got its products into the pool bar at the Four Seasons Hotel Silicon Valley. The cups, which can hold cool drinks for hours, are popular for events and special occasions, says co-founder Leigh Ann Tucker. At $12 for 4 or $115 for 48, they’re not cheap, though caterers and commercial food service providers get a reduced price of $1.50 a cup. Even so, Tucker projects that Loliware will hit $1.3 million in sales in its first full year of operations.
Although Miner was excited to try Loliware’s cups, he was initially a bit worried about the texture and taste. Now, he plans to use them regularly in his rotation of signature cocktails. “They’re actually quite delicious,” he says. “I was impressed with the spot-on flavor profile.”
Julia Sznydzielorz contributed reporting.