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From two stories up, on a hot metal roof in August, I scanned the landscape. I stared into the brimming boughs of mature West Philadelphia trees eclipsing the brick facades of familiar row houses. Through intersecting utility lines, I viewed the elevated skyline comprised of university buildings in the distance. Below, a thrum of cars traveled down Spring Garden Street towards the Schuylkill River.
“Smell this,” said Chef Jon Jividen as he handed me a Pineapple Sage leaf that he crushed in his hands. We stood by eight 275 gallon food-grade liquid storage containers that had been horizontally bisected, filled with soil and were full of vegetables and herbs. We ate candy-sweet sungold tomatoes and admired the bees buzzing around basil flowers.
This rooftop garden is not a feature of a burgeoning urban farm; instead, this agriculture project sits on top of 12th Street Catering’s headquarters. Two years ago, Michele Leff, President of 12th Street Catering, and David Fetkewicz, Vice President, formulated the idea to install the rooftop garden, and since their Culinary Director Chef Jon Jividen is a passionate garden hobbyist, they handed him the keys to the project.
12th Street Catering’s organic rooftop container garden is not the company’s sole environmental practice; they also have an active composting program, company-wide recycling policies, some that utilize their on-site compactor for recycling cardboard and plastic, and they also make sure that all corporate deliveries arrive with biodegradable plates and utensils made from fallen palm leaves and corn starch.
Michele and her team implemented some of their sustainability practices over twelve years ago, but she admits that once the catering company moved into their new facility eight years ago, the size of the building has allowed 12th Street to focus even more on sustainability. When asked if there was any push-back from employees when she introduced many of these practices, she responded, “No — this is a unique group of people that has been together for a long time and we are like-minded. It has become our philosophy that no matter what decision that we always do the right thing.”
Chef Jon agreed, adding that it is important to communicate to employees that these policies, for example their composting practice, were not designed to just add another step to work flow but for a specific purpose. In addition to composting, some of 12th Street’s food waste goes to a local pig farm. Michele and Chef Jon concurred that once the policies are clearly explained and implemented, then employees tend to “feel better about the work they did that day.”
Michele attributes 12th Street’s smooth adoption of these practices to the company’s commitment to employee retention over the years. Many people who have worked for 12th Street Catering have worked for Michele and David for over 25 years, and because of this Michele noted that at their events, she has witnessed a “quiet ballet” that occurs during set-up because her experienced staff knows exactly what to do to execute a beautiful and seamless event. Not only has 12th Street Catering focused on building relationships with their employees, but they also have a long list of clients who have relied on 12th Street year after year to consistently provide unique and dynamic events.
“We aren’t short-sighted,” said Michele. “We aren’t interested in selling one-off events; instead, we want to build relationships with clients.” And even though they have close relationships with long-term clients, Michele half-joked that some of 12th Street’s clients may not even know about their sustainability procedures. For 12th Street Catering, implementing environmentally conscious practices is not a marketing-based decision; instead, it is part of their company’s culture or as Michele said, “It’s our natural philosophy and all of us really care about the environmental footprint and we are willing to live it and invest the extra effort that it takes to adopt these practices.”
Of course, some of 12th Street’s clients are aware of their green practices and appreciate having the option to choose a caterer with a commitment to sustainability, but Michele knows that they cannot rely on their commitment to sustainability to maintain their client base. She knows that first and foremost 12th Street must continue to offer the quality catering services that Philadelphia has come to expect for over 25 years. 12th Street does this by listening to their clients and continuing to intently focus on all of the small details that must come together to create a memorable event.
“Catering is all about the details,” said Michele. “You have to think of everything in advance and every small detail matters.” Michele and her team see this attitude as being similar to their perspective on sustainability: small actions have a big impact. Whether it’s the success of a catering event or the implementation of a new sustainable business practice, 12th Street continues to stay true to their shared cultural values as a company. And just like their commitment to listening to their clients, 12th Street continues to listen to the ideas that pop in their heads, including a rooftop container garden and whatever sustainable practice they will introduce next.