The server at Otarian, the new vegetarian fast-food chain that bills itself as “the planet’s low-carbon restaurant,” was trying to persuade a customer to try the “Choc O Treat.” “It’s sooo good, it’s chocolatey, and it comes in this pretty lavender paper!” he enthused. The Choc O Treat is not “sooo good”—it’s sooo dense, without being terribly chocolatey. But the point of Otarian isn’t really the food. It’s the wrapping.
Otarian cloaks itself in the smug assumption that you can save the planet by eating lunch. Words like “mission” and “menufesto” adorn the packaging, of which there is plenty. Your order comes on a tray lined with paper advertising low-carbon combo meals. Each item—the Portobello Mushroom Burger, the Tex Mex Burger, the Vego Burger, etc.—is wrapped in more paper and secured with a cardboard sleeve, which is held together by a sticker assuring you it is “100 percent compostable.” On the restaurant walls TVs proselytize, and the Web site waxes about (but provides few details on) the chain’s sustainable building design, water conservation, and energy efficiency—all that wrapping, for example, is made of recycled materials. No word on how they power those TVs.
The most delicious thing about Otarian, which has two New York locations and will soon open two more in London, is the irony behind its inception. The company’s founder, Radhika Oswal, is the wife of an Australian fertilizer magnate, who owns one of the world’s largest liquid ammonia plants. The Oswals are building a $70 million mansion that will include a 17-car garage. When pressed about these seemingly contradictory lifestyle choices, Oswal has claimed that the house will use 100 percent green energy. She also banned the construction workers building the house from eating meat. One might argue that the most carbon-neutral act she could have done would be to not build the house at all, but where’s the fun of that?
The Oswals’ lifestyle aside, Otarian’s logic is squishy at best. While a vegetarian diet is more carbon-efficient than a meat-based one, and locally sourced ingredients are usually more ecofriendly than ones shipped from afar, the menu’s claim that by eating a mushroom wrap, vegetable biryani, and berry panna cotta you will have “saved a whopping 3.1 kg of carbon” is simply untrue. This assertion is based on a comparison with a comparable meat-based fast-food meal, but it’s hard to imagine many Otarian customers would otherwise be dining beneath the Golden Arches. No matter how saintly the menu makes customers feel about their lunch, the truth is that wrap, biryani, and dessert “costs” 4.07 kg of carbon.
Obviously, we all have to eat, and it’s laudable to try to minimize your lunch’s carbon footprint. But chains like Otarian that encourage consumption disguised as conservation aren’t doing the planet any favors. Just like those trendy Anya Hindmarch I’M NOT A PLASTIC BAG tote bags that came wrapped in, of course, plastic bags, there is something deeply cynical about the Otarian model. It treats environmentalism as another marketing gimmick, suggesting customers can have their Choc O Treat and eat it, too. As Cathy Erway writes on her blog, Not Eating Out in New York, “It’s easier, cheaper, and overall more advantageous trying to be green while cooking at home.” The best thing anyone can do for the environment is simply consume less—fewer cars in the garage and fewer restaurant meals. But that’s an idea that’s hard to wrap in pretty lavender paper.