From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy Podcast
A Conversation with Claire Sprouse

A Conversation with Claire Sprouse

Listen now | Talking hospitality and sustainability with the owner of Brooklyn's Hunky Dory.

I have been a big fan of Claire Sprouse’s work since way before she opened Hunky Dory in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Through Tin Roof Drink Community, she’d been challenging the bar world to think sustainably and work differently. And by opening Hunky Dory—which used to be a place I went regularly after getting a manicure, to zone out at the bar and think—she has put the ideas into practice. We spoke late in 2020 about how she got into the hospitality industry, how the restaurant has been weathering the pandemic (it’s currently closed for the winter), and how she researches sustainability. Listen above, or read below.

Alicia: Hi, Claire, thank you so much for taking the time out to chat.

Claire: Hi, thanks for having me. I'm a huge fan of your work, and so this is very exciting for me to be on your show.

Alicia: Thank you so much. I'm a big fan of yours as well. So can you tell me about where you grew up in what you ate?

Claire: I grew up in Texas. My mother is Filipino. She was also a nurse and worked a lot. So, to be honest, she would cook Filipino food every once in a while, but we ate a lot of fast food. And Ragu bottled spaghetti sauce and things like that.

But aside from all of that, we always had mango and rice on the table. That's a very distinct memory, like every single meal, whether it's breakfast, lunch, or dinner, there was always mango and rice. And it didn't matter if it was Domino's Pizza or Chef Boyardee. There was always mango and rice on the table.

As an adult, though, I spent a lot of time in Houston and got exposed to a lot of different foods and definitely expanded my food diet and vocabulary beyond the fast food chains as an adult.

Alicia: Well, what led you to working in the restaurant industry?

Claire: I got my degree in art history and anthropology, and I was doing some nonprofit museum work in Texas and Houston, which has an amazing art scene, and was making the rounds of unpaid internships. And I was like, Oh, I should probably make some money. So I actually started at a small restaurant, just because I knew a lot of the staff there from hanging out the same local bar, and started as a server and fell in love with cocktails, which has been my focus more or less since then, and worked as a barback and kind of made my way up into the bar manager role. All at that same restaurant.

Alicia: What has kept you in the industry, and what has led to you focusing so much on sustainability in bars and restaurants?

Claire: What has kept me in the industry, honestly, leading up to that first couple restaurant jobs, bar jobs, I did have a very tight professional community, like the art museum world is very competitive and kind of isolating, in a lot of ways, your work. And so I really liked this team mentality. We're all up against all the odds, together, and so I really, I really loved that kind of ethos. So just getting it done, and working together to make that happen.

My first restaurant job was this kind of fancy barbecue place, and the woman that was the chef-owner there, she was really leading the way in kind of the farm-to-table movement in the early to mid 2000s in Houston, and then in a city that was so meat-centric, especially at that time, that definitely informed a lot of the ways that I initially thought about what restaurant food could be and what cocktails could be. And then kind of coinciding with that, I started doing a couple shifts at another restaurant. I think I was working at three different restaurants at the same time, because I was just really hungry to learn everything about the industry and get a lot of different experience.

I started working at this nose-to-tail restaurant. There were some chefs that used to work at St. John's in London, and very much took that model and just transplanted it into Houston. And so I learned a lot about nose-to-tail cooking, in terms of meat, in terms of animals, and how a lot of that was rooted in cultural and historical necessity, so I was kind of seeing both sides of the spectrum: these heritage techniques that a lot of them came from the countryside in Europe, and then seeing it in a setting, going into fancy cocktails from garden to the glass.

I don't think I thought about either of those things in terms of, ‘Oh, I'm like starting my career in sustainability.’ But I was just like, ‘Oh, that's really smart. And that makes sense. And why isn't everybody doing this?’ 

I eventually moved to San Francisco and started digging deeper and more intentionally into sustainability. But when I was out in San Francisco, that started from a perspective focused on water, which kind of circled back to these initial experiences I had, and in the restaurant industry, and so it all kind of came full circle once I got to San Francisco.

Alicia: And how has sustainability colored your career since you started to focus and dig in intentionally into these issues?

Claire: Oh, my gosh, once you start thinking that way, you can't go back, and so it's the lens that I looked through everything. 

To be honest, when I first started doing it in California and speaking about it, and saying the word “sustainability” and cocktails and restaurants out loud, I was working on one particular project, and I was actually really nervous, I was like, ‘Oh, I don't know if this is something like a standard I want to be—it's something I want to hold myself to, but I don't know if I want to publicly be held accountable to it.’ Because it seemed really daunting. And a lot of the information out there isn't made for restaurant people, when you talk about carbon footprint; I read books about carbon footprint, it's like they're written by carbon footprint nerds and not people that are working 12-hour shifts and also trying to learn about wine and hospitality, and so it's very daunting at first, and then I realized that was kind of where I could fit in was, I do have a high capacity for that type of research, but also I’m not afraid to email the author of a book and be like, ‘What the hell are you talking about? Like, okay, but what about normal people?’

So I found that my place that I could carve out for myself that felt also needed was distilling this information in a way that not only was approachable for restaurants, people who are juggling a million other things, but also finding the access points that were more accessible for all. I think a lot of people think of sustainability as expensive produce and solar panels and, you know, precious cocktails, and it's certainly precious, low-waste cocktails, and it certainly is all those things, but there's also all these other elements that go back to those food waste or farming perspectives that were what I thought were just smart when I first started bartending.

There's also little things that help improve the bottom line of restaurants, like saving electricity and water and gas and also food waste. Those items, even though they're not as sexy and talked about, I found that they're really useful when we have set an industry that operates on such small, razor-thin margins.

Alicia: And when you opened your own space, Hunky Dory, how did you kind of bring that perspective into the building and and the model that you've been pursuing?

Claire: Well, a lot of the work that I've been doing, I thought of Hunky as the place where that could come to fruition in a way where I was making solely—I was the sole decision-maker, but also in a way where I thought it would be even, like more people could relate to it because up until this moment I was mostly doing a lot of consulting work. It's very different when you're playing with other people's money—and not even money, but time is always a luxury to devote to these goals. And so, I was like, ‘Oh, this will be great. I'm opening a restaurant with very little money in essentially a turn-key space,’ meaning, I bought an existing restaurant, and we have to make use with whatever equipment that had been here the last few years, and the bones of it, we didn't plan on changing, and also, I was doing everything by myself and can continue to do that. So, definitely cut out that time as a luxury perspective, but I was excited, because I thought I was like, ‘Okay, this is a chance to really do things on my own terms, but also make it relatable, and continue to share the things that I've been preaching about so much.’ 

We've been open for a year and a half-ish; we celebrated our one-year anniversary in February, right before shutdown. I think that we have accomplished a lot, but there's still a long way to go. And I think that's okay, even for somebody that has such lofty goals within sustainability. We're just trying to chip away at all the angles, so carbon footprint, water, food waste, so on and so on.

Alicia: And how have you been running the restaurant since the pandemic began? You know, what have you changed? What have you—how has that been, basically?

Claire: Everything's changed and right even just the easier decisions that we were a dine-in restaurant, we did some takeaway, so we didn't really have a lot of single-use material here; we were very picky about the materials that we did choose for to-go cups and things like that. And prior to this, we had reusable straws, bamboo straws, and now everything is a single-use, because we're relying more on takeout. 

But also, when we reopened with our staff, we didn't feel, I think, as a team, didn't feel comfortable handling guests’ plates and cups after they were done eating with them. We weren't really in a position to hire back all of our staff, so we had to do away with the porter position. And so everything is single use. Like if you have a sandwich outside, you throw away the paper; every cup is single use. It's made from recycled plastic. And then we're also doing a ton of packaged, bottled cocktails, and that's all in plastic. Before I'd say, it's all a give and take, because some of these things that are elements of being sustainable are at odds with each other. Like, you might always tell everybody that like you should figure out what is pertinent, urgent for your geographical area. So maybe when I was in California, I focused a lot more on water and agriculture. And then in New York, it felt very necessary to think more about trash, even though water is still an issue here. And I think a lot about carbon footprint, and because we're on the forefront of that, as an industry or the trendsetters here, but sometimes those elements are at odds with each other. And in that now, that's even more amplified like that.

Your value of, you know, not using plastic is more a priority over your staff safety. It's not right and right. And so you know, there's a lot of sacrifices that we have to do, and then there were other things like our composting partner had to take a really long pause because of the city being tapped out in terms of people and resources to keep composting going. They're finally getting back online. 

We're, for the most part, all the stuff that we've done, other than those big items, we inherently built into all of our systems. And so we still don't have a lot of food waste; we're still running a very water efficient program;I still walk around turning all the lights off for everybody, whenever they leave a room.

We found funny little ways to think about it. Like, the lights on our new patio are all solar-powered. We try to still kind of create community around sustainability. We turned our dining room into a retail store, and so a lot of the things that we carry here kind of speak to that value. So we have reusable straws and bottles and paper-free toilet paper. I sell toilet paper now. Like all sorts of things, and we carry books that talk about sustainability, and not just in food, but our lives,, and there's a lot of books on food in general, and I think a lot of them speak to those points as well. We're definitely not carrying, like, Bobby Flay's cookbook; we have a lot of books that—even just now, I just did a big purchase of a lot of books that talk a lot about Native and Indigenous farming and stewardship of land, and that all ties into the sustainability that we really strive for, and try to promote.

Alicia: You've pivoted the restaurant so much in this time, into doing retail, to going outside, and that sort of thing. Have you felt supported by the government locally in these changes? And in these pivots? How do you see the restaurant industry, you know, kind of recovering from this? Like, is that possible?

Claire: I would say no, at any level. There's certainly been things I'm grateful for, like outdoor dining, an extension of that. But you know, a lot of it, I've been pretty involved with some of the restaurant owner groups here, and trying to watch the politics play out in real time is extremely frustrating. And knowing that, people are really struggling out there. Sometimes the decision gets me that like, because a staffer in Albany is like, ‘Oh, I love to-go cocktails, we should keep them.’ Like those really key decisions are kind of just being made without, a lot of times, without the input of the people that are most affected. 

I was talking to somebody recently, and I think a big part of the reason why the restaurant industry hasn't gotten support, in the way that we've needed is that we haven't really been organized in our existence. You know, in the modern restaurant industry's existence. Everybody's focused on their own thing and their own PR and you see these groups complaining about the hotel or the airline industry, or the cruise ship industry, getting bailouts and things like that, and it's because those groups are highly organized, and they've been advocating and lobbying in various ways over the years, and the restaurant industry has not historically done a great job at that. So we're kind of two steps behind where we should be, slowly playing catch-up, and I think that hopefully some good will come after the election and hopefully—well, unfortunately, it probably won't come on a federal level until spring, and that'll be very late for a lot of businesses.

Even with all these people kind of speaking out, too, I worry a lot about whose voices are being heard and who's kind of taking up space at these tables? Obviously, the restaurant advisory board to Trump was an example of how that really shouldn't look, you know, even the small restaurant advisory, they had a lot of people representing the big chains and it was ultimately I think all men and mostly white men, and I kind of see that playing out too on a local level. So I've been thinking a lot about ways that that should change, when you have a lot of conversations being had about small businesses, and the owners and workers of them, and are the people speaking on our behalf representative of the people that are most affected by what's going on? And the answer is no. And so that is kind of where I've been shifting a lot of my focus this time.

Alicia: What would a governmental response be that would be beneficial to independent restaurant workers? I know that that would have to be such such a broad, and, you know, reach into so many different  sectors of the specific industry, but what would be really helpful in your perspective?

Claire: I hesitate to speak on a federal level, just because it's, so much of the problems that I think workers and small business owners face are, they're just different from location to location, and that same Band-Aid won't fit for all.

But I think, you know, obviously, gosh, universal health care would be really great. And, you know, I think that just the acknowledgement and protection of undocumented workers, which are such a huge backbone of our industry is, you know, I have to say, I was super naive about that aspect of, of it all, until we shut down and I started getting everybody on unemployment and our staff and kind of understanding the ins and outs of it all, I was pretty shocked, because I ultimately paid, still pay, unemployment taxes on our undocumented workers, and so that's really hard to watch and see. 

I think that, you know, we're all kind of—it doesn't feel good to see a lot of people having to choose between how safe they feel, and going into work. And, you know, I would understand, like, we can't all be shut down forever. But we need to start thinking about what this means long term, instead of just kind of putting on little Band-Aids and pretending that it'll be over soon. 

You know, I think a lot of it has to come down to the fact that our, the restaurant industry, you know, again, we operate on such small margins, so as owners, it doesn't really give us a lot of space to be more accountable or provide more support for our staff. So where does that change? I think, you know, real estate reform, a certain amount of tax reform for the hospitality industry, is really necessary. And then right, there's an initiative and I'm not actually sure the status on it right now, but it's to expand SNAP benefits so that more restaurants can accept them. And I think that is a really key piece of legislation that benefits everybody ultimately, and, you know, getting more subsidies to farmers that are small farmers and farmers that are, you know, shifting toward more like regenerative organic farming so that those foods are more accessible. Are those are all big key pieces to me that I've been trying to do a lot more research on and seeing where we can as an industry be active in those conversations and not just thinking about the next big crisis or thinking about propane heaters, but how are we choosing to make sure that we'renot falling back into the same cycle where we were not an active participant in the conversation surrounding food and the people that make it happen. 

But it's so complicated, and it reminds me of when I started getting more into sustainability. I was like, ‘What is carbon footprint?’ And so I'm trying to make those same phone calls that I was making back then and trying to get anyone on the phone that'll explain to me where the pressure points are and who's doing what, and the frustrating thing is that it's political. I've never in my entire life hated a system more than politics. It's so gross.

I don't know when this interview will air, but tomorrow's the big day, and we're actually closed for the week of the election, just because I didn't want to be open around it. I remember being at a bar in 2016, and how the wheels fell off very quickly, on all levels, and I was like, ‘Oh, let's just give the staff some time.’ And, you know, and we're getting some projects done here as well.

2020 is a hard one. My boyfriend last night was like, ‘Despite it all, you're having a great year, you got like this great press.’ So when I look back ons ome of these, like, ‘What was your best year?’ I don't want to say 2020. It's hard, tough. It's hard to lean into the silver lining in it. 

I think it's definitely a wake-up for a lot of people, so that, I think, is a point of optimism.

Alicia: Well, for you is running a restaurant a political act?

Claire: I never—I guess I never explicitly said that. But I guess I've always found that, you know, when you're purchasing something like food, or hiring people, like how could it not be? The decisions we make, to buy produce from certain farms and to spread awareness about composting and sustainability and the way that we choose to care for employees and our community is? Yeah, I mean, especially right now, it's more political than ever.

I think at the beginning of Black Lives Matter this year, and the height of the protests, I was trying to take time and ask myself, ‘Who is my community?’ “Community” is a word that is thrown around quite a bit. And I was just trying to be like doing some journaling and trying to reflect and be self-critical about myself and my business and all the things that I think I stand for, and thinking about what about who is my community, what does that mean to me, and who do I want to be in community with, and it's not just like standing in solidarity with certain values and people, but also using our this platform, my business, the power that we hold here to, to speak out about issues as well. And so I'd say that it has to be political, if it matters to you and it matters incredibly so much to me and definitely matters to the people I want in the neighborhood, that I want to be in community with. So yeah, I take that role as a route. Like as a huge positive privilege and something I really try to hold myself accountable to every day.

Alicia: Well, thank you so much for taking the time, Claire.

Claire: Thank you, thank Thanks for having me. Um, I'm embarrassed to say I just woke up so... 

Alicia: No worries. This is wonderful.

Claire: Great, thank you. And thank you so much for all the work that you do as well. I learned so much from your perspective and, and then some of the books and the people that you point out to is like such a great rabbit hole to go down every time I get one of your newsletter. So I love it.

Alicia: Thank you. Thank you.

From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy
From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy Podcast
A weekly food and culture podcast from writer Alicia Kennedy, who talks to writers, chefs, and more about their lives, careers, and how food fits into it all.