Chris Walton is trying to change the restaurant industry, one styrofoam cup at a time. The Glen Allen native and co-founder of environmental organization American River Restoration started the nonprofit restaurant Kitchen33 in August to show other restaurateurs that it is possible to be both environmentally clean and profitable.
It all began in 2019, when ARR came up with an award to recognize restaurants that were environmentally responsible but struggled to find even one in Virginia and eventually honored a restaurant in Colorado. Walton decided ARR would have to set the standard.
“We do a lot of river cleanups, and two things we are guaranteed to find is tons of styrofoam and dead animals,” Walton says. “One bottle top will kill a thousand birds, one styrofoam cup will kill a thousand fish. It hurts everything along the way, and you can operate a business without it.”
The difference between styrofoam containers and sugar cane or bamboo containers, which Kitchen33 uses, is 8 cents per unit. “We’ve been cleaning up other restaurants’ trash for the last six years,” he says. “We would talk to a lot of restaurants about getting rid of single-use plastic, so with Kitchen33, it was our idea of what restaurants should be as far as being environmentally responsible.”
Located at 13155 Mountain Road in Glen Allen, Kitchen33 is home to its own compost heap and garden. “We basically don’t ever have a full trash bag at the end of the day,” Walton says. “We recycle about 98% of our stuff.”
The restaurant uses a hickory smoker to prepare meats daily; its popular brisket smokes for 15 hours. “With clean water, clean air and fresh food, you get the most amazing meals out of it,” Walton says, adding that the dish gets several compliments a day — one customer said Walton must be a Texan to cook such a delicious brisket.
The menu at Kitchen33 is a collection of breakfast classics and diner-style lunch items from burgers to spare ribs. They make their own pastrami and corned beef, brining the pastrami for up to 30 days. Walton says it’s free of the preservatives found in factory food operations: “We don’t do any of that stuff; everything is made fresh. Clean food that tastes great is what we’re about here.”
Kitchen33 has one of the best water filtration systems in the country, Walton says, filtering water below 1 micron (equivalent to .001 mm), which clears out germs, microplastics and anything else the city adds to the water, he says. “Dirty water means dirty food.”
In addition to helping keep Virginia rivers clean, Kitchen33 also helps ARR finance efforts across the country, including initiatives in Texas and Colorado. Recently, the restaurant won the Upper Crust rewards program for businesses that best support their communities, awarded by Pie Insurance. There were over 300 entries across 44 states, and Kitchen33 received the grand prize of $15,000. Walton says they will use some of the money to build an outdoor pavilion for additional restaurant seating, and the rest will go toward river cleanup.
Kitchen33 has also started working with Beyond Boundaries, a Richmond nonprofit that supports veterans, people with disabilities, at-risk youth and people in recovery programs with outdoor excursions. Walton says they plan to build a bakery where they can hold classes and training three nights a week for Beyond Boundaries participants. “The restaurant industry is devastated by a shortage of labor, and you have a whole group of beautiful people who want to work,” he says. “Baking is a very repetitive thing. I speak from the heart; my nephew has Down syndrome, and this kid’s life is sitting at home when he could be out here making 25 bucks an hour baking bread and desserts.”
Walton says this new partnership will include a job placement program for participants and eventually a retail bakery that will be open to the public. “Hopefully we can find about 500 to 600 people jobs once they go through our training program,” he says. “We’ll employ them here if we have the room, and other restaurants can come here and taste their products.”
Now, Kitchen33 employees are looking toward Thanksgiving, beginning to plan a dinner for community members who may not be able to afford a meal. “We could feed a thousand people with our space,” Walton says. “We are thinking about offering up a pay-what-you-can option.”
Throughout the year, Walton says, Kitchen33 tries to get the day’s leftovers into the homes of community members in need. “We mainly focus on local families and children and to do what we can to help them get food,” he says.
Overall, Walton says the goal is to help other restaurants move toward more environmentally friendly practices. “We would love to help anybody. Email us,” he says. “We will help you put a filter in; we have tons of experience.”
At Kitchen33 they’re all family, he says. “We’re trying to go back to [the way of] old-school restaurants, back before corporations ruined our food.”