Monday, May 25, 2015

Working for Myself: Rian Bedard and Mr. Fox Composting

Rian Bedard of Mr. Fox Composting might be the most accommodating interviewee I’ve ever called up for a cup of coffee. For every question I ask, he has a story. He takes what I propose will be a “quick, ten-minute” Q & A on the compost-hauling service he started in 2009 and turns it into a journey that will take both of us 3,000 miles from Maine to California and back again. At the end of it all, he’ll even let me come visit his compost facility to get an inside scoop on the process—which will change the way I think about composting forever.

Rian Bedard’s bearded mug is welcomed warmly in dozens upon dozens of restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes, and schools for being synonymous with Mr. Fox Composting, possibly the biggest green initiative to hit the Maine and New Hampshire seacoast yet.
Where a decade ago finding a business with a fully-functioning recycling program was a trial (and compost separation was nonexistent), thanks to Bedard and Mr. Fox Composting, residents and businesses of prominent towns such as Kittery, Portsmouth, Dover, Rye, and Durham have come together in the last six years to save millions of pounds of compostable waste from getting lost in landfills, and instead have converted it into fertilizer that has been redistributed to local farms and turned into food.

Thinking Green

These days it’s difficult to find an establishment within twenty miles of Mr. Fox HQ that isn’t separating its food waste (impressive, considering mandatory separation has been instituted almost exclusively in larger U.S. cities, such as San Francisco and Seattle, and is not prevalent anywhere in New England). The turnaround has been so rapid that many people question how the change didn’t happened sooner.
The secret came disguised in a necessary measure of small, incremental steps.
“We just started with simple stuff,” says Bedard, speaking of the pre-Mr. Fox era when after a series of curious events he came to work as a manager in a New Hampshire café. “Amped,” as he describes it, from just having spent a year in San Francisco, where he soaked up on all sides a lifestyle of living healthy and green, he carried a deep need to implement change now that he was back home—but the avenues were limited.
“I realized that big purchases, like starting a compost program when the service wasn’t available and I had to do a lot of research—[the café owner] probably wasn’t going to be into that,” he remembers.

Undeterred, he started small. Where his predecessor had tossed food surplus at the end of each week, Bedard started to set pars that would not allow him to over-order, cutting back on waste. He switched from ordering sugar in packets to sugar in bulk, cutting down on excess paper waste. A huge change came when he took all the plastic cutlery away from the customer condiment station and kept it behind the counter. Customers were forced to think about what they really needed before they walked off with one of everything available.
“It was crazy; we started to really save money by doing those things. And it was lots of money—hundreds of dollars every month,” says Bedard. “It started to really change the conversation, which was great.”
Once Bedard proved that green thinking offered not only environmental benefits, but practical business perks, as well, he made the big move.
“I dealt a pitch to the owner: ‘Hey, can we get a compost program started?’ And we ended up finding someone to do it,” he states. “So we were the first business in Portsmouth to do a compost program. We also went from three bins of trash picked up two times a week down to one bin picked up every two weeks, because of recycling and composting.”

Mr. Fox
Bedard spent two years effecting change at the café before his unprecedented success set him up to be one of the early recruits for the Green Alliance. Founded in 2008, the Alliance was a new organization dedicated to drawing attention to small businesses in Maine and New Hampshire that were making strides to lessen their carbon footprint. For Bedard, this would be the gateway to the foundation of Mr. Fox Composting.
“I was recruited by Sarah over at the Green Alliance,” he says (speaking of Sarah Brown, the director at GA), “for my expertise from working in restaurants, but also my café knowledge, transitioning that café over to being less wasteful.”
Part of his job was to interview owners and managers of restaurants that had gotten on board with the Alliance.
“There was a question on that survey, ‘Do you compost?’ I interviewed four or five big restaurants in the area that were part of the Green Alliance, and they said, ‘No, but we’d love to!’ Ding, ding, ding—idea went off.
“I had a buddy of mine who was a landscaper. I said, ‘Would you be interested in helping me? You’ve got equipment. We’ll both give it a shot and see what happens.’ We started out with four, five early-adopters that first summer. We went around with a pick-up truck and a trailer, picked up every bag individually, threw it in the trailer by hand. There were days when bags broke. We were always covered in stuff by the end of the day. But after that first five, by the end of the first summer, we had thirty restaurants on board.”
The company has only grown since. Beyond the eighty-plus business partners listed on their website, Mr. Fox works with residents stretched across ten seacoast towns with their residential hauling service, and the staff at the company has grown from two to six.
With a full-fledged business, Bedard was able to open his own compost facility in November 2013. (Prior to this, he paid other facilities to break down the food waste—costly not only in itself, but in miles and travel, as well.) He hopes that by spring 2015, he will be able to sell bags of compost, and further grow the business.
Part of the Community
When approaching restaurants and businesses about partnering with Mr. Fox, Bedard’s pitch is hardly political. It genuinely is about business:
“We’re trying to get people to think of it this way,” explains Bedard; “You go out. You eat, and you’re done. You’ve got stuff left on your plate. You scrape your plate into a bin. Then we come, pick it up, and we compost it. It goes back to local farms. And a lot of restaurants now are purchasing from local farms, or purchasing from farmers’ markets. You have that full circle.”

This practical take on his ultimate goal—helping the planet in a way that is sustainable in itself—has been another key to his success. What Mr. Fox Composting contributes is much more than preventing reusable waste from adding to landfills. The company feeds local business and promotes healthy living, as well.
Bedard uses this to his advantage. If there are to be more businesses like his, the issue he confronts cannot be which restaurants are doing what is right for the environment and which restaurants are not; it must be about working together toward common goals like these. This is an important message for his audience that he doesn’t take lightly.

“We want to show younger people that want to be entrepreneurs that you can have a triple bottom line and still be profitable,” he says.
All that said, Bedard takes enormous pleasure in his work. Whether he’s giving a talk at a school or overseeing a shipment at his facility, Bedard seems to continue to keep his eyes on the prize.
“I believe that if you find a path doing something you really enjoy, then it’s not really work,” he says.
Perhaps that is the final secret to the enormous progress Bedard has made where others have not. Understanding that change happens just a bit at a time, he continues to chip away, doing his part cheerfully and inviting others to do the same. His passion is contagious. The community has risen up around him for the better of all. 

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