We caught up with Nathan Larkin, founder of Manchester bar Speak in Code and the Wasteman of Manchester's Bars Facebook group, to learn about turning one bar’s trash into another’s oleo saccharum
One very important and often-overlooked aspect of running a zero-waste bar is community. While you may not have a use for your empty bottles, that restaurant across the street might; meanwhile, the cafe next door has a surplus of spent coffee grounds that would be perfect for the upcycled Espresso Martini recipe you’re developing.
This is exactly what Nathan Larkin had in mind when he founded the Wasteman of Manchester’s Bars Facebook group in November 2019. Larkin, the owner of Speak in Code in Manchester city centre, wanted to create a platform where local businesses could maximise the value of so-called ‘waste’ by communicating with one another – and his plans for bringing a more sustainable approach to the city’s bar community haven’t stopped there.
What inspired you to create the Wasteman of Manchester’s Bars Facebook group?
I really wanted to drive home community effort in the city centre. When I opened Speak in Code, I really felt that it would be much better if 10 bars were doing small things towards sustainability rather than one bar doing everything. There's a Manchester's Bars page which has 16,000 people in it. I knew that every now and again someone would post something that's free to a good home, but I just found that a lot of the time these posts would get lost. I thought there should be a more central hub, a page where people could pass around items that still have value.
That was really the start of it. In the future, I don't think it's just limited to bars. I really feel like, if this can get enough momentum, it can create a huge community effort to minimise waste and maximise every product.
What kinds of items do people exchange in the group?
It was still in its infancy when coronavirus hit, and now I see people mostly posting equipment [from bars that are downsizing or going out of business]. But if we take coronavirus out of the equation, I feel like there could be a nice push on products and ingredients more than anything – spent coffee grounds, citrus peels. There are so many bars I see that use only the peels from oranges and then have surplus oranges, so why not reduce your cost of buying fresh produce and collect that from them? All it takes is just a small trip to one of your neighbours to pick it up. I still think there's a long way to go with it, especially in the current climate.
In your early posts, you mentioned that you’d like to run events and seminars for the group, too. Is this something you’re still looking to do?
Not now, of course, but definitely in the future. When I started, the idea for this group was to have it spread further than bartenders. I felt that once more business owners got involved, that's when we could start looking at events. People can bring something to the table and say ‘Hey, we do this’, and other people can learn from that. For example, if you have fridges in your bar that don't need to be on overnight, with nothing perishable in there, you can actually turn them off and save some energy. And that's just a very small example.
I really feel like, if this can get enough momentum, it can create a huge community effort to minimise waste and maximise every product
Eventually I want to run a programme called the Subjective Interpretation of Cocktails. I want to bring entry-level bartenders to an event with an academy-style learning set-up. Let's say we're partnered with a gin distillery, and they bring all of their botanicals. From there, we can talk about how to maximise each of those botanicals – for example if we’ve got nutmeg, we can look at making a tincture, a cordial, a shrub, a syrup. So we’d show entry-level bartenders how to expand on their basic knowledge of classic cocktails and develop their techniques and menu development skills. That's what I want to do with events, split into two sections: one is a seminar with talks and a panel, and another part is more interactive and hands-on.
What are some of the most creative uses of waste you’ve seen in the group?
One guy had these small brass bells that he polished and turned into jiggers, which I think was a really cool idea. I think it’s all down to what you need. I know people want to get rid of old oil containers, for example, and for me they're great as fermentation vessels. Plastic is unavoidable in kitchens, but if you're able to re-use it that’s great. For instance, some people in the group turn plastic key kegs into large plant pots to grow herbs for use in bars.
This is why it's really good to share and invite people in, because the more people you have within the circle, the more creative ideas get thrown around. I've spent years making menus around maximising products, and it's really interesting to look at what else you can do. Before you put anything in the bin, look at it and see if it has added value. Then try to find another way to use it.
Want to get involved? Join the Wasteman of Manchester's Bars Facebook group here.