EcoLogic Allows Restaurants to 86 Toxic Kitchen Cleaners

EcoLogic’s plant-based, biodegradable products are becoming as popular in city kitchens as heirloom apples and heritage pork

Photo credit: Moya McAllister

Photo credit: Moya McAllister

Every entrepreneur has that “aha!” moment—an instant when a single, riveting business vision crystalizes. For Anselm Doering, the magical moment came in 2001, in a rest-stop bathroom off I-87. The fluorescent glare illuminated a sign that read “Proud to be cleaned by Lysol.”

Anselm, who had run a pioneering green products store called Earth General in Chelsea and Park Slope in the 1990s, was shocked that anyone would be “proud” to use products that rely on harsh chemicals, when nontoxic plant-based compounds could do the job.

So there on the spot, surrounded by porcelain and the scent of ammonia, he decided to start a green cleaning-products company.

Today his Brooklyn-based EcoLogic Solutions sells effective, earth-friendly cleaning supplies to companies including NBC and ConEd. Because good-food businesses are an obvious client base, Doering, a drummer who once dreamed of opening his own restaurant, has found an especially strong following among enviro-minded eateries from Blue Hill to Chipotle.

Most conventional kitchens use a noxious brew of detergents, rinse aids, drain cleaners, oven cleaners, disinfectants, toilet cleaners, bleach, sanitizers and descalers. Exposure to these substances—and even their fumes—can put kitchen staff at risk for skin and eye irritation or burns and breathing problems, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). They’re not any friendlier to the environment, either.

That’s why EcoLogic’s plant-based, biodegradable products—which include detergents, degreasers, glass cleaners, disinfectants and even a BioUrinal block infused with beneficial bacteria—are becoming as popular in city kitchens as heirloom apples and heritage pork.

Take Del Posto. The Times awarded it four stars for dishes like its inventive cauliflower sformato and earthy chestnut ravioli, but the restaurant also garners three stars from the Green Restaurant Association, thanks to its use of low-impact ink for menus and recycling its waste oil into fuel and its organic scraps into compost. Naturally, eco cleaners were part of the plan from the beginning. “I wanted to get away from caustic products,” says Mark Ladner, Del Posto’s tall, bespectacled chef, who serves up to 600 people a night with his staff of 200. EcoLogic’s products also keep Eataly gleaming. “I’m happy to see the dishwashers happy,” says Danilo Miglietta, the food-safety manager at the Italian superstore. They no longer get rashes, explains Miglietta, who grew up on an organic farm in southern Italy. And, he adds, “We are saving money.”
EcoLogic’s culinary client list includes Momofuku, Terroir, Lupa, Amy’s Bread, ABC Kitchen, the Green Table and even the Statue of Liberty’s food-service operations. But the company is especially excited about a novel initiative at Whole Foods.

The retailer is the first customer to try EcoLogic’s new on-site generation system, which creates super-effective cleaning products from simple tap water and salt.

In a small galley at the Union Square Whole Foods, a machine the size of a Poland Spring water dispenser takes a salty brine mixture and passes it through an electrical charge, which essentially splits the water into two new solutions: hypochlorous acid, a non-toxic disinfectant that studies have shown is up 80 times more effective than bleach (EcoLogic calls it SANeWater), and sodium hydroxide (or eWater), a mild detergent.

The technology was invented two centuries ago in Japan, where they sometimes spray sushi with electrolyzed water to keep bacteria at bay, but remains little known in this country. Doering, ever the showman, does a double-demonstration on sales calls: He shows how well SANeWater cleans up greasy surfaces—and testifies to how safe it is by drinking it straight. “We freak them out every time,” he laughs. “This is a real game changer.”

Whole Foods installed the system a year ago and the staff uses the electrolyzed water throughout the store to clean and sanitize dishes, pots, pans and food-prep surfaces in its kitchen (the solutions are piped directly into the dishwasher and sinks), and even to prolong the life of cut flowers. “It sounds a little more far out than it is,” says Tristam Coffin, a Whole Foods green mission specialist who is delighted with how well it works. “Any skepticism we might have had is out the window.” The on-site system, which cost $40,000, saves the store more than $1,000 a month, he adds, so it will pay for itself in about three years. Plus, now that they’re making their own cleaning products in-house, there’s no packaging or shipping required.

Ironically, one of the biggest obstacles is convincing kitchen crews—the very group that stands to suffer ill effects from mainstream cleaners—that a clear, odorless alternative can do the job. “Everyone was scared because there was no foam,” explains Miglietta over an appropriately foamy Italian craft beer at Eataly’s rooftop beer garden. “They think the foam means it works better.” (The suds in conventional detergents are created by petroleum.)

But Doering, armed with a $2 million investment from the Onondaga Nation, an Indian tribe near Syracuse known for its environmental stewardship, is ready to vanquish those misperceptions once and for all. The cash infusion allowed him to move the company from a residential section of Kensington, Brooklyn, into a legitimate office in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he has created a frugally hip headquarters. The window shades, open to let in a glorious East River view, are made of recycled aluminum. A vertical garden takes up an entire wall in a trailer-like conference room. The EcoLogic delivery truck parked outside runs on vegetable oil supplied by L’Artusi, a West Village restaurant and EcoLogic client. And strangest of all, the supply room has no overpowering odor, despite being crammed with tubs of cleaning products. From this verdant base, Doering has scaled up EcoLogic’s sales staff and begun selling products in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Michigan and Australia.

It’s a long way from the Lysol-scented restroom. “I’ve been jonesing for this moment,” says Doering.

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AMY CORTESE is an award-winning journalist who writes about topics spanning business, finance, food, wine and travel. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, Business Week, the New York Times, the Daily News, Portfolio, Mother Jones, Afar, The American, the Daily Beast, Talk, Business 2.0, and Wired, among other publications. Her recently published book, Locavesting: The Revolution in Local Investing and How to Profit From it (John Wiley & Sons, 2011), draws upon her experience covering these diverse realms to explore how a small shift in investment away from multinationals towards locally-owned enterprises can reap enormous economic and social benefits for individuals, their communities and the country.