Monday, June 28, 2010

Business Ideas of Ecologically-friendly (and Tasty!) Cutlery

I ate at my first Ethiopian restaurant in May.  This experience spawned a business idea, and it reminded me of another idea I had a few years back.  Both are related to eating utensils.  I want to share these ideas hoping someone will run with one (or both) of them, start a trend, become a millionaire, and help the environment in the process.

Go ahead, eat these ideas up!


The majority of the people on this planet eat with some type of cutlery:  forks, knives, spoons, and chopsticks being the most popular.  (As an aside, the spork was a good invention, allowing you to both stab and slurp your food with one instrument.)

At the Ethiopian restaurant, however, no standard utensils are provided.  You eat with your hands.  Specifically, you tear off a piece of “bread” called injera and grab the food with it.  The injera is your eating utensil.  And you eat the utensil!  It is part of your food.

This got me thinking on several fronts.

  • First, the lack of cutlery meant less washing in the restaurant.  Only the plate the food came on needed to be washed after the meal.  In poor and developing countries, it makes sense.  And it is in these countries and cultures where several good ideas in reducing waste can be observed.
  • Second, it reminded me there are many other examples of eating without cutlery.  In Mexico, a hard taco is simply food scooped into a shell, which is also eaten with the food.  Soft tacos, wraps, and burritos are all made by wrapping food up in an edible container.  Falafels are stuffed into pita bread and eaten together.  Empanadas, calzones, and meat pies are fried or baked with food in edible wrappings.  Pizza is an open-faced calzone.  Even the sandwich is simply food surrounded on two sides by bread to keep the fingers from getting too messy.  So while eating with your hands sans cutlery for an "Ethiopian cuisine newbie" may strikes one as unusual, it is not as strange as it may initially appear.
  • Third, I discovered I did not care for the taste of injera.  It is spongy (a unique texture) and sour (a unique taste, and I am not a sourdough fan).  I find injera overpowers the food; everything tastes like injera.  Hence, business idea number 1 (see below).  I ended up using the injera like a spoon and not eating it with the food I scooped up.  But the smell of injera still imparted a sour taste to whatever I ate.
  • Fourth, if we could get rid of the plates then the restaurant would not have to wash anything.  Theoretially, the food could have been served on a sturdy, large round injera, a pizza pie with servings of food on top.  An ice cream cone is an example of an instrument that initially serves as a container that is then eaten after the food is consumed; no dish and no spoon to clean or toss after the meal.
  • Fifth, I decided not to use plastic eating utensils and paper plates for a dinner party I was going to host in June.  I always disliked throwing away plastic for environmental reasons, but I was not sure I wanted to wash all the cutlery and plates after the party.  The Ethiopian restaurant experience helped me make the decision to go with reusable silverware and plates.  It also reminded me of the other idea I had several years back.  See business idea number 2 below.


Here are two business ideas.

Idea #1 - All restaurants that want to provide an “Ethiopian-style” of eating -- or eating without cutlery -- should offer a selection of “injera-inspired” breads.

Traditional injera is made out of teff cereal.  This main ingredient can be replaced with flour, corn, or rice.  Flavors could be offered:  plain (without the strong sour taste), parmesan-crusted, tomato-basil.  There could even be a chocolate "injera" for desserts.  Of course, the “classic” injera should be on the menu, too, for those who like the taste.

Idea #2 – Make a line of standard single-use eating utensils that are edible.  This includes forks, knives, spoons, and chopsticks.

There are many benefits.

  • No more plastic or paper to throw into landfills.
  • The cutlery can be eaten during or after the meal, and if not, they are compostable.
  • The cutlery can come in multiple flavors.
  • Standard cutlery makes it easier to eat certain foods than pinching with bread.

There are some challenges, but these can all be overcome.

  • The cutlery needs to be strong enough to withstand a certain amount of force, particularly a knife.
  • The cutlery cannot get soggy quickly in a liquid food.
  • The cutlery cannot be too hard or they cannot be eaten (although throwing away a compostable and biodegradable item is still better than using plastic.)
  • Depending on how they are made and what ingredients they have, the cutlery may be perishable and have a certain shelf-life.
  • The cutlery would be considered a food and would have to adhere to food regulations.

There are several models to consider as starting points.

  • Breadsticks:  with a little tweaking of size, length, and hardness, they would be perfect chopsticks.
  • Waffle cones:  make them a little harder and in the shape of spoons, they would be perfect for ice cream and sorbets.
  • Dried spaghetti noodles or something equivalent: could be a perfect replacement for plastic toothpicks.

Eating utensils made from metal are still highly eco-friendly.  They are durable, last a long time (many lifetimes), and are multi-use.  A washing is all that is needed for reuse.

For single-use utensils, the key idea here is edible and compostable.  There are some companies like Eco-Products that make plastic cutlery out of plant starch.  While going in the right direction from an environmental standpoint, there is an opportunity to go to the next level of edible and compostable.


One way, of course, is to start your own business using the ideas.  I encourage it.

A second way is to share recipes of how everyday people can make their own edible cutlery.  If every person who typically buys plastic forks and spoons used your recipe once this year, think of the benefits.  In the United States alone “Americans toss out enough paper & plastic cups, forks and spoons every year to circle the equator 300 times.

I look forward to hearing about your success.  Happy eating!


Sucheta said...

Great idea! As you may be aware in Indian & Middle Eastern culture, a flatbread, roti, naan, paratha or poori is traditionally used to scoop off the curry from the plate. Also, rice is rolled into balls & eaten with bare hands in Asia.

I found a pizza cone on my recent visit to Hilton Head at a place called Pino Gelato.

Unknown said...

Very interesting post. Now a day’s people give important to use eco-friendly products in functions, wedding events and parties. So doing a business to sell ecology products is really very nice idea. I am Very happy to read this. Thank you.

Palm Leaf Plates | Biodegradable Disposable Plates

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Business Ideas of Ecologically-friendly (and Tasty!) Cutlery ~ DANIEL SKLAR