When I heard that a caterer- Tiato & An- was the grand-prize winner of the 2013 Santa Monica Sustainable Quality Awards (SQA), I wanted to learn more. The SQA, as the awards are known, are given out annually to celebrate local businesses that practice sustainability in three areas: economic development, social responsibility and stewardship of the environment. Begun in 1995, the awards are today a joint project of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, the City of Santa Monica’s Office of Sustainability and the non-profit group Sustainable Works.
Tiato & An is owned by Catherine An. She’s one of five sisters who make up the third generation of the House of An, the restaurant dynasty that began in 1971 when her grandmother arrived in San Francisco from South Vietnam and opened up Thanh Long, widely recognized as San Francisco’s first Vietnamese restaurant. That eatery, now expanded, still stands. Today, the An family empire includes three celebrated Crustacean restaurants-in Beverly Hills, San Francisco and Palo Alto, Anqi Bistro in Costa Mesa and Tiato, a garden café and catering venue in Santa Monica.
When Catherine opened Tiato almost three years ago, "Two things were important to me," she says. "I wanted to create a concept that was green and I wanted to help create a healthier lifestyle for the community." She furnished the café with vintage tables she bought at local flea markets, sustainable woods, recycled fabrics and reclaimed tiles. The food that Tiato serves both in its café and in its catering space, which is large enough to host receptions for 500, is sourced from local farmers, ranchers and purveyors. Cooking oil is recycled to a company that turns it into biodiesel and, believe it or not, soap. Food scarps are composted and Tiato lowers its carbon footprint by having a tree planted every time a guest buys the "dish of the month"- which might be the popular chicken pot stickers or jidori chicken or the sake-mojitos infused with herbs grown in Tiato’s garden.
Catherine makes it a priority to stay engaged with Santa Monica, where she also lives. She often reaches out to the community for their feedback on, say, what they’d like to see on the menu or what hours they want the café to stay open. To encourage diners to participate in her periodic surveys, she bribes them…with cookies. "We call it ‘a cookie for your thoughts,’" she says, "and we get a great response. Everybody loves our chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies."
Community service is also part of the Tiato philosophy. The staff works with Hollywood Heart, a nonprofit that offers art programs and a summer camp to at-risk youth. "We’ve taught cooking classes at the camp," she says, "and also brought dozens of kids on site here to learn about different herbs and how to make Mama’s Buddha rolls [rice paper stuffed with ingredients like tofu, jicama, pickled carrots and daikon]." When the tsunami hit Japan, Tiato hosted a fundraiser that ended up sending $30,000 in aid directly to Japan." Her next goal is to find the most efficient way to donate leftover food to local food banks.
"We’re so honored to receive this award for our part in making the restaurant industry more sustainable," Catherine says of the SQA. "It takes commitment to run a sustainable and profitable business and every day we make efforts to improve the lifestyle of the community where we live and work."
If you stop by for the Tiato Reuben (housemade pastrami and braised sauerkraut), the duck confit salad or the lamb lollipops be sure to say hello to the slim young proprietor. Catherine Ann loves talking about how the hospitality industry can do an even better job of serving the community.
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