Beth Birchfield’s phone is filled with photos of garbage. That might seem strange for a former Guard and Grace server and OpenTable restaurant relations manager, but for the past five months, Birchfield has been working full-time on a new endeavor: RootShyft, an environmental consulting and waste management company intent on transforming Denver—and eventually all of Colorado—into a green zone in terms of waste disposal and diversion.

Her journey into the wild world of garbage began in 2017, when Birchfield found herself ranting with co-founders Christopher Todd and Luke Kuckelman, then also servers at Guard and Grace, about how the restaurant’s single-stream recyclables were going into landfills because its waste management company wasn’t sorting recyclables and garbage. “The staff wanted to do the right thing,” Birchfield says, “and the management supported it, but then our efforts hit a dead end with waste hauling for the building.” The trio went to chef-owner Troy Guard, advocating for the chance to explore how to implement a better system, and after getting the green light and with TAG on board as its first client, RootShyft was born.

The company’s aim is to help the hospitality industry move toward becoming “a healthier and more sustainable community.” What does that mean? RootShyft, in conjunction with local partners such as female-owned Scraps (a bicycle-powered compost pick-up service) and Clear Intentions (a glass recycling processor), is helping Denver restaurants streamline and reduce their waste outputs.

But RootShyft doesn’t simply provide compost bins or encourage its clients (which include Barolo Grill, Urban Farmer, and of course, Guard and Grace) to forego the use of plastic straws—it offers a multi-pronged and data-driven approach across waste management, energy efficiency, and even staff training. To even begin to offset the 100,000 pounds of waste than an average restaurant generates in a single year, RootShyft audits a restaurant’s systems—hence all those garbage pictures on Birchfield’s phone—and resource consumption patterns (everything from packaging to linens to utility use); establishes new practices to reduce waste and conserve energy; provides assistance in obtaining green certifications; trains staff to be agents of sustainability; and even renegotiates garbage and recycling contracts. In the end, it adds up to profit for the restaurants in terms of dollars saved and a new, greener sustainability message for consumers.

Urban Farmer was one of the first restaurants in Denver to sign up for RootShyft’s services, and according to executive chef Chris Starkus, the results have been staggering. “The most important part of working with RootShft for me, as a chef, is the fact that they had the time to help with the process,” Starkus says. “I have a lot of good intentions, but I needed someone to run numbers and help me make the right decisions.” For example, RootShyft helped Starkus source compostable to-go containers that are actually ten cents cheaper than the landfill-destined containers he’d been using before. With changes like that, as well as efficiently composting and recycling glass, cork, and single-stream plastics, Urban Farmer diverted 83 percent of its waste away from landfills in its first year under RootShyft’s guidance—which translates to saving over 311,700 pounds of trash, or the carbon equivalent of saving over 11,000 trees.

Now, RootShyft is working on an even more ambitious scale, partnering with Urban Villages (Larimer Square’s property manager) to eventually turn that entire city block into a green zone, with every restaurant and retail outlet on the storied street following a sustainability program that makes sense for its business. The “pioneer group” of TAG, Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen, Tamayo, and Ted’s Montana Grill have already begun the process, undergoing auditing and implementing new recycling and composting systems. “It’s incredible to see what a difference it makes when a restaurant’s management is bought into the mission,” Birchfield says. “When we started working with TAG in early April, training was a breeze. I was really just there to answer questions, because the staff was already on board. I hope more industry leaders follow Troy Guard’s lead, because I think we really could see Denver’s restaurant industry change rapidly.”

Not only do sustainability programs like RootShyft’s help divert waste from landfills, but Birchfield says they also lead to better employee retention and productivity—and gaining a competitive edge with ecologically-minded consumers.

If you see this window decal at a local restaurant, you know that it’s working to reduce its carbon footprint. Courtesy of RootShyft

What can you do to help? For starters, choose to spend your dining dollars at establishments that make sustainability a priority; look for RootShyft’s window decals to ensure you’re supporting a green business. Keep an eye out for smart bins that will be appearing on Larimer Square soon, replete with scales, signage, and even pop-up screens to alert Denverites to how to dispose of their trash and the impact that doing so correctly can have. And look for RootShyft participation at this summer’s Chalk Art Festival, Slow Food Nations, and Denver Start Up Week.

Even more timely, on Earth Day (April 22), head over to Larimer Square, where RootShyft, Slow Food USA, and Urban Villages are throwing a green party from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. There will be crafts for adults and kids, games, give-aways, and lots of information about the “Shyft to Green” initiative unfolding on Larimer Street. The entire square will be participating in the program by July of this year—just in time for Slow Food Nations—and, according to Birchfield, by Earth Day 2020, RootShyft hopes to “celebrate the impact that an entire block of businesses working sustainably can be.”

Denise Mickelsen
Denise Mickelsen
Denise Mickelsen is 5280’s former food editor. She oversaw all of 5280’s food-related coverage from October 2016 to March 2021.