The red Caboose in Rutledge has gone green. Well, greener than it was. One of the most significant alterations is the elimination of Styrofoam. All of the to-go cups, lids, and straws are now Greenware, a product made entirely of plants that is 100 percent compostable in industrial facilities.
“We have wanted to do this for a long time,” said Molly Lesnikowski, who co-owns and operates the Caboose with her husband Ed Hogan. “We use as little disposable as possible, and all of the disposable items are recyclable.”
Washable plates are used for events that are hosted at the Caboose, while food for delivery is packaged in recyclable aluminum containers. Lesnikowski noted, “We can’t make other people recycle, but there is the potential for it.
“We have always recycled all of our cardboard, all of our tin and aluminum, and all of our plastics. We use Coke cans instead of those bags. You know how most restaurants that let you have refills have a bag dispenser system? We use the cans because you’re less likely to get a refill, and it’s completely sustainable. So, we’ve stuck with those.”
Hogan reflected, “When I was a kid, there wasn’t all this Amazon cardboard. It’s unbelievable all the cardboard boxes that come to us with the food products that we buy. Everything comes in a box.”
Lesnikowski and Hogan have seen what impacts recycling can do for others: “We save the aluminum cans to recycle them. A fellow from Macon, who was a minister down there, came to the Caboose way back when we first opened and asked if he could have them. We saved cans for him for probably 18 or 19 years. Periodically, he and his wife – Lloyd and Mary – would come up and golf, eat here, and take the cans. Unfortunately, they have recently died, but before they did – maybe two years ago – he said, ‘You know, we have three places we donate the cans: Habitat for Humanity, the church, and another one – he named all three. He said, ‘You’ve given us more than $3K worth of cans.’ And we’re just one little company!”
The most interesting item recycled by the restaurant is the iconic, original structure.
“The Caboose itself is very green because it’s a recycled railway car that we pulled out of the woods four or five houses down,” Lesnikowski explained. “We refurbished it 22 years ago.”
The Caboose was originally a 1910 vintage box car that was converted to a caboose during World War II, according to Hogan. Later on, after the company Seaboard System Railroad – since merged with CSX Transportation – absorbed the Georgia Railroad in 1983, people could buy cabooses or box cars for $500.
Other efforts to be more environmentally friendly include the construction of an outdoor, screened-in kitchen to can local fruits and vegetables. Lesnikowski, who either walks or cycles to and from work, has been canning produce and selling the products for years. By taking this task outside, no extra air-conditioning needs to run inside. Even grease from cooking foods like chicken in the indoor kitchen are not wasted as a biofuel company collects the grease every couple of months. Additionally, the Caboose makes its own homemade root beer and sells it in recyclable glass bottles. Lesnikowski commented that seeing the old-fashioned root beer floats being enjoyed out of Styrofoam before changing to more eco-friendly cups seemed out of place to her, especially as she grew up in an environmentally-conscious household.
Lesnikowski noted, “It’s a recent phenomenon. It’s only been a couple of generations with all these plastics, and we’re drowning in them already. We’ve got to have another strategy.” Describing a TED Talk, she stated, “A guy was talking about all the effort to clean up the ocean, and he said, ‘If you go into your kitchen and the floor is covered with water because the sink is overflowing, you don’t start mopping up the water; you turn off the faucet.’ That resonated with me. We’ve got to stop.
“I think that our carbon footprint at the Caboose is rather small.”
Through their efforts to go green at the Caboose, Lesnikowski and Hogan have found another way to make Rutledge “Small but Special.”