Written by Ashley Davis of Kifani Press for Project Green Fork
Take a stroll down the alley nestled between B.B. King Boulevard and Second Avenue and you can’t miss the mouth-watering aroma of some of the best ribs in Memphis. Since 1948, Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous Restaurant has been serving up its world-famous, dry-rub ribs to thousands of visitors each week – from princes to politicians.
With so many customers coming through the door each day, Rendezvous produces a lot of meals, but they can also produce a lot of food waste.
Katherine Vergos Reiderer knew they had to do something about it. She’s the granddaughter of Charlie Vergos, the restaurant’s founder, and handles the marketing, retail and social media. She’s also a local entrepreneur and co-owns The Art Project, a kid-friendly art center in Midtown, with her sister, Anna Vergos Blair.
“We can feed up to 8,000 people each week,” Reiderer said about the historic eatery. “So you can imagine how much trash we are producing.”
“Restaurants and businesses produce so much waste,” she added. “There are glass bottles, plastic food containers, food waste and then everything comes in cardboard. We felt like it was the right thing to do to at least try to recycle and try to do better.”
Rendezvous joined Project Green Fork (PGF) in 2010. Project Green Fork, in a program offered through Clean Memphis, contributes to a more sustainable Mid-South by helping reduce the environmental impacts of businesses within the service industry. PGF focuses on strengthening homegrown restaurants by helping them to implement sustainable practices.
Since 2010, Reiderer said that the restaurant has taken small steps towards big sustainable change.
“Each year we take on small projects that over 12 years have added up to big changes,” Reiderer said. “We recycle all of our glass, cardboard and plastic. We’ve eliminated styrofoam to-go containers. We also don’t use styrofoam at our USDA shipping kitchen either. While many mail order food businesses ship food in big Styrofoam coolers, we don’t. We ship our food in cardboard boxes and use reusable ice packs.”
By focusing on micro-changes, they have also tackled their food waste without sacrificing service.
“We now serve most of our food in reusable baskets instead of single use paper plates. Our cutlery is also now compostable,” Reiderer explained. “We switched to asking customers if they want rolls instead of just putting them on plates, which has helped reduce food waste. We also replaced all of the dumpsters in our alley with a shared trash compactor with our neighbors. This helps to reduce the amount of trash pickups as well as keeps our alley cleaner.”
Reiderer said that moving towards restorative practices is still a process, but the team is fully on board. They are looking for more ways to reduce their impact in a way that makes sense for their bustling day-to-day business.
“When I first discussed recycling down here, everyone looked at me like I was crazy,” she said. “Now, it has become second nature – no one questions it anymore.”
Although individual businesses can do their part to make changes, Reiderer said she would like to see some system-wide changes in the city.
“As a business, it is actually really challenging to figure out how to recycle as the city doesn’t pick it up. We are lucky that we have tons of warehouse space that can hold our recyclables until a team can pick them up. Some businesses don’t have that luxury. So, it’s not as easy for them to recycle.”
Reiderer said she’s grateful to be a part of such an important family legacy. The Rendezvous was basically her second home while growing up.
“I remember coming down before we opened on Saturday mornings and sneaking bites of sausage and cheese or watching my grandfather make slaw,” she said. “Some days I would draw while watching my aunt prepare the registers for the night and hope she’d give me a few quarters to play the Mario Brothers or Pac Man arcade games that used to be down there.”
“The Rendezvous was always the topic of conversation at home and obviously a significant part of my family,” she added.
She hopes that the restaurant will continue its legacy of service – whether it’s bringing food to the table or building a better Memphis.
“I love coming to the Rendezvous with first timers and experiencing it through their eyes. It is such a unique atmosphere,” Reiderer said. “ You walk down the steps and you’re immediately hit with the smell of the food, the sounds of the jukebox, the faces of the friendly servers and happy customers. While the food is why people come, the Rendezvous is so much more than just the food.”