Lunchbox is thrilled to partner with incredibly inspiring brands all across the country. Scen Studio in New York City is no exception. Scen is pushing the boundaries of sustainability in restaurants with a fully zero-waste approach. Max Koenig, founder of Scen, speaks to us about his passion for clean eating, the challenges of operating a sustainable restaurant and the big things to come for Scen.
Max Koenig, Founder, Scen
Why are you so passionate about sustainability?
I don't even ask myself that question because I just have to be. Whenever I do something, I always have my values that I integrate and that one is fundamental. I literally wouldn’t do anything else. There’s no true why, it’s just innate.
What are some of the current projects or initiatives that you're most excited about?
I can write books about that. I think mushrooms are insanely exciting. I have a mushroom jacket which is super amazing and mushrooms are so versatile for food products to replace meat, dairy, anything. The power of fermentation and mushrooms is incredible to use it for culinary, fashion, anything. The other one is capturing CO2 - super interesting as well. What you can actually make out of CO2, like protein, any sort of liquids. I think those two at the moment are the most exciting for me because they both tackle very severe problems that we have. Especially with CO2, it’s flipping the table - taking something bad and making something good out of it.
For Scen specifically, I think it's the way people respond to us. We've literally just launched in New York like four months ago, and everything that we had in our vision of the players that we want to connect, it came to us organically. So whether it was fashion brands, whether it was sports players and all of those fields that we wanted to marry, they have resonated with what we've built. It’s the same thing overseas. We did the pop-up in Paris and it was the same scenario. That gets me tremendously excited because we're not only able to share a philosophy but people actually will integrate it into their day-to-day and we're able to provide some sort of value for it. We can use those spaces - I don't really like to call them restaurants - where we serve our philosophy and share it and we can connect a lot of people together.
What are some things that we as consumers could be doing in terms of sustainability?
I’m trying to think of something that is not the usual answer. I feel like most of the time people just say “go 100% plant-based” and that’s it. I think in terms of sustainability, the biggest one that I have learned over the course of my two years building this, and that I’m really excited about is just what you can actually do with food. We have 40 percent food waste normally, but you can literally use every single part. For example, like if we ever have broccoli at home, we use the entire broccoli. There's not a single waste. I think rethinking the highest use or any type of food ingredients, whether you ferment it, you pickle it, you reuse it for broth, you make a soup out of it. There's so many ways that we can not only save money, but it's actually super delicious, if we just go against the way we’re used to doing things. Try to cook at home as much as possible. Even though it goes against the restaurant ethos! Sometimes it's obviously not possible, but taking care of your food at home is not only nourishing for you but it just feels good. Then just using public transport, buying vintage or second hand items are always incredible. And when you do buy new things, even though oftentimes it costs more, if you buy something that's sustainable, it’s going to last longer. Whenever something is cheap, you're eventually gonna pay for it in my opinion.
What have been some of the most challenging aspects of opening a restaurant with a sustainability focus?
It's bloody expensive. Restaurants is an industry where you have a lot of different players, ranging from mom-and-pop stores to really commercial stores. Those are two completely different things in the way they operate and what they are able to do. Opening a restaurant per se is obviously not an easy game. But making it completely zero waste is really tough and it feels like you're working against all odds. This means there's a lot of education that comes into place. If you rethink every single detail of it, you have to first throw out the economics because you're gonna pay more for it. Whether it's the compostable packaging that you're going to buy or whether it is going down the compostable route and waste disposal, it's more expensive. That's part of why we wanted to do it because we know exactly how tough to build and create a system or model that you can put anywhere in any type of city. That's what we're here for. To go through that learning experience and these lessons on literally every single level, whether it's the straw that we pick or the dish washing. Those all play a part and when it's sustainable, it’s automatically a bit more expensive. You have to incorporate not only the economics of it but, as a human being oftentimes, the instinct to throw something away instead of finding a way to use it. We’re used to not utilizing the entire carrot. We’re chopping off the green part of it and just using the pretty part of the carrot. Why? It's kind of like that, where you have to rethink every single detail and incorporate that chance.
The good thing is that we're starting out like this and we're not changing afterwards. We’re growing out of it. We’re really emphasizing to the chef that we hired that she's super involved with the zero-waste aspect. It really comes down to every single detail that we have to take care of. It’s a daily task to rethink how we're doing things. At the moment, the status quo is that we throw away 40% of our food. That’s why this is the prototype and once we figure out our model and are confident in our model, I want to open doors so that others can integrate that as well.
Of the prototype and I want to, once we figured out our model and we're confident in our model like open source so that others can integrate with as well.
But while it's definitely more expensive, I’m 300 percent certain that at some point, we’ll actually be better off on an economic level. When we completely carve out the concept and the model that we have in mind, we're going to be better off economically. That's where it gets really exciting because then you're able to prove on a small scale what can be done on a bigger scale and how it works. And that's kind of like where we want to go with the concept.
Are your guests excited to engage in the sustainability aspect of Scen?
That’s the most exciting part. We should do a better job to literally describe every single detail but it's always a great touchpoint. When customers come in and they're learning about it. They find out that the packaging materials is actually plant fertilizer and that gives people hope. We really feel that when people are in the space learning about the mission. When they get paper, it's seed paper for example - you can actually plant a flower afterwards. Those aspects, they just feel good for people. Internally, it just feels good. We've been sharing great moments with all of our consumers.
What is your favorite thing about working with Lunchbox as a partner?
The people. You're the only partner that I don't have to worry about. It kind of feels like an extension of the team as if you're like responsible yourself. It feels like you have skin in the game for our business even though you don't. It feels like you're really part of the company. You're super proactive. I just never have to worry about anything which is like taking a lot off our plate. In general, I think that you're opening up opportunities to connect with our community and customers and obviously help bring in revenue in a very seamless and enjoyable manner.
How did you first get involved in the restaurant industry?
I’m not really a restaurateur. I mostly use it as an agent of change or a tool. My goal and what I'm working towards is providing foods for human and planetary health. Restaurants are kind of like a small world - they have their own supply chain and consumers. It’s kind of like a world on a small scale and you can depict what can be done on a larger scale. Like if we're thinking about cities, where do they get their food in the future? How can we make that sustainable not only for us but also the planet? Hence the restaurant came about.
Although that's from the intention side on how everything came about because you can showcase something. But on the other side, I always had an affinity for restaurants. A friend of mine I was working with in Geneva in banking was looking at my CV and the bottom part was where I’m going to retire, I’m going to open up my own restaurant. So the aesthetic part of having a restaurant was cool to me but then I take the more activist approach.
Was the journey to your current position as founder of Scen?
Long story short, during my last year of uni, I was working in private banking and investment banking and I didn't want to go down the banking path. I always wanted to do something with climate change, chronic diseases and dedicate my time that I have left, which is another like 80 years towards fighting those two. Hence I left the job two weeks approximately after my grandfather got really sick, several chronic diseases. No one in Europe was able to help him. I went to the United States because at Cornell University, they have a dedicated faculty for research and chronic diseases and how to prevent them and how to treat them. One of the levers that they use is a plant-based diet. That's kind of their focus. I took the material, moved in with my grandpa and we did the whole thing together. I went plant-based together with him. He's a butcher so that was kind of a very interesting scenario. His health tremendously increased; my health tremendously increased and it changed my life. For me that was like a lightbulb went off. Food is the answer to so many issues that we have worldwide, whether that’s climate change or chronic diseases. Food is just a great agent of change to make something happen. That's how everything came about.
So I put together a business plan which is my personal life, an 80-year business plan. Chapter one is restaurants and product and making that philosophy accessible to as many people as possible in a very aesthetically pleasing way. Marrying many different sectors with each other, whether its technology, art, culinary. I just reached out to my co-founder Matthew Kenney because he is the guy who created plant-based basically.
What are your goals for the year ahead?
Well this is the first official teaser! We're going to open up a second space at the end of spring or beginning of summer in NoHo which is going to be super exciting, that space and coming into a new market. I want to expand more locations in New York. I'm guessing there will be a few more to come probably by the end of the year. We’re also launching our products into grocery stores with the same philosophy and making that accessible to not only the people in New York but also in California and everywhere nationwide.
What is most important to know about Scen?
I would say that you couldn't see Scen as a regular restaurant. It's more so sharing a philosophy than a business or selling a product or anything of that sort. Our goal really is to find solutions on how we can nourish the planet in the future and we're doing that via retail stores and products to make it as accessible as possible but also have the human connection and inspiration behind. As of now what you see one space (two spaces at the end of spring) is more so going to transform into an environment of possible solutions for how we can eat in the future.
What is your favorite thing to order when you eat at Scen?
That’s really tough to say. I eat there every day to be honest with you, and make myself a custom bowl that's my absolute favorite. But I would say if I have to pick one item on the menu, then it would be the Sweet Bowl, which is overnight oats with cacao. It has homemade granola from our chef and topped with fruits and homemade almond butter. Either for breakfast, it’s perfect or just as a midday snack, it’s tremendous.