Paper straws drive the sustainability efforts we're seeing at Tampa Bay bars

No plastic? No problem.

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click to enlarge Saigon Blonde's tropical paper straw. - Jenna Rimensnyder
Jenna Rimensnyder
Saigon Blonde's tropical paper straw.

Last month, St. Petersburg City Council voted to ban single-use plastic straws from bars, restaurants and other businesses across the city at the start of 2020. The ordinance will transform the War on the Straw from trend to finable offense, and rightfully so if it makes people more aware of their environmental footprint, say the ban’s supporters (disability advocates have a whole ‘nother perspective).

The anti-plastic straw movement really took off in Tampa Bay with No Straws St. Pete in 2018. Tampa establishments also rallied behind the cause before the end of the year, urging the community to skip the straw like many of their neighbors across the bridge.

Eager to chip in, local watering holes started tinkering with several types of eco-friendly alternatives, everything from hay to pasta. No, seriously. Paper straws have gained the most support at this point, but the fight for greater sustainability behind the bar isn’t over.

Regionites seem to be holding themselves and their go-to places for booze more accountable in the new year. In addition to the bars that no longer offer plastic straws or follow a by-request-only policy, some go the extra mile with compostable cups or biodegradable utensils for their kitchens — and even jazzed-up paper straws.

Downtown St. Pete’s Saigon Blonde has incorporated a tropical aesthetic into its paper straw design. The replicas of bamboo culm complete the cocktails, including classic Mai Tais, guests enjoy while people-watching on Central Avenue.

Owner Peri Bandazian, a firm believer in the anti-plastic straw movement, launched Saigon Blonde last year with paper straws. And good thing, too, according to bartender Marisa Shaw. Based on the amount of straws the bar goes through on a monthly basis, Shaw says she couldn’t imagine using the plastic kind or how it would impact the environment, especially Florida beaches and sea life.

“We are invested in the future of the environment,” Bandazian told CL, “and are constantly thinking about the bigger picture when it comes to our part in the pollution of the planet.”

When the First Friday block party rolls around, the bar presents drinks in corn-based cups. Bandazian is also researching ways Saigon Blonde can recycle empty liquor bottles.

Do folks ever come prepared with reusable straws from home? Eh, not so much.

“Sure, at Starbucks people are bringing their metal straws, but when they are out for recreation, it’s more convenient for patrons to use our paper straws,” Bandazian said.

It’s a different story at year-round hotspot Anise Global Gastrobar in downtown Tampa.

“We’ve noticed that mostly women are bringing in their reusable straws,” said general manager Christina Gilson.

So, rather than supplying reusable straws, Anise sticks to the paper ones.

“Early on,” Gilson said, “we had Karen Kress [director of transportation and planning for Tampa Downtown Partnership] come to us who has been a huge catalyst in our switch from plastic to paper.”

Anise partnered with a couple of neighbors, The Hall on Franklin and CW’s Gin Joint, when it first decided to make the switch, as large orders tend to be costly and difficult to source. Before that, however, the bar tried hay straws, which were expensive, and individually wrapped corn starch straws, which were a pain and didn’t hold up to heat.

What’s more, Anise furthers its commitment to sustainable products by providing recyclable, biodegradable to-go utensils when available, along with boxed water.

Gilson says the paper straw is a challenge for craft cocktail programs, because they tend to use an array of ice, but it isn’t detrimental.

“Overall, it doesn’t deter business, and most people don’t mind, being that our paper straws are more durable than most,” she said.

click to enlarge Anise Global Gastrobar tried hay straws and corn starch straws before making the switch. - Jenna Rimensnyder
Jenna Rimensnyder
Anise Global Gastrobar tried hay straws and corn starch straws before making the switch.

Not far from Anise, bees drive Hooch and Hive to help out the planet. Co-owner Sandi Hein, after all, has been a beekeeper for nearly six years in the Seminole Heights neighborhood (the bar’s theme makes sense now, right?).

Hooch and Hive, plastic-free since opening in 2018, carries paper straws for its cocktails of varying sizes. There are also Eco-Products branded cups to keep the dishes down — and guests buzzed — on busier nights.

Hein wanted to implement environmentally minded practices on the food side, too. The bar does so through eclectic small plates served in paper boats and with biodegradable forks.

When new patrons drop by to cheat on the no-alcohol vows they took for Dry January, manager Charlie Kraus says they’re pleased to see paper straws accompanying the drinks.

“A common phrase used after they excitedly receive their cocktail is, ‘Save the turtles!’” Kraus said.

As far as investing in reusable straws goes, Hein says the pricing and upkeep wouldn’t be worth Hooch and Hive’s while, plus they’re sort of dangerous.

“We had some metal ones, but they are quite scary,” Hein said. “Feels like you could go in for a sip and chip a tooth.”

Fair point. Nobody wants a piece of tooth floating in their frozen bramble.

The bars we talked to are on the same page when it comes to reusable straws. What makes the most sense is for patrons to bring their own.

“It tends to be an item that walks away from the bar,” Gilson continued. “We are thinking about opening up a smaller concept and getting a select number of branded reusable straws, so that when people do take them home, they’ll know where they got them from.”

Back in St. Pete, EDGE District hangout Intermezzo Coffee & Cocktails has pursued the by-request-only route with plastic straws. Owner Jarrett Sabatini tested out almost every replacement in the book.

“We’ve tried hay, paper and pasta, but none of them really stood up against heat or extended usage,” Sabatini said.

He went on to say he doesn’t feel comfortable asking guests to pay for the reusable variety. But one thing is for sure: Once the city’s crackdown on plastic straws goes into effect next year, Intermezzo will do whatever it needs to, to please patrons thirsty for change.

These eco-conscious purveyors of adult beverages are by no means alone in their efforts. Tampa-based Edison: Food + Drink Lab and Birch & Vine, which calls downtown St. Pete’s Birchwood home on Beach Drive, are also among the Bay area cocktail-slingers that stand by the War on the Straw.

According to manager Dave Steele, Birch & Vine has used paper straws for the better part of a year and a half. The swap was seamless.

“As if it has always been this way,” Steele said.

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