With the specter of the drought hanging over his head, chef John Cox of Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur knew he had to find a way to save water.
The restaurant's water supply hinges on the ranch's own well, adding urgency to the need to conserve. Grasping for a solution, Cox stumbled on an innovative plan to use an air compressor to cut back on the restaurant's dishwashing.
"We originally bought the air compressor to clean out the stoves. We stored it under the dishwasher. As soon as I put it in the kitchen, light bulbs started going off," Cox said. "I thought I could string it up next to the hose and see what happens. Against all odds, the dishwashers made it work."
Sierra Mar began using the air compressor in late April for the initial cleaning of the dishes rather than spraying them with a water hose.
"I knew it was saving water," Cox said, "but I didn't know how much. Since putting the air system into place, we went from using 3,000 gallons per day down to 2,000 gallons per day on a consistent basis."
With Cox estimating the number of California restaurants, schools, hotels and corporate office buildings using pre-rinse nozzles at a rough 100,000, the total savings if everyone switched to air compressors would be 30 billion gallons per year.
The response to Sierra Mar's new dishwashing system has been swift and enthusiastic. "I put a video of the air compressor on my Facebook page, and within a day, it had 7,000 views."
Restaurant and hotel groups from Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, Hong Kong and parts in between have contacted the chef directly and set up their own versions of the specially rigged system.
"It's relatively easy to rig up just the air, but air and water together is hard," Cox said.
The ability for dishwashers to switch back and forth easily from air to water is crucial in keeping up with the fast pace of washing dishes in a busy restaurant.
Los Angeles area restaurants, including Faith & Flower and the Montage Beverly Hills, have made inquiries regarding the air compressor. Timothy Hollingsworth, chef-owner of Barrel and Ashes and the much-anticipated Otium at the Broad museum is a fan.
"We've tried it out a few times at Barrel and Ashes and are exploring the idea and functionality further. I would love to use it at both Barrel and Ashes and eventually Otium since it would save a ton of water every day. It's just about finding the right equipment."
At the moment, Cox is working with a couple of engineers, Paul Kirpes and Martin Palafox, to perfect the concept for distribution, and a patent is pending. "The drought is time sensitive, and we have to make it accessible," Cox urged.
A Kickstarter campaign for the project is in the works, and Cox has even given the compressor its own email account: firstname.lastname@example.org.
"I have been getting one to two calls a day about it," he said. "It's awesome."