(Nov. 22, 2019) Mother’s Cantina restaurant owners Ryan and Neely James have won the Maryland League of Conservation Voters’ President Theodore Roosevelt award, which recognizes environmentally conscious individuals, groups or organizations.
“We believe it’s important to lead by example with regards to environmentalism,” Ryan James said.
Past recipients are Emmitsburg Mayor Donald N. Briggs in 2017 and Salisbury Mayor Jake Day last year.
The high school sweethearts’ conservation efforts began early on as they both grew up in environmentally conscious families.
“My father is a composter, a recycler and a vegan,” Neely James said.
The couple moved to Ocean City almost 12 years ago from Baltimore, and shortly after opened their Tex-Mex restaurant located on 28th Street.
The duo had always planned for the restaurant to be as eco-friendly as possible, but as their family grew with the births of sons Reed, 11, and Roman, 5, and daughter Kaia, 8, they began to pursue the effort with a new sense of urgency.
“The defining moment for me was when we had kids and started to see how much waste being a restaurant owner creates,” Ryan said.
“It’s always to the point of source reduction,” Neely, 41, said. “Being a larger consumer… and knowing that we have a larger impact on the environment, it then becomes our responsibility to do the best that we can.”
As an example, while a consumer may use five to six straws in one week, a restaurant uses roughly 500 in one day, Ryan, 43, said.
“If we’re not setting the tone … then we’re going to set a poor example for our consumers,” he said.
The couple have cut out 99.9 percent of single-use plastic from their business and no longer use styrofoam takeout containers.
The only single-use plastic items they still use are trash bags, but they are hoping to find a suitable alternative in the near future.
None of this happened overnight, the two said, and it took about five years for them to feel comfortable enough to begin phasing out the plastics and styrofoam and converting to the pricier alternatives.
“The main obstacle is the price. The products that we are using are more expensive,” Ryan said. “However, it’s worth it because if we don’t have a planet then what’s the point of paying less money.”
The couple absorb some of the cost, but it is also passed on to the consumer.
For instance, there is a 25-cent charge on carryout to help pay for the sugarcane takeout boxes, which are 100 percent compostable and biodegradable.
Despite this, the duo have received nothing but praise and positive feedback from customers.
“The consumer has the power,” Ryan said. “If [consumers] are spending money on items that are recyclable, then producers, companies have no choice but to adjust because if not they are going to go out of business.”
The husband and wife have been active politically as well, and advocated for the styrofoam ban and the Clean Energy Jobs Act, both of which passed.
“We’re working on holding information sessions here for other restaurants with regards to the styrofoam ban,” Ryan said. “The styrofoam ban goes into effect July 1, and we feel like a lot of people will be unprepared for that and we want to help them. We want to show them how we have been able to make that transition seamlessly.”
The couple said they were honored to receive the award, but that their work was part of a larger, collective effort here in Ocean City spearheaded by organizations such as the Maryland Coastal Bays Program, Surfriders Foundation, Assateague Coastal Trust, Ocean City Green Team and city officials as well.
“We’re humbled and honored and we can’t wait to use the award to pay it forward and spread the good word,” Ryan said.