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Green restaurateur shares his philosophy behind Fort Greene’s Habana Outpost

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As far as Sean Meenan knows, his Habana Outpost in Fort Greene is the first solar-powered restaurant/flea market/neighborhood gathering spot in New York City. The restaurateur, who owns two wildly popular spots in Nolita: Cafe Habana and Cafe Habana To-Go, chose the neighborhood for his first Brooklyn venture, because "everyone’s here," he says while gesturing to locals dining outdoors.

It’s easy to see what Meenan means. Sitting in the courtyard around bright blue picnic tables are neighborhood folk, mostly in their 20s and 30s. The diverse group is a reflection of Fort Greene’s population. They relax beneath brightly striped umbrellas, in couples and gatherings of friends, and in family groups with infants. No one, not even parents with small children, appears to be in a hurry to leave.

On a recent Wednesday evening, Meenan polished off "Oscar’s nightly special" and downed a Corona.

"I’m not a tree-hugger," he says. "Being as close to self-sufficient and finding better ways to make energy is just the right thing to do." ("Tree hugger" is a label that doesn’t fit - at least outwardly. Meenan is thin - not in the vegan "I only eat grains" way, but as a reflection of high-octane energy, and he’s too stylish, sporting a Panama hat, a gaudily printed nylon shirt circa 1976 and a collection of gold chains.)

His efforts to respect the environment begin with the Outpost’s physical space. Meenan has built a duplex-sized area enclosing a wall along the side of the adjacent building. On that wall is a vivid mural created in 1978 by Lee Quinones. The painting’s layers of jarring motifs reflect the turmoil of the city during that era.

The indoor space has the feeling of a Cuban cafe with a long counter covered in glinting tiles (reclaimed, of course), ceiling fans and a few couches for diners to lounge on. One of the sofas has "51362" printed in the center.

"That is one of the sails from the America Cup races," explains Meenan. "We try to use as much recycled stuff as we can." Green decor includes the "world’s first light pipe chandelier" operated by sun collection panels. The fixture is a huge, twisted affair of black rubber-covered wires that end in tiny bulbs. During the daylight hours, the orbs are bright; their power fades along with the sun. And those blue picnic tables in the courtyard are called Trent Tables; they’re created with recycled plastic and glass soda bottles. The place settings are made of biodegradable sugarcane and corn, and he composts as much of the leftover food as possible.

Solar panels provide much, but not all, of the electricity.

"We can’t run the place entirely on solar energy," he says, "but the extra electricity we make goes back into the grid and into neighboring buildings."

Using Habana Outpost as a green learning center of sorts, Meenan sponsored the Urban Studio Brooklyn program that brought together five students from the area’s architecture schools this July.

"They learned about designing ’green.’ They got together and built that water tower," says Meenan, pointing to a wooden structure in the garden. Continuing along the learning curve theme, children who participate in the weekend Kids Corner education program use the rainwater held in the tower to feed the garden’s plants.

Stop by the Outpost on the weekends, and you’ll see an open-air flea market. The "green" market takes place all day, with a live DJ spinning tunes. People shop, nibble on ears of grilled corn, and while away their time picking up great new fashions from local designers.

Meenan’s friend, Lopeti Etu, who produces a collection of clothing called HORRS (Habana Outpost Recycled Reject Shop), is a longtime vendor at the market.

On Sundays, you can grab a bite at the cafe in the early evening, and stay for movie night, when films of all genres are projected outside. "Do the Right Thing," "Mothra" and "Cleopatra Jones" were screened in August.

In the courtyard is an old canteen truck where chef Oscar Teco can be seen working the grill. Meenan tries to purchase as much of the Outpost’s ingredients as possible at the Red Hook farmers market as well as the Greenmarket in Fort Greene.

"It’s all part of supporting the community," he says. He refers to the menu as "Mexican and Caribbean with a gringo twist."

He adds, "I’m, like, totally, 100 percent Irish, so I have to have stuff for people like me." For gringos, there are burgers and hot dogs. The rest of the simple menu includes salads and sandwiches with Mexican touches like chipotle mayonnaise; an excellent quesadilla filled with moist, smoky grilled chicken; and wraps.

If you want a smoothie with your meal, you’ll need to climb atop the "bike blender" (a bicycle with a blender soldered to the front) to whip up the drink. If you ’cycle it yourself, the drink is $4; let one of the waitstaff do the pedaling, and it’ll set you back $5.

Hollywood types, who frequent his Nolita restaurant, are trying to persuade Meenan to open a Habana Outpost in California. So far, he’s resisted. He’s happy being "bi-borough" with an apartment "above the store" and another residence in Manhattan. Meenan is content with three eateries.

"I had four restaurants awhile back and that was too much," he confides.

However, Meenan’s ready to pursue a dream that’s been on hold for too long. In September, he begins shooting and directing a film he wrote. He wouldn’t say much more about it other than "It’s a buddy pic. One of the guys is from Elizabeth Street in New York. One gets pimped out in underground fight gangs." The major roles in the movie are being played by undiscovered talent "in keeping with the school of neo-realism," he jokes. Recognizable stars have signed on for cameos, but Meenan isn’t naming names.

When pressed for more information about the project, Meenan says with a sigh, "I’m a total cornball. Let’s just leave it at that."

 

Habana Outpost (757 Fulton St. at South Portland Street in Fort Greene) accepts cash only. Sandwiches, salads and quesadillas: $2-$10.25; special platters: $13. The Outpost is open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday. Lunch and dinner is served on weekends from noon to midnight. (The flea market is open on weekends from noon to 7 pm.) The Outpost will close on Dec. 30 and reopen in early March. For more information about films and other events, log onto www.ecoeatery.com. For more information, call (718) 858-9500.

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Reasonable discourse

PAUL from Fort green says:
Dear Tina Barry,

Concerning your article about Habana Outpost and their contributions to the eco innovations. Has anyone done any background research on this restaurant? Well, after a viral incident, I did!
Boy! was I shocked with what I found through the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

apparently, Sean Meenan and Lopeti Etu have sanitary issues and none of it worthy of praise!

In just the last 2 months alone they received 164 sanitary violations! On 4/30/2009 they received 64 violations, 5/19/2009 they received 94 violations and on 5/22/2009 they received 6 violations. Finally, on 5/19, the citations were so serious that they were order to be closed for business! The violations mostly sanitary concerns are enough to make anyone get a stomach ache. If you happened to stop by in may, they had a "closed for spring cleaning" sign posted. In may? Why the need for spring cleaning when they had been opened for only 2 months and closed since October 2008? Mr. Sean MEENAN and Mr. Lopeti ETU are not being completely honest. I hope for our community well being, they cleaned all the rats out of there.

Places like this should not be allowed to remain open nor be accepted by the community, they are a disaster waiting to happen. I guess it is a good thing they have a medical center not far on Dekalb to pump out stomachs.

Recently, a friend of mine went there to eat with her friends and within 24 hours she came down with stomach pains. So, I decided to do a little research on the Habana Outpost restaurant to see if there were any others that had similar problems. The first website I checked was the department of health and mental hygiene and after visiting their website boy was I surprised to see how many sanitary violations they received. In just the last 2 months alone they received 164 sanitary violations! On 4/30/2009 they received 64 violations, 5/19/2009 they received 94 violations and on 5/22/2009 they received 6 violations. Finally, on 5/19, the citations were so serious that they were order to be closed for business! The violations mostly sanitary concerns are enough to make anyone get a stomach ache. If you happened to stop by that week, they had a "closed for spring cleaning" sign posted. In may? Why the need for spring cleaning when they had been opened for only 2 months and closed since October 2008? Mr. Sean MEENAN and Mr. Lopeti ETU are not being completely honest. I hope for our community well being, they cleaned all the rats out of there.
Places like this should not be allowed to remain open nor be accepted by the community, they are a disaster waiting to happen. I guess it is a good thing they have a medical center not far on Dekalb to pump out stomachs.

THIS IS FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTHS WEBSITE

HABANA OUTPOST
757 FULTON STREET, BROOKLYN 11217
718-858-9500
05/19/2009
757 FULTON STREET, BROOKLYN 11217
Inspection Date: 05/19/2009
Violation points: 94
Establishment Closed by DOHMH. Violations were cited in the following area(s) and those requiring immediate action were addressed.
Sanitary Violations 1.) Evidence of rats or live rats present in facility's food and/or non-food areas.

Sanitary Violations
1.) Non-food contact surface improperly constructed. Unacceptable material used. Non-food contact surface or equipment improperly maintained.
2.) Plumbing not properly installed or maintained; anti-siphonage or backflow prevention device not provided where required; equipment or floor not properly drained; sewage disposal system in disrepair or not functioning properly.
• Improper personal hygiene practices and poor food-worker health.
• Improper hand washing and bare hand contact with ready-to-eat foods.
• Improper cooking, holding, and re-heating temperatures.
• Cross-contamination of food and food equipment.
• Food from unapproved sources.
Food Service Establishment Inspections:
Bureau of Food Safety and Community Sanitation (BFSCS) Public Health Sanitarians (PHS) conduct unannounced annual inspections of food service establishments (FSEs). During inspections, PHS's evaluate a FSE's conditions and practices and identify risk factors for food-borne illnesses. These risk factors include:
• Improper personal hygiene practices and poor food-worker health.
• Improper hand washing and bare hand contact with ready-to-eat foods.
• Improper cooking, holding, and re-heating temperatures.
• Cross-contamination of food and food equipment.
• Food from unapproved sources.
Sanitary Violations 1.) Non-food contact surface improperly constructed. Unacceptable material used. Non-food contact surface or equipment improperly maintained.
2.) Food contact surface not properly maintained.
3.) No facility available to wash, rinse, and sanitize utensils and/or equipment not provided.

June 3, 2009, 6:04 pm

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