Home » Cathy Morelli | Saving The Environment One Cup At A Time

Cathy Morelli | Saving The Environment One Cup At A Time

Cathy Morelli and her husband Jerry run Augustino’s Rock & Roll Deli.

by Nolan Hawk

Cathy Morelli and her husband Jerry run Augustino’s Rock & Roll Deli in the Western Suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. 

While they’re locally famous for their mouth watering Italian subs and refreshingly sweet Italian ice, most people are totally unaware of the impact that they’ve had protecting the environment on a national level. 

The History Of Augustino’s Rock And Roll Deli

Augustino’s started out as an Italian grocery store run by Jerry’s parents, Augie and Phylis, when they opened their doors in Carol Stream in 1978.

They sold imported pasta and specialty sauces, but soon found out that their customers were coming in for delicious deli sandwiches, piled high with freshly-sliced Italian meats, cheeses, and fresh produce, on fresh-baked artisan breads. 

When Jerry joined the family business, they began featuring specialty hot sandwiches like hand-rolled meatball sandwiches and thinly sliced iconic Italian beef, using family recipes handed down by generations.

With lines out the door and hot sandwiches selling out, while the retail items gathered dust, Augustino’s officially got out of the grocery game and became a delicatessen. 

By the late 1980’s Augie and Jerry discovered the perfect piece of land to build their Carol Stream sandwich shop on. 

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During the restaurant’s build, they decided to focus the decor on the Rock and Roll era of music, as Augie, a Korean War veteran, had served as a coordinator USO shows overseas. 

Augie booked all the musical entertainment that played for troops stationed abroad during the late 50’s, and even formed his own band with other soldiers, to perform when artists were unable to make it. 

Through his extensive contact with the rock and rollers of the 50’s, Augie gained an extensive collection of band memorabilia from the era, and Augustino’s was the perfect place to display it.

Today, every inch of wall space is packed with museum-quality memorabilia from local Chicago bands and internationally famous acts like The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Styx, REO Speedwagon, and countless others. 

The front of the restaurant, which they refer to as “the mothership” after it spurned two sister locations, features a giant jukebox that is illuminated in neon colors at night.

When Cathy Joined Augustino’s Rock & Roll Deli

When Cathy married Jerry, she knew the restaurant was an important aspect of his family’s life, and raised their four daughters while he worked grueling restaurant hours. 

As the deli expanded to two additional locations, one in downtown Chicago and another in nearby West Chicago, and their children grew up, Cathy joined the family business.

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For Jerry, who was always primarily focused on food quality and running the day-to-day business, Cathy coming onboard was a dream scenario. 

Her previous work in Human Resources, as an advice columnist, and positions in various restaurants, made her a uniquely perfect fit to helm their expanding business. 

Cathy took over marketing and growing their thriving catering operation, while using her background in human resources to navigate the ever changing landscape of employment laws and restaurant requirements in Illinois. 

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While working with a spouse sounds like a nightmare for some, it only made Cathy and Jerry’s marriage and business stronger.

Cathy’s favorite parts of the business are generating unique marketing opportunities like classic car Cruise Night events and creating custom catering items. 

According to Jerry, she’s the glue that holds Augustino’s Rock and Roll Deli and Grill together. 

“She brings a lot of energy to the shift. I concentrate on quality, and everything has to be a certain way, so maybe I’m not as fun to work with as she is,” he remarked. “She’ll get talking to the kids… I think they love when she’s here, it just makes it a little more fun.”

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“It takes some of the pressure off me, she handles some stuff when she’s here that I don’t have to handle,” Jerry continued. 

He cited a story about when they’re computers went down, while customers were waiting in line. He said his solution would have been to close for the day, but Cathy solved the problem and got everything back online. 

“She’s my tech guru,” he said. “I don’t know what I would’ve done without her. It’s nice having her here.”

How Cathy Changed The World

While Jerry’s life has clearly been impacted by Cathy’s presence at Augustino’s deli, her effect on the nation is virtually unrecognized, but extremely important. 

It’s a little known fact that Cathy Morelli is responsible for ushering in the era of eco-friendly single-use food containers more than 15 years before conservationists and lawmakers cared enough to make a change, and it all started with a little white cup in 2007.

A customer at their downtown Chicago location placed a food order, but was incredibly indecisive about her drink choice, though the decision was between water and… water. 

Augustino's Rock & Roll Deli Cathy Morelli with sytrofoam cup and water bottle

Cathy asked the woman if she wanted bottled or tap, and she ordered tap water. When Cathy returned with tap water in a styrofoam cup, the customer agonized between both options “like it was a Sophie’s choice.” 

Cathy was baffled by the woman’s agony between the choices until she detailed her dilemma. 

“The tap is free, but it’s a styrofoam cup and they don’t go anywhere,” the woman explained. 

Cathy was “fascinated” by the customer’s existential environmental crisis and decided to investigate Augustino’s actual impact.

“I knew people were choosing more water, so we started keeping track of how many people were choosing water,” she said. 

“And when I did the math we were going through 10,000 cups of free water per location, per month,” Cathy figured out. 

“Then I looked at the fact that we were choosing a styrofoam cup… That was 30,000 styrofoam cups going into the earth, and then I learned they don’t go anywhere for 500 years.” 

She decided that if Augustino’s was going to be putting out such a large amount of cups, that they should be “healthier cups.”

However, when she investigated her kitchen distributor, the options were limited to paper cups, which are “line with petrochemicals,” that she decided were not a better option.

After researching further, Cathy discovered that there was a company in Colorado making cups out of corn byproducts that are 100% compostable due to their composition. 

Compostable Cups Go Nationwide

Because they were able to commit to a significant monthly purchase, Augustino’s was able to get one of the nation’s largest restaurant distributors, Sysco Foods, to carry the cups. 

But 86ing styrofoam cups was just the beginning. “If we were going to make a commitment to a cup, we’re not going to stop at a cup,” she detailed.  

“So then it became this incredibly fun project of seeing how far we could go with our disposable items,” Cathy added.

They replaced all of their styrofoam plates, containers, and even eating utensils with Earth-friendly alternatives, but the process was not without growing pains. 

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“The silverware was a disaster for a long time and people begged us to go back [to plastic], because that disintegrates in heat, and [their famous] vinegar and oil dressing,” she disclosed. 

Cathy assured that today, the silverware functions properly, as the Colorado company that made the original compostable cup was able to expand their product line due to being picked up by the giant restaurant distributor.  

When Augustino’s paved the way other restaurants, other businesses, and even schools started following on a national level, which led to styrofoam laws that took more than a decade to become a government issue. 

Today, styrofoam is banned in Colorado, Maine, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Washington, D.C. 

In Augustino’s home state Illinois, legislation to ban single use to-go food containers and utensils will go into effect in January 2024, and it all started with a little white cup. 

Augustino’s Rock & Roll Deli Resources

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Learn MORE about the story of the Little White Cup.

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