Jenna Morton’s surname may be widely known because of her husband (Michael, founder of the N9NE Group) and his family (Dad founded Morton’s The Steakhouse; brother Peter the Hard Rock), but she has built her own claim to fame locally with a very different, non-Vegas-nightlife mission: sustainability. It’s a subject she’s well versed in, and her passion manifests itself in many ways, such as her admitting that she cannot sleep if she forgets her reusable grocery bags.
Morton’s father, an archaeologist, taught her the values of sustainability when she was growing up in Michigan. Those values have followed her through the years, including a move from her home in Chicago to Las Vegas in 2003 to help her husband continue the family business in restaurants. In her eight years here, Morton has established herself as an environmental defender to be reckoned with, serving on the board of the Springs Preserve and heading the effort to prevent nuclear waste from being dumped in Nevada. And she leads by example as much as possible, even converting her car to run on vegetable oil waste.
Meantime, she and her husband are now co-owners of the Morton Group, which recently opened La Cave, a wine bar at the Wynn.
Tell us about your “veggie car.”
I traded in my Mercedes for a Volkswagen, and people were asking why, but the cost of converting the system [to run on vegetable oil] was $1,000. That’s something almost anyone can do; it just takes effort. … A lot of people do it because it’s a lot cheaper if you can get a restaurant to share their waste vegetable oil. For most restaurants it’s a waste product, and they have to pay to have it removed.
What about people who want to be green but can’t necessarily afford a veggie car or solar panels?
Most people don’t have to really change their lives to do things to treat the environment better. I think we’ve heard all of those things. Turn your thermostat down or up a degree; that’s easy and it doesn’t really affect how you feel. Turn off the lights and change to compact fluorescent bulbs. … I know there are movements where people say, “Get back to the earth and be off the grid.” You know what, I have to be honest—that’s not something I’m capable of doing. I live in contemporary society, I work in contemporary society and I’m going to use energy. What can people do? Be conscious. The overall level of consciousness in the last 30 years has progressed incredibly. We’re doing better. We’re doing great. We’re not there, but when you look around you see all sorts of companies that are looking at production differently so that they aren’t producing a waste product. I prefer to celebrate the progress that we have made.
Where does your passion for green living stem from?
It always comes back to my parents and the compost pile in the backyard. My father has always had a garden of indigenous wild flowers, and he would choose only plants that were indigenous to Michigan. It starts out as a pile of dirt and it ends up being this explosion of color and texture and a range of colors from brown to fuchsia, and every year he tends it and cares for it like a child. Just that connection with the beauty of what lives and exists. During the Carter administration, there were subsidies for renewable energy, and my dad designed the house so that the solar system was integral to the building of the house. People would literally drive by our house like it was an alien spaceship. It was an ingenious system. At the point where my dad needed to update the system, he couldn’t afford to do it because the subsidies had disappeared. So now there is a tax credit, and we put solar on our house in August. Part of the reason is the federal tax credit, and NV Energy has a rebate program.
How does Las Vegas rate on getting green done?
What’s really great about a place like Las Vegas is that it’s happening here in ways that people may not know about. Most of it isn’t activist; it’s companies that produce products that we would call sustainable—solar power, wind turbine production, battery production. They are good business models. I think passing climate-change legislation is important because once that happens there will be a vacuum and those industries are going to explode and it will create jobs. If we can get that legislation passed, there won’t even be a question of if it’s easy, it will just be the simple reality. All of those things are happening now.
The Springs Preserve hasn’t been as successful as planners had hoped. How do you feel about that?
What the Springs Preserve is for the community is a gathering place, an escape to go from all the other things we do. I don’t think people perceive the Springs Preserve as what I see it as: a place to educate the community. … People use it as a resource, but while they’re there they get a dose of the sustainability because they can’t miss it. It’s all around them.
What has been inspiring you lately in your professional life?
I’ve really been into that communal experience of life in general. For me, what is so great about La Cave is it’s such an experiential place. The whole experience of it is what life is about and what makes it so rich. The process of developing La Cave was so fun because in the beginning, for me, it was about learning about the origins of wine. It wasn’t so much the drinking of it, but you look at how wine is fitting in with people’s experience of each other. Wine has fit into communal ritual for 8,000 years. We’re still doing the same things today. It’s really exciting to see all the personalities come together [in a new venue] and see people’s passions come out. It’s kind of like a whole fermentation process in itself.
You’ve moved your offices to the Arts Factory downtown. Why?
We were looking for a new office space that was comfortable. We’ve just never been really corporate. We work at odd hours; we collaborate with each other a lot so being in a space all together is a good thing. We really wanted to be downtown. We’re all from the city, we’re from Chicago. We just kind of felt like we needed to be in a space where we felt really comfortable; we work best when we’re in a space that’s comfortable. We work in a different way.