Sustainability: The Sign of the Times for Restaurants
In many ways, the traditional restaurant business model is under attack from all sides. Although new restaurants are opening up every day, overall industry revenues have drastically decreased in the last few years. Parallel industries, like supermarkets and fast-food chains, are offering more health-oriented foods, forcing restaurant owners, as well, to explore original ways to attract customers. Health- and budget-conscious consumers are growing more sophisticated about demanding high-quality, fresh ingredients at low prices. In addition, the environment matters, and restaurant owners can no longer ignore the fact that sustainability is at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
Sustainability: Part of a Restaurant’s Concept
“Sustainability” is the study of how a natural system remains diverse while producing everything it needs to maintain a balance. The goal of sustainability is to prevent the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain ecological stability. Sustainable food takes into account environmental, health, social, and economic concerns, and it consists of eight inter-related principles:
- Local and seasonal. Food now travels further than ever before, causing money to leak from local economies. Utilizing local and seasonal foods offers a way to minimize the energy used in transportation and storage, and increases freshness and quality. It encourages the involvement of local communities, and supports local food outlets and farmers.
- Organic farming. Organic, low-carbon food production, which avoids artificial fertilizers and genetically modified organisms, is beneficial to the environment. It invests in long-term soil fertility for future food production, and plays an important role in fighting climate change.
- Reduce foods of animal origin. Meat and dairy products are among the most energy and greenhouse-gas-intensive food products. The meat industry uses 40% more than all forms of transport combined. In addition, livestock uses 70% of agricultural land worldwide (30% of the Earth’s land surface), yet it creates only a fraction of the calories compared to grains or vegetables, contributing to malnutrition and food insecurity.
- Excludes fish species identified as at risk. Overfishing is a great threat to marine wildlife and habitats, with nearly 80% of world fish stocks overexploited. Many once-common North Sea species are now overfished – with cod and skate stocks on the verge of commercial collapse.
- Fair-trade-certified products. Fair-trade ensures that producers are paid fairly for their work. It offers a strategy for alleviating poverty by creating social and economic opportunities for producers and workers who have been exploited or marginalized by the conventional trading system.
- Promote health and wellbeing. Only a small percentage of adults worldwide eat the recommended minimum of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, and obesity and other food-related illnesses are on the rise. At the same time, 15% of the global population is going hungry, while in developed countries we waste one-third of all food. A sustainable food system is about health and wellbeing for all.
- Food democracy. In today’s mainstream food system, supply chain decisions and profits are made by a handful of large companies, which tend to drive down prices and maximize profits at the expense of farmers, local communities, and the environment. Food “democracy” is about boosting control by local producers, suppliers and consumers, and working to reduce inequality in the food supply chain.
- Reduction of waste and packaging. Roughly 70% of product packaging is used for food and drink, which is often discarded and hard to recycle. Buying local and seasonal food reduces the need for unnecessary packaging, and reduces the negative impact on the environment from large-scale disposal of inorganic waste. Generally, food should come with minimum packaging and, wherever possible, reusable packaging should be used and promoted.
Sustainability Starts with the Food Chain
Today, there is a global push to make the food chain more sustainable, and sustainable restaurants are a response to these trends. Restaurants that can consistently deliver local, fresh, environmentally friendly products have found a way to stand out in the crowd, and this could be a good strategy for new restaurateurs entering the field.
Many of the sustainability challenges – such as water usage, deforestation, genetically modified organisms, treatment of workers, declining farm space – fall more on agriculture and processing than on the service of food in the restaurant industry. Nonetheless, the food supply chain plays an increasingly important role in improving restaurant sustainability efforts. Therefore, forward-thinking restaurant owners should be considering how to build a sustainable business.
Make it Profitable
The only way that sustainability efforts can last in the restaurant industry is if business is cost-effective. The industry is challenging enough without implementing an idealistic philosophy with no financial reward. A major path to cost-effective sustainability is through publicizing the effort to customers in ads, websites, social media, and other marketing platforms. Customers have to see a strong social presence to be motivated to enter your establishment, and sustainable programs have to infiltrate the entire business model to really stimulate a market.
That said, it is okay to start small. A good place to begin is by fostering relationships with vendors who feature organic products, which you in turn, can incorporate into your menu options. Purchasing food managers should be willing to ask tough questions of the vendor representatives they work with. This includes asking where meats and seafood come from, how they are packaged, and whether they are farm-raised or wild-caught. They should strive to purchase low-cost, organically grown ingredients when possible and pass this information on to their customers. They should also be willing to shop around and avoid being tied to a single, large-scale vendor.
The offerings that you create from these sustainable products should be tasty, affordable options that are locally grown and carefully costed out. They should be highlighted in an insert, on the menu, and by servers as they take orders from their guests.
Sustainable Packaging and Recycling
Green packaging is no longer difficult to find or expensive to buy. Recycled materials for take-out orders promote the message of sustainability while providing convenient packaging for customers. Patrons are encouraged to order take-out when the packages are attractive and effective at keeping food fresh. As part of an effective sustainable program, supply managers should check with vendors to make sure food packaging is limited, and that recycled materials are being used when possible.
More restaurant-ready products than ever are recyclable, but few owners have adopted recycling programs. It isn’t hard to set up recycling bins and encourage employees to use them. Ongoing recycling is a product of a culture that values sustainability, and this starts with restaurant owners and managers. Recyclable, eco-friendly products include all containers and packages; however, building supplies, cleaning supplies, and even toilet paper all come in recyclable/reusable varieties now, making it easier and more efficient to implement lasting sustainability.
Building Sustainability from the Ground Up
For the restaurant owner opening a new business, creating a venue with sustainability in mind can make a lasting impression. Contractors can be environmentally conscious by using recycled wood and energy-efficient heating/cooling equipment. Owners can buy recycled tables and chairs and reusable kitchen equipment. In this way, the new restaurateur can implement a low-cost, completely integrated sustainable program that grabs the attention of the local market and makes an impact. In an industry that is increasingly lacking ways to make a statement, it makes more sense than ever to explore sustainability.