Sustainability is shaping the way restaurateurs work, chefs craft menus and diners decide where to eat.
Being green is no longer a feel-good thing. Cutting waste and investing in high-efficiency equipment mean lower costs. Switching to earth-friendly products and purchasing local and responsibly raised ingredients matter to diners. On top of all that, restaurant waste disposal is increasingly becoming state mandated.
It pays to stay ahead. Here’s the down and dirty on why you should give sustainability the time of day.
1. Millennials: They care and you should, too
Winning over younger diners is a no-brainer considering that millennials dine out more than any other segment and make up the largest demographic in the country.
“Millennials are attracted to restaurants and restaurant brands that represent their social values, like eco-consciousness, authenticity and transparency,” says Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst at the NPD Group.
In fact, 73 percent of millennials say they are willing to pay for sustainable fare, according to a Nielsen study of more than 30,000 consumers. They’re motivated by products made from natural or organic ingredients and an environmentally friendly ethos.
That’s why third-party certification for disposables is the gold standard. The meaning behind labeling—from the symbols on eco-friendly containers to the claims on ingredients—can vary.
Gordon Drysdale, culinary director at Scoma’s in San Francisco recommends asking manufacturers and distributors plenty of questions.
“If a product is not right, try something different. Suppliers want to keep you happy, and they should be able to find something that works for your restaurant and your budget,” he says.
2. Earth-friendly products are better today and competitively priced
A dozen or so years ago when operators began purchasing environmentally friendly products, the items usually cost more than conventional and they were less than satisfactory (think of straws disintegrating in a drink). Today, the products are all around better—and oftentimes better priced.
“We’re actually saving money—about 12 percent,” says Michael Tsonton, the corporate executive chef and director of food and beverage at Lakeshore Sports & Fitness in Chicago.
When he took over the dining operations, he replaced conventional disposables with compostable products made with plant matter, from to-go containers to utensils and plastic cups. “These products are pretty high quality. The issue now is choosing what’s right for you.”
At Scoma, Drysdale became partial to bamboo and corn-based to-go containers after a bit of experimentation.
“There’s such a plethora of earth-friendly products on the market right now, that anybody that doesn’t use them should be ashamed of themselves,” he says.
3. Food scraps can cut costs
Reincarnating ingredients reduces waste. Last night’s braised meat becomes tomorrow’s ravioli; yesterday’s bread turns into breadcrumbs.
“If you’re not using every bit of everything you have, you’re not really doing justice to your own business or to Mother Nature,” says Jeff McInnis, executive chef and partner at Root & Bone in New York City.
When the Southern-inspired menu leaves mounds of scraps from green tomatoes, staff dices them for a chunky relish called chow-chow, which accompanies sandwiches. Lemon peels from the bar are dehydrated, ground and combined with salt and pepper for seasoning the restaurant’s signature fried chicken. Carrot tops replace the usual basil in pesto. The fibrous ginger pulp that remains after the root gets juiced is dehydrated as a garnish for salads and drinks.
4. It’s the law or will be soon
This fall, Austin, Texas, will join a growing list of cities that require food businesses to divert food waste from landfills—or face a fine. Some argue that it’s not a matter of if all restaurants will be required to recycle and compost, but when. Late last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a shared goal of cutting national food waste in half by 2030—a sign that regulatory requirements will likely increase.
For some operators, composting mandates can feel like a one-two punch of sustainable pressure, often with infrastructure requirements that can pose problems. But with the right support in place, slashing waste can also slash expenses.
At The Lodge at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, California, outfitting the kitchen with composting and recycling bins and training staff on separating food waste helped reduce waste-hauling expenses by 75 percent.
“There’s nothing that we don’t consider composting,” says Edward Pulido, The Lodge’s director of engineering. “If it can be done in a five-star diamond hotel, then it can be done in any level of restaurant.”
5. Eco-mindedness can zap your energy bill
On the whole, operators know energy-efficient lighting reduces costs.
Higher-efficiency equipment can also dramatically cut costs. Porto’s Bakery in Glendale, California, renovated its kitchen with energy-efficient griddles, ovens, fryers and other equipment, resulting in a steady gas bill even as sales surged by 40 percent.
To make campus dining less of an energy drain, Assumption College, in Worcester, Massachusetts, installed an Ecolab Apex dishwashing system. The tablet interface system allowed managers to minimize energy and water use by measuring each load and each campus food operator’s “rack-to-guest” ratio.
If upgrading equipment isn’t an option, train staff on sustainable habits. For instance, skimming the fryer’s oil every two hours and filtering it twice a day to remove unwanted particles can prolong its use. For every hour of the broiler’s daily “on” time you can save around $450 a year. To make the same amount of money, a restaurant with a 5 percent profit margin would have to sell $9,000 worth of food, according to a report by energy company PG&E.
6. An environmental ethos can attract and keep the best talent
In an industry routinely tested by employee turnover, an earth-friendly business philosophy can bring stability. Some 42 percent of workers prefer organizations that have a positive impact on the world, according to a survey by the consultancy Global Tolerance.
“From fast casual to fine dining, we’re seeing that candidates want to work at restaurants that have a strong sense of values,” says Carrie Luxem, CEO of the Restaurant HR Group, which works with operators across the country.
Promoting sustainability efforts can help attract and retain talent.
At Big Grove Tavern in Champaign, Illinois, Executive Chef Jessica Gorin has found that workers are attracted to the restaurant’s eco ethos. To help drive home that connection, she arranges staff farm trips to the restaurant’s local producers such as nearby Kilgus Farmstead, where the restaurant sources its milk, cream and ground beef. “The staff feels good meeting the farmers, and it builds a personal relationship with the product that they’re selling,” she says.
7. Organic and natural can be even better
Restaurants overall have greater access today to organic, locally grown and all-natural products, from produce to sandwich meats.
Operators, however, can also adapt menus to match availability. Leith Hill, owner of New York City’s Ellary’s Greens, sources 80 percent of her meat and produce locally. But when harsh conditions affect product availability and price, Hill reworks her menu to take advantage of what can be secured, often at a lower price. “Sustainable is the way people want to eat,” she says.
HOW TO GO HIGH EFFICIENCY
Target your kitchen's top energy guzzlers.
Scrutinize refreigeration and dish machines. An Energy Star qualified commerical dishwasher, for instance, uses 25 percnet less energy and 25 percent less water on average, which can translate to yearly savings of $720 on your electric bill and $300 on water. An energy-efficient fryer could save more than $4,000 in natural gas over the life of that fyer, according to the EPA.
DON'T TAKE OUR WORD FOR IT
No one's immune to hyperbole. To help ensure you're eco-friendly products are delivering the goods, check out third-party certification from organizations like UL, Green Seal and UPI.