In the restaurant industry, trends come and go nearly as quick as customers during a dinner rush. But there is one buzzword floating around that you should definitely pay attention to: sustainability.
At the recent National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, a panel of experts — including Kathleen Seeley, managing partner of Ricca Design Studios; Andrew Shakman, president and CEO of LeanPath, Inc.; David Zabrowski, general manager of the PG&E Food Service Technology Center; and moderator Joe Carbonara, editor in chief of Foodservice Equipment & Supplies magazine — discussed how restaurateurs can take strides toward making their restaurants more efficient, less wasteful, and more appealing to sustainably-minded guests:
1. Start with your menu.
You already know that your menu is the backbone of your restaurant, affecting every other aspect of your business. But what you may not have considered is using it as a template for planning your sustainability goals.
“[When] thinking about sustainability, you want to start thinking about the process from the menu forward,” said Zabrowski. “Looking at your menu, how are you going to produce those menu items? What type of equipment are you going to use? Is there a better way to use [it]?”
To start, walk each dish in your menu through its entire lifecycle, from distribution by your vendor and shipment to your restaurant to its eventual storage, prep, and delivery to your guest. Chances are, there are several resource-sucking steps built into each ingredient’s journey that you not have considered.
Cooking frozen food items rather than fresh, for example, can use up to twice as much energy. Not to mention that freezers use nearly three times the amount of energy refrigerators use to run — and that’s not even considering the wasted water and energy involved in quick thawing frozen ingredients. Even preparing food ahead of time and keeping it warm for rush periods — or while you’re preparing other items — can use much more energy than you may think.
And that doesn’t even include the portions of each ingredient that are wasted during the preparation process.
“Many restaurants across the board are doing a great job with menu strategy, but I think they miss the other part of the conversation, which is understanding what they’re tossing away,” said Carbonara.
While reviewing your menu, don’t just look for areas to include more fresh, local ingredients, also look for areas where you can use more of each ingredient. Carrot tops can be used to spice stocks, for example, or you can use the naturally occurring nitrates in any leftover celery stalks to cure meat.
Ultimately, to build the most sustainable system possible, you need to understand not just the implications your menu has for your restaurant, but how global factors impact it, as well.
“To understand the right choices, you really need a broader context than just what we deal with in the culinary space,” said Shakman. “You need to understand what’s going on with water, what’s going on with energy, you need to get it at a systems level.”
2. Define your goals — and the language you’re using to describe them.
You’ve probably spent hours considering the best way to phrase your menu, website, and even signage — and when you’re talking about sustainability goals, choosing your words carefully is no less important.
“The word sustainability has many dimensions to it, and you can set off on a path where different people have different visions around what you’re trying to achieve,” Shakman. “So step one of the process is going through an exploration of what it really means.”
“There’s a lot of room for people to think they’re talking about the same things when they’re not,” added Zabrowski added. “[Often] someone has invented a model that is very much from their own perspective, and it may not actually be matching the way everybody else is thinking about it”
Ask yourself, “who’s involved in that process, who are the stakeholders that need to be involved in that discussion,” said Shakman. “[Then] do some research and understand exactly what are other people doing and what types of goals are other people pursuing so you can understand your goals for it.”
Understanding not just your goals but also the direction the market is heading helps breed involvement by your stakeholders. It also helps prevent them from losing interest in what is sure to be a constant and evolving process.
3. Embrace a “hub and spoke” mentality.
There are few things as satisfying as marking an item off your to-do list — but in the case of creating a more sustainable restaurant, a checklist is far from the best method for tackling the job. Instead, identify your goals, get your stakeholders’ buy-in, and then take a holistic approach to implementation.
“A lot of people look at sustainability as a starting point and an ending point,” said Seeley. “And really, it’s more of a hub and wheel approach, where your vision and mission are the centerpiece of the wheel, the hub, and each of the spokes are your different initiatives to that hub.”
Seeley suggests choosing a few issues that are most important to you, or that you feel will make the greatest difference immediately, and working to solve those problems first. Once you’ve established a strong basis, build the rest of your program on the momentum you’ve created.
“The most important thing is to think about your four … kickoff hub elements that you might have — it could be energy, it could be food waste, it could be some things you do with design and equipment itself,” she said. “Start with those [so] that you can really build strength in your program and get it moving forward, but from there [you can] start really adding on to each one of those.”
4. Make sustainability a part of your brand.
As your sustainability program gains momentum, you’ll start seeing your kitchen, prep, and storage areas change — and don’t forget to show off your great strides in a way that boosts your brand.
“Exhibition has been, in the past, all about seeing the chargrill or seeing the flame or the hearth ovens,” said Seeley. “But today, as we move forward, you can start thinking about … how about if I celebrate [sustainability] with highly visible cold pantries on display in the dining space, or an herb wall. Even something so simple as [displaying] your cutting stations is [a] piece to supporting the brand.”
Try working more alternative or reclaimed materials into your décor, talking more with guests about your sustainability goals, or even participating in local farmers markets. Make a point to talk with the vendors about your new direction. Every small step helps boost your image as a business that is concerned not only with its impact on the community, but also its impact on the world.
And don’t forget to include your employees in the process.
“It’s about connecting people in an emotional way to something you’re doing,” said Shakman. “And the most important people to connect to your story are your employees, because to the extent that they get it, they will personify that in their interactions with your customers.”
5. Take advantage of local resources.
There’s a great deal of work to do — and sustainability is an ongoing process — but there are some oft-overlooked resources outside of your business that can help you achieve your goals.
“Think of your utilities not just as the provider of something you need to run your business, but as a partner in your sustainability program,” said Zabrowski. “More and more utilities are getting more progressive in terms of trying to implement energy efficiency programs [or] water efficiency programs. A lot of these utilities would be happy to work with you if you’re showing some interest.”
For example, look to your local electricity provider for potential discounts on energy-efficient lighting options, or your water producer for incentive programs that will help you transform how you use wastewater in your business. But these service providers aren’t the only local resources that can help you stick to your sustainability goals.
“Municipalities are very much getting involved in combining services to restaurateurs within their areas with no costs or very limited costs,” said Seeley. “You can be the one who goes to your municipality as your resource, and talk to them about how can you start to understand the effectiveness of measuring use.”
“I think that there are many opportunities for you to use resources that will give you a raw picture of energy management, and how to make accountable and measurable results,” she added.
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