How sustainability trends are changing the way restaurants do business

While some might consider it a passing trend, sustainability is quickly becoming an integral part of today’s restaurant business. From nixing styrofoam cups and plastic straws to buying ingredients from sustainable sources and reducing waste, restaurants have been busy finding ways to keep the environment at the forefront of operations.

Big chains and smaller restaurants alike are incorporating sustainability practices both at the front and back of the house. Dunkin’ Donuts, for instance, vowed to remove polystyrene cups from its New York City locations, while Red Lobster recently announced a partnership with Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch to guide its sourcing practices and also help protect global fisheries.

Sustainability issues are forcing restaurants to change the way they do business, but addressing those issues and maintaining corporate social responsibility not only helps the bottom line and offers positive press, but it also keeps restaurants competitive and keeps customers coming back. “Instead of gaining more customers, which was the previous goal, it’s a strategy to keep customers,” says Tim Powell, vice president and senior analyst at Q1 Consulting.

The food waste dilemma

According to the National Restaurant Association’s State of Restaurant Sustainability 2018 report, food waste reduction has become one of the top sustainability issues for restaurants. About half of all restaurants track the food waste they generate, while more than one in 10 compost their food waste, the report found.

In its own effort to reduce food waste, Chipotle recently announced its goal to divert half of its restaurant waste from landfills by 2020. To do so, the company plans to train its staff on minimizing waste during food prep, auditing waste, donating leftovers and right-sizing operations so less food goes to waste at the end of each day.

British chef Douglas McMaster’s zero-waste restaurant Silo is tackling food waste by transforming whey from cheese-making into a sauce for potatoes, and also turning leftover bread crusts into miso soup. The restaurant also sources its food locally, composts unusable ingredients like egg shells and uses zero packaging. Similarly, quick-service restaurant Saladworks actively manages its prep and par levels by making more small batches and and prepping only what the restaurant needs for each shift, according to Vice President of Operations C.W. Bruton.

In the same vein, many restaurants are also focusing on sustainable packaging and supplies in order to reduce waste from other sources. In January, McDonald’s committed to using 100% renewable or recycled customer packaging and having recycling available in all of its locations by 2025. Sustainable packaging was also a hot topic at this year’s NRA show in Chicago, with McAlister’s Deli announcing that it will switch begin using packaging made of compostable materials.

Connecting with customers

The NRA report found that guests can be influenced by a restaurant’s sustainability practices, with about half of customers factoring in a restaurant’s recycling and food donation programs, as well as work to reduce food waste, when choosing where to dine.

“People want to know more detail about where their food is from and how our supply chain impacts the environment,” says Cory Schisler, creative director for Sustainable Restaurant Group. “We also see that there is a lot of curiosity around sustainability when it comes to how restaurants operate, not just what's on their menu.”

Schisler says Sustainable Restaurant Group has plans in place to help its customers better understand and get more involved in its sustainability efforts. “In the course of the next year,” he explains, “we're going to increase the amount of video content we produce to focus on educating our guests about why we need to be focused on this and what they can do to support our efforts.”

Other restaurants are using sustainability to connect with their customers, such as Moe’s, which has been focused on grass-fed, non-GMO items, plus adding eco-friendly packaging to its mission, Powell explains. Additionally, German chain Vapiano utilizes reusable take-out containers that customers can use multiple times for storage.

Putting best practices into play

Powell sees eco-friendly packaging as a necessary issue for both restaurants and food delivery companies to tackle, especially as municipalities begin rolling out bans on certain packaging materials. Sustainable packaging can be tricky, Powell explains, as compostable or biodegradable materials often cost a premium for operators, though the packaging can be less functional and durable. “Certain concepts that were attempting to be eco-friendly actually were faced with packaging that bio-degraded on the way home from takeout which can damage a concept reputation,” he says. “So it’s a delicate balance.”

When it comes to seafood sustainability, a prime example is New York City’s first 100% sustainable sushi restaurant Mayanoki. In order to ensure the sustainability of the food it serves, the restaurant rotates its menu daily based on seasonal availability, and the chef takes time to educate diners about the ingredients.

Thanks to support from partners such as the Green Restaurant Association, Schisler believes it’s becoming operationally easy to understand what sustainability issues are most pressing and how individual restaurants can help the cause. “Whether [it’s] an audit of your supply chain or looking what materials your to-go packaging is made of, there is huge opportunity to find simple ways to make an impact,” he says.

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