Sustainable restaurants: lower costs, cleaner environment, community building, customer goodwill

Sustainable restaurants: lower costs, cleaner environment, community building, customer goodwill

By Paul Schlienz, Managing Editor


It’s a word we hear often these days, but what does it mean? And why are so many restaurants talking about it?

Sustainability, in ecological terms, is the way biological systems remain diverse and productive. In more general terms, sustainability is achieved when systems work seamlessly together to endure.

Restaurants are thus sustainable when they see themselves as part of a larger picture, where sources and the processes that go into their products are of paramount concern. Restaurants are sustainable when they reduce their waste streams, minimizing their impact on the environment. And restaurants are also practicing sustainable principles when they find ways to cut down on energy use through greater efficiency or by utilizing forms of clean energy.

More than ever, sustainability is on many restaurants’ radar screens. Just check out the National Restaurant Association’s recent 2015 Culinary Forecast. In this survey of nearly 1,300 professional chefs, sustainable themes ranked highly in its Top 20 Food Trends.

“We definitely have been seeing more restaurants caring about sustainability, and more of their customers are caring about it, too,” said Laura Abshire, the National Restaurant Association’s director of sustainability policy and government affairs. “In the survey, the chefs ranked environmental sustainability as the No. 3 trend. Sustainable seafood was No. 8, food waste reduction was No. 9 – and there were also a lot of other things in the top 10 like local sourcing.”

Keep the customer satisfied

Clearly, sustainability is very much on many restaurateurs’ minds. Why now?

In Abshire’s view, an important factor is that customers are far more environmentally concerned than they once were.

“A lot of customers today want to know what businesses are doing to become more environmentally conscious,” said Abshire. “Customers want to patronize businesses and go to restaurants that align with their values. Restaurant operators are noticing that trend and trying to move in the direction of where the consumers are. Additionally, restaurants are also moving in these directions for the benefits these practices can bring to their communities.”

Restaurants have, indeed, long been central to their communities. Thus it’s not surprising to see that a major component of the movement toward sustainable practices is a conscious, concerted effort on the part of a growing number of restaurateurs to use all the wonderful, healthy food products grown in their own communities or in the great nearby.

“People like local sourcing, and like knowing where their food comes from,” said Abshire. “They like knowing that they’re helping their community and that their food didn’t travel very far and hasn’t been packaged as long.”

Another way that restaurants are saving on costs while also embracing sustainability is through energy efficiency.

“There are lots of different things you can do to save costs in the restaurants that are sustainable as well,” said Abshire. “Putting low flow aerators on your sinks can reduce your water and energy costs. Putting a low flow spray rinse on your dish machine can save tons of water, which translates into energy savings. Installing LED lightbulbs can save a lot of energy, which is money. Utility bills are really expensive, in a restaurant, so it pays to do anything you can do to save.”

Savings are also to be found in controlling food waste.

“You can also save up to 6 percent of your food costs by tracking food waste – how much you bring in versus how much goes out,” Abshire added. “It pays to reduce the amount you spend on food because these costs are out of the top dollar expenditures for a restaurant.”

Sustainable Washington

If you’re looking for members of the foodservice industry that have taken the gospel of sustainability to heart, and put it into practice, you’ll find many in Washington state.

A case in point is Shelton-based Taylor Shellfish Farms, which operates oyster bars in Seattle and exports its products throughout the world.

“What’s more farm to table than a raw oyster?” asked Jack Cheney, a graduate student at the University of Washington’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, who is currently studying Washington’s raw oyster industry – the largest in the United States. “There’s nothing that’s done to an oyster from the time it’s taken out of the water to the time it’s put on your plate at the restaurant.”

Cheney emphasizes that the entire process of growing oysters has many beneficial side effects in addition to having a very minimal carbon footprint.

“Oysters are sustainable,” said Cheney. “They’re clean for water. One oyster filters 50 gallons of water per day. It provides a wide berth of environmental benefits to the ecosystem. In Washington, we should feel really good that we have such great products in our back yard. This is a fantastic story of sustainable seafood really making an impact on the market.”

Not surprisingly, the Taylor family, which has operated its shellfish farms for five generations, are very big on sustainable practices.

“It’s something we’ve always believed,” said Marcelle Taylor, the company’s director of marketing and advertising. “It’s something that we’ll always do. It’s part of our business. It’s a big picture where you have to look toward the future. You can’t just live in the now.”

In addition to embracing sustainable practices in their operations, like extensive recycling, avoiding paper napkins in their oyster bars and carrying their oysters from farm to restaurant on reusable crates, the Taylors see environmental education as an important part of their mission. Among the company’s initiatives is sending employees into schools to teach students about the dos and don’ts of shell fishing, and how to leave a clean beach after gathering oysters.

“For some businesses, they might not see sustainability as cost-effective, but for us, if the waters aren’t clean, we don’t operate,” said Taylor. “It’s a big deal for us. We do see it as cost-effective. It’s an investment that’s a necessity.”

Another WRA member that practices local sourcing is Jeremy’s Farm to Table Restaurant, in Chehalis. Its owner and namesake, Jeremy Wildhaber, points out that there are also practical, cost-saving reasons to embrace the farm to table concept.

“If you look at food costs, the reason they are rising so much is because of transportation costs that come from trying to get the food where it’s going from long distances,” said Wildhaber, who remains mystified that products produced in Washington, including apples, are being shipped here from sources as distant as Argentina. “It makes me happy to know I’m driving my own truck and knowing who I’m buying from and knowing their farming practices. They either have farming practices I agree with or I won’t sell their products in good conscience to my customers.”

Wildhaber sees a bright future for local sourcing.

“I think the concept of farm to table is going to win out in the end because I can source food locally for a cheaper price, and I get a better product that lasts longer,” said Wildhaber. “I think people are waking up to the community. We need to get back to the community and support our local farmers, our local bakers and everybody else we can support locally because that money then stays in your local area and circulates, benefiting everyone.”

Get educated, take action

In view of all the benefits to be found in operating a sustainable restaurant, the National Restaurant Association has proactively established its own environmental education program called Conserve. Information on this initiative can be found online at The program is free and open to everyone who wants to learn more about how to run a sustainable restaurant.

“Conserve was started in 2009,” said Abshire. “Before then there wasn’t really a place for restaurants to go and get a lot of information on the topic of sustainability and how their operations can help save money through environmentally-friendly operations.”

This one stop shop on sustainability includes a treasure trove of material on topics like water management and conservation, waste and recycling, and energy. Visit Conserve’s website and you’ll find a blog, articles from experts on various aspects of sustainability, a monthly newsletter and videos on best practices.

In addition to the website, Conserve has also been spearheading projects like the Zero Waste Zones project, in Atlanta, where multiple restaurants support each other on reaching waste reduction goals.

According to Abshire, the response of restaurant operators Conserve’s initiatives has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Operators are really excited that Conserve’s website exists, that our educational information is out there, and that there’s a resource where people can go to have some of their questions answered about sustainability,” said Abshire. “A lot of restaurants really don’t know where to start to become more sustainable or how to take the first step. Our website gives them some tools and tips and tricks so they won’t have to spend a lot of time searching for information.”

Future plans for Conserve include a possible expansion of the Zero Waste Zones project to cities other than Atlanta. Conserve is also working with the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food marketing Institute to develop toolkits on topics like food waste and how to donate and compost, and how to recycle packaging. These toolkits will likely be released later this year.

Additionally, Conserve will have a booth at the National Restaurant Association’s annual show, May 16-19, in Chicago.

“I think sustainability is a big trend,” said Abshire, who stresses that while some sustainable initiatives will have a higher cost in the beginning, over the longer term, they will ultimately save a restaurant money. “People are finding out that you can really get a lot for your money. There are a lot of different ways you can save money in the sustainability world, and we encourage people to do that to manage costs. You can save a little bit on your bottom line, and you can show your customers that you really care about them and their values while also doing something good for the environment as well.”

(Source: Washington Restaurant Magazine, April 2015)


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