Restaurant Sustainability: I’m Dreaming of a Green Christmas
Even under normal circumstances, as our perception of time dilates with age, the holidays seem to appear out of nowhere every year. Unfortunately, 2020 has proven to be an extraordinary year between the pandemic-related closures and capacity maximums that have challenged the restaurant industry to be economical and socio-political upheaval. These extraordinary circumstances in the holiday season seem simultaneously short and exceedingly long; it’s been a strange year. For many, Christmas and the other seasonal holidays are a time for giving, of sharing and warmth. In that spirit, we look at the best ways to enhance your restaurant sustainability, to give back to the environment within your budget.
The Value of Environmentalism
The climate change crisis has manifested itself in a variety of ways. Anxieties surrounding climate change are such that young adults in the U.S. fear having children. In terms of the restaurant industry, climate change has serious implications for the overall food chain, affecting food supplies around the globe. Food production itself strains global emission ratings, meaning that something will have to change sooner or later.
With budgets tight due to a difficult 2020, owners and operators may not have green initiatives at the top of their minds. Working toward an ecologically balanced future is a collective effort and one that we can all contribute to. Restaurant sustainability is as much about supporting the overall global community as it is about promoting long term industry growth.
How Off-Premise Dining Has Changed The Game
For the last several years, off-premise dining trends have driven growth in the restaurant industry. Off-premise dining has become an integral revenue stream for restaurants looking to feed a hungry public through challenges to the restaurant industry. Let’s review a few ways that off-premise dining ties into your overall restaurant sustainability initiatives.
Delivering the Goods
Whether it’s takeout, curbside, or delivery, off-premise orders require more packaging and care. You can break down what happens to food packaging after its use by its type; overall, the U.S. alone produces around 82.2 million tons of waste every year. Fortunately, a substantial portion of that waste is recyclable or useful in combustion. 30 million tons still end up in a landfill.
There is currently some controversy about whether or not packaging designed to be compostable is a useful solution. Not all recyclables are created the same, which is further complicated by what type of waste is on the packaging itself. For example, if the packaging is contaminated by food waste (which it will be after you use it), it takes more energy to recycle than to put it in a landfill. There are a few viable solutions to this that are cost-efficient and accessible to restaurateurs:
- Paper or plastic: consider your bagging choice. Paper bags are biodegradable, but they require more energy and resources to produce. If possible, you might consider offering guests a small discount on carryout or curbside if they supply a re-usable tote.
- Only provide utensils or accouterments upon request. If possible, build that into the ordering system.
- Consider if something needs a package at all. Since you’re going to bag your food at the end of your order, do you need to put a burrito or sandwich into a box if it’s already in aluminum foil or other types of wraps?
Eco-friendly packaging is a growth market, and rightfully so. Recent studies indicate that more than ⅔ of all North Americans are more likely to purchase something from a company with environmental initiatives. While these may drive up costs, research suggests that guests are willing to pay up to 10% more to support eco-friendly trends.
An unexpected silver lining of the global pandemic was the 8.8% decrease in carbon emissions at the beginning of global lockdowns. The effect was dramatic enough that China experienced clear blue skies in the first quarter of the year. With off-premise transactions driving the restaurant industry, emissions are again a challenge that we all experience. It’s unlikely that any operation can afford an electric car delivery service. With that in mind, here are a few ideas to further your restaurant sustainability goals on how to minimize your carbon footprint without compromising your delivery operations effectively:
- Consider offering geo-fenced specials. Geo-fencing is a digital perimeter directed at your neighborhood that you can use for carry-out or delivery service specials.
- How do you deliver the goods? If you’re delivering in the neighborhood, can you walk or ride a bicycle?
- Offer group/neighborhood specials. While we practice social distancing, offer specials that encourage neighbors to order together. By planning this way, your driver can deliver to one location.
Recipe For Disaster
What’s on the menu impacts your restaurant’s sustainability efforts. Through menu engineering, you can shift to more locally-sourced and available ingredients. Even if that’s not exclusively farm-to-table, you can look for food widely available in your region that doesn’t require long haul transportation or off-season foods.
The Climatarian Diet
The climatarian diet premise looks at some of the basic ideas behind farm-to-table restaurant menus by sourcing food that is both locally and seasonally available. While the climatarian diet doesn’t specifically exclude meat, the science indicates that meat production and consumption is a burden on the environment. Still, there are plenty of foods — meats included— that satisfy a climatarian diet’s general idea. Bear in mind that while someone may subscribe to that diet to the letter, that even looking to it for inspiration and implementing some climatarian principles are useful in minimizing your overall carbon footprint.
AI on the Menu
Part of navigating climate change is cutting down on your overall food waste. Below, we get more into the details of the food you waste in your kitchen. However, AI tools can help you minimize your waste before it gets to your kitchen. Some grocers have implemented chef-bots that help with meal preparation by streamlining the volume of your purchases. Likewise, flight services have employed comparable AI directed at limiting foods served on planes to only the easiest and most readily available items.
Are there AI options like that available for your kitchen now? Let’s look at some ideas below.
As mentioned above, food waste is as much an environmental problem as it is a financial predicament. In the U.S., food waste costs around $162 billion per year. High costs challenge an industry operating on already tight margins and representative of an enormous loss of resources. Fortunately, there are affordable and accessible technologies that can help mitigate these losses.
A kitchen display system (KDS) is an excellent tool for your back-of-house needs. A good KDS is a logistics program that helps you organize incoming and outbound orders. A robust KDS helps with food waste through the following features:
- Delayed Routing and Meal Pacing – A function that plans for items by their cook times allows all meals to come out simultaneously. This prevents returned items.
- Tag-on-Touch – A feature designed to enhance quality control, tag-on-touch allows you to mark off completed order items without completing the entire order.
- Recipe Viewer – A recipe viewer is another quality control device developed to train BOH staff on the proper recipe.
- Capacity Management – A tool that helps prevent bottlenecks in orders, balancing traffic according to the immediate need while providing accurate order times.
- Data analytics – Mining your data is an effective path to predicting your ordering and staffing needs, allowing you to plan accordingly.
Ultimately, a KDS helps you streamline your operational efficiency without sacrificing quality. With a robust system, you can minimize excess, utilizing only the basic requirements to satisfy your guests’ hunger.
If you want to take it a step further, connect your KDS to front-of-house (FOH) tech like a restaurant management platform and point of sale (POS) to create a combined system that aggregates your off-premise orders. An integrated restaurant platform can help eliminate mispacks, which, in turn, minimizes preventable waste.
An addendum to the previous section, bin management tools is a handy way to minimize waste. Bin management is an extension of data analytics. The feature uses historical data to help plan which ingredients need preparation. For example, bin management might tell you that you have statistically used a particular volume of ingredients each year, which you can use to manage when you drop ingredients during a busy evening. More than just another efficiency measure, bin management can help your restaurant sustainability efforts by limiting what you use each shift while keeping the kitchen staff’s basic needs met.
What To Do With Food Waste
Wasted food is a drain on the environment, primarily for the resources spent in production. We’ve looked at how to curb waste before you order, but inevitably you will have some leftovers. Save any leftover stock that can be safely reused the next day, such as unused ingredients. If it’s a prepared meal, you can always donate it to a charity of your choosing. While there are reasons that you might not want to, the Good Samaritan Law protects you from any potential litigation in the U.S. To be sure, check with your local legislation to make sure that you are protected during a global health crisis.
The Future of Green Restaurants
While science is clear on the potential dangers of climate change, there are plenty of reasons to remain optimistic. Advances in recycling sciences are poised to change how the industry delivers. The possibility of zero-waste facilities has started to become a reality. More importantly, everyone is in this together, including many working through technology to a better tomorrow. Restaurant sustainability doesn’t have to hinge on a full reworking of your existing business model, nor does it require the capital you may not have at the moment to get started. Remember, it’s one foot in front of the other. Every little bit, you can do to help the environment is an accumulative net positive.
Want to know more about making an environmentally friendly restaurant? We have you covered. Read our article on “How to Craft a Sustainable Restaurant” for the steps on a building better tomorrow.
About the Author
Syd is a content marketing specialist, which are fancy words for writing pretty to tell a good story. He likes writing things about food, drinks, and music. He’s a musician himself, a father of two, and loves his wife a whole lot. At home, like the rest of the world right now, he’s finding time to play with the kids and create art.