Five Industry Insiders Discuss Sustainability in Foodservice

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Volume 48, Number 2

[dropcap size=big]A[/dropcap]sk an industry insider to define sustainability and the answers will be as varied as a restaurant menu. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as ÒConserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.Ó ItÕs only natural that the term has evolved to encompass every area of a restaurant operation Ñ from energy-savings to cooking with pesticide-free, local and natural ingredients. ÒSustainability is a decision-making tool that helps us make business choices that are mindful of the environment and our community,Ó sums up Sal Howell, proprietor of River CafŽ and Boxwood in Calgary. Find out more as Howell, two of her peers and two industry experts share insights from their sustainability journey.

F&H: How did sustainability begin at your organization?

Euripides Pelekanos:
Sustainability was part of the original vision. In 2009, we built our original store using materials like bamboo — a renewable plant — on our floors, reclaimed tin from torn-down barns on our ceilings, and our tables were made from slabs of trees that were damaged in storms. Our toilets and faucets are Water-Sense certified and a number of our kitchen and preparation equipment is Energy Star-rated. We had and still use FSC paper for our printed materials, and our take-out products are made from sugar- and plant-based products — never plastic, never Styrofoam. Earlier this year, NYC announced a ban [on] single-use Styrofoam packaging. Better late than never.

Tim Faveri: In 2009, the Tim Hortons’ Board of Directors developed a vision for Tim Hortons to be the leader in sustainability for our industry in Canada. We needed a plan to achieve this vision, and our first sustainability strategy was born.

Sal Howell: Our vision was to create a unique restaurant that would feel as though it had always existed and belonged in this remarkable setting along the Bow River [in Calgary]. We wanted to serve cuisine from ingredients indigenous to the region, a romantic notion of ‘just caught’ from the river…. We searched for foods grown and raised naturally, without chemical pesticides and fertilizers. We sought out heirloom varieties, indigenous and wild foraged foods. We developed a philosophy and guiding principles influencing our daily purchasing decisions. We have learned more about organic agriculture with direct participation in farms and gardens; sustainable ranching through direct connections with dedicated grass-fed cattle and bison ranchers; and have found good choices from the sea from sustainable fisheries…. Today, we buy direct from over 60 producers. We also grow an edible garden.

F&H: How has the sustainable model evolved at your operation, and what are the newest trends?

Andre LaRiviere: The expanding range of commercial-grade induction cookers and warmers is starting to get traction. Induction woks, for example, can offer up to 50 per cent direct energy savings along with bonus savings in both ventilation energy and water conservation. Heat recovery and reuse is something that’s always made sense, especially in Canada. There are interesting solutions emerging for both warewashers and HVAC systems, with potential energy savings in the 25- to 30-per-cent range.

EP: When we opened, it was somewhat of a novelty to use reclaimed barnwood. Now, everyone is showcasing it — it’s played out. The price per square foot rose from US$2.50 a square foot in 2009, to over US$6 in 2015. What we’ve tried to do with our newer design is not only limit the reclaimed wood by using it as an accent wainscot, but we’ve also looked at other sustainable materials such as our new shingle feature wall, which is made from cedar certified under sustainable forest-management standards…. We’ve seen a big push in wind-power options this past year. We initially had one option, and today we have several.

TF: Our sustainability model is called Making a True Difference. We look at the economic, social and environmental aspects of our business…. We are making great progress replacing our lighting with more efficient LED lights. We estimate this will save more than six-million kilowatt hours per year. This is equivalent to the annual energy consumed by 400 single-family homes.

SH: Over the last 12 years, we have implemented a successful comprehensive recycling program, we have worked with our supply chain to eliminate unnecessary packaging, we switched to biodegradable take-away containers and recycled paper, and we compost all pre-consumer food waste and paper towels. A year ago we worked with the City of Calgary on a waste project that included a waste audit…. [Now], in theory, just 12 per cent of our current waste stream is going to landfill.

F&H: How else can restaurant design feed into a more sustainable, cost-effective building environment?
Janine Windsor: Some design aspects — type of equipment, placement, et cetera — don’t cost anything extra but can result in significant energy savings. I’m referring to closed systems, or equipment that contains its heat with doors — ovens, steamers, et cetera — rather than letting it escape. Strategic placement can ensure energy-efficiency is maximized by allowing systems to help each other. For instance, keep your heating and cooling appliances as separate as possible and away from doorways.

EP: In 2009, during the construction of our first store, we thought it would be a great idea to use overhead doors made of glass to bring the inside out during the spring and summer when we opened the doors. We opened in July, and it worked beautifully. Then the winter came, and we ended up with a freezing dining room. Today, we use double-insulated overhead glass doors. We get the same effect in the summer and save a tremendous amount of energy in the winter. Our designs have also changed in terms of lighting. Starting out, we went overboard with the lighting. Even though the dining room was on dimmers, when there was full brightness, the place looked like a surgery room. Today, we design the lighting in zones that are based on customer and crew spaces.

TF: Sometimes up-front costs are higher, but they will yield significant payback over time. This is why we pilot initiatives first, to help build a business case. For example, our LEED-certified restaurants are seeing an average water and energy reduction of 10 per cent to 15 per cent over our other restaurants.

SH: We utilize every opportunity to upgrade or improve our equipment when things expire and have found that the cost to go green can be recouped by internal best practices and programs such as our Daylight Dining program and our Lights Out campaign.

F&H: How do you create environmental and cost efficiencies in the kitchen, while addressing customer concerns about health, animal welfare and GMOs?
JW: A lot of the perceived increased costs with sustainable practices — better equipment, local food, LED lighting, et cetera — can be offset by smarter operating practices. Implementing a start-up/shut-down schedule for appliances, and installing low-flow faucet aerators and pre-rinse spray valves can each save a few hundred dollars a year…. One of our members started turning their front-of-house lights off in the day, depending on natural lighting instead, and saved $700 per month, which they then used to pay for Bullfrog Power, a renewable energy supplier.

AL: One concept that captures lots of these opportunities and concerns, is the zero-waste menu — one that’s fully adaptable to opportunities offered by seasonality, local/regional supply and changing customer appetites…. This type of menu, and its purchasing/production systems, can help shift the restaurant-customer value equation from price, variety and convenience to quality, authenticity and healthful benefits for the individual.

SH: We source quality regional and local ingredients grown and raised naturally, without chemical pesticides and fertilizers or growth hormones…. River Café sources meat and poultry from local farms and ranches. Animals are grass-fed and free-range on the farm, slaughtered humanely and delivered whole. This ensures minimal handling. Whole animal butchery is not only more sustainable, because it utilizes all cuts, but it also decreases packaging, shipping and refrigeration of product in transport. River Café has made seafood purchasing decisions using the Ocean Wise guidelines for over 10 years…. [We also] encourage suppliers to consolidate deliveries from the same area and piggyback River Café deliveries with other restaurants and retailers.We have made conscious decisions about how to reduce food waste. Organic waste in the landfill produces methane gas as it decomposes. Methane gas is much more potent than carbon dioxide. Careful management of food purchases is important, and every precaution is taken in training and coaching staff to avoid food waste. Proper food storage can also help reduce food waste.

F&H: What are your biggest challenges in creating a sustainable model, and
how do you address them?

AL: Accurate tracking of value and benefits flowing to both the restaurant’s bottom line and to the community…. Because most operators are very spreadsheet-savvy, we help build and integrate tracking systems that can easily output both financial and environmental report-friendly data.

EP: Restaurant build-outs have become very expensive…. To address these rising costs, we continue to revisit the drawing board. There’s no version of a Bareburger in a box. All the stores have a similar feel but no two are the same. That allows us to stay flexible and still deliver to the guest what they expect.

SH: We rely on our partners to help us reach our sustainability goals. Sometimes a solution does not yet exist. For example, in 2004 when we wanted to recycle our milk cartons there was not yet a recycling facility that could take them. In 2013, when we wanted to compost all pre- and post-consumer food waste, the city lacked a facility that [accepted] food-waste compost. We participate regularly in municipal working groups to find solutions.

F&H: What advice do you have for others hoping to create a sustainable
restaurant model?
JW: [Begin] by working with what you have, and start important conversations. Take stock of where you are now and where you want to go. See what your suppliers can offer that’s a better option than what you have now, make sure your equipment is running efficiently, check for leaks, talk to local farmers.

AL: The most successful sustainability strategy is typically a 50/50 model — 50-per-cent installation and 50-per-cent operation — and never a top-down initiative. Before investing in changes, there’s mission-critical value in getting input from your team to determine which ideas or upgrades offer the best opportunity for real buy-in and of meshing with the culture of your workplace.

EP: Start with a purpose. You need a reason to create a sustainable business and that reason needs to go beyond profit, because it will cost more and take longer to get done than you think. You have to truly believe in the why and want to share that with everyone. Then do some research. Make sure you have the facts. When the foundation work is done, don’t be discouraged by setbacks — rise above them and focus on your purpose.

TF: Develop a robust strategy that considers risks and opportunities to the business, and execute that strategy under realistic timelines. Communicate on the initiatives that are measurable and meaningful. In other words, focus on stuff, not fluff.

SH: Build a comprehensive recycling and compost program. Switch to LED light bulbs. Post reminders to staff to turn out lights and shut off equipment at the end of the day. Join a community group with a focus on sustainability. Calgary has many: REAP, Sustainability for Breakfast, Green Calgary, et cetera.

F&H: What are the next steps in the world’s sustainable model?

JW: A lot of businesses started with the menu, as local food became a big trend, and simple things like switching to recycled napkins or getting rid of bottled water. The next step is to address the back of house.

EP: The future will likely see carbon-neutral restaurants. Total sustainability — starting from the structure of the restaurant to the food that it serves. It’ll probably be complemented with a transparency app that’ll allow you to order your food and show you how, when and where everything came from and where waste is going. We’re taking a small step in this direction by building a restaurant out of used shipping containers in Plainview, N.Y. — it’s a step forward and will hopefully [teach us] how to build better.

SH: We believe customers will adopt certain practices and expect us to do
so. Ocean Wise-approved seafood,
compostable take-out containers, waste-reduction initiatives will soon become the expectation rather than
an alternative.

AL: Integrating an effective sustainability strategy into a restaurant’s business plan is far from daunting. When it comes to ensuring a better, sustainable future, there’s no time like the present. Make a plan and start now.