Achieving carbon-neutral restaurants remains top-of-mind for many operators


For restaurants the world over, it’s been a hell of a year. There was a global pandemic, yes, but at least as remarkable have been the strides they’ve made in softening their impact on the environment. And most remarkable of all is that both issues happened in tandem. Reeling from the financial hit of COVID-19 and its attendant shutdowns, restaurateurs have pushed forward with efforts to achieve carbon neutrality — efforts that come at a cost.

“I look at the business as a vehicle to create change,” says Court Desautels, CEO of the Neighbourhood Group (NGC), which operates several pubs and restaurants in southwestern Ontario. It’s a viewpoint happily shared by many of his contemporaries, who have equally upheld commitments made to the cause prior to the pandemic, even in its expensive wake.

“Whereas businesses typically exist to make money for owners and shareholders, our focus is on the community. If we abandon the people that matter the most to us, who are we as an organization?”

The NGC is a Certified B Corporation, the largest B Corp-certified restaurant company in the world. All five NGC restaurants — the Woolwich Arrow Pub, Borealis Grille & Bar, Miijidaa cafe + bistro, and Park Grocery Deli & Bar — are carbon neutral. They measure their energy usage and buy commensurate carbon credits from organizations such as Anwaatin, an Indigenous business working with Indigenous communities to participate in planning, energy and carbon-sequestration projects related to climate change action.

In fact, says Desautels, it’s too intricate to calculate a property’s absolute carbon neutrality, which would include tracking all the vehicles that service the operation and the stories they haul with them. Even food isn’t figured into the calculation, as it’s “a loaded question, incredibly complex and ever changing.”

But they’ve tried. The Neighbourhood Group has worked with Conestoga College and the universities of Guelph and Waterloo to determine the carbon footprint of a hamburger, but it came up short. “It’s a huge project,” Desautels says, pointing to the cattle, their feed and where it was raised, the energy output of a slaughterhouse, how the vegetables were raised and the origins of all the ingredients. The students determined it would take two years to accurately assign a carbon cost to the burger.

An operation that’s “carbon neutral” emits into the atmosphere the same amount of carbon dioxide it offsets by other means. An increasing number of restaurants are exploring carbon neutrality in acknowledgement of its role in their sustainability, corporate and social-responsibility strategies — and their attractiveness to customers keen to buy from environmentally conscious suppliers.
The efforts have called for certain concessions, particularly financial ones. “When you’re in lockdown, it’s a lot harder to make money,” says Ainsworth. “But this isn’t something we’re willing to give up on, being responsible and sustainably driven. It’s made it a lot more difficult to make our margins and reach our bottom line, to pay the rent, to pay our employees and continue to operate outside of the red. But we’ve made a choice to be responsible and sustainable and that comes at an added cost. We don’t want to lose sight of our goal and our brand because it’s more difficult financially right now.”

Environmentally efficient equipment also represents a significant expense for restaurants looking to do better. “An equipment investment is absolutely a big ask,” says John Lilly, senior product analyst with commercial refrigeration company True Manufacturing. Refrigerators are the only restaurant equipment that’s never turned off. “So, there’s quite a lot refrigerators and freezers do to reduce a carbon footprint.” At True, more than 90 per cent of the equipment has been switched to natural refrigerants, or hydrocarbons, which have a global warming potential of three — compared to 1,430 or so for historic refrigerator refrigerants and 3,900 for freezers. At True, one of the first manufacturers in North America to manufacture hydrocarbon equipment (in 2006), they use a closed-cell insulation with zero global-warming potential thanks to a natural refrigerant, R-290, which Canada banned in 2019 in its commitment to meeting its Global Warming Potential (GWP) emission reductions required under the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol.

A GWP is a value that’s normalized to the warming equivalent of CO2. Releasing one pound of R404 refrigerant is roughly the same as releasing 4,000 lbs. of CO2.  The average passenger vehicle emits about five tons of CO2 every year. “But the issue,” says Lilly, “are the ones in the field.” He figures most refrigeration equipment over five years old in Canadian restaurants is “probably R-404A.”

What compels the switch, he says, is an inability to get parts and a dawning realization about its energy consumption. The lower it is, the lower your carbon footprint is. “I’d say only about half of restaurateurs know about this,” says Lilly.

There are, he believes, two groups of restaurateurs right now: those using the downtime to figure out how to improve themselves, and those sitting on the norm, ignoring the advancements available to them, simply trying to survive. Both camps, he says, can help themselves by selecting products that come from regions of the world with good environmental practices, and performing simple maintenance on their equipment, making sure their gaskets are in good order, cleaning their vents to improve air flow, and so on – all of which are easy issues to ensure equipment is running as optimally as it could.

“From an equipment standpoint, it’s going to take a capital expenditure, no question,” says Lilly. “Some restaurateurs have an appetite for that now, some don’t. As business picks up, that appetite will start to grow for a competitive advantage.” After all, he says, it’s meaningful to consumers.

It’s what Ainsworth has discovered at The Coup. “There are more people who are progressive in that way and choose us because we’re responsible,” he says. “We have great food and service, but we also have a message and I think our guests come to us for that.” – BY LAURA PRATT

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