Canadian operators embrace carbon-neutral kitchens

Lettuce on Fork being held face upwards
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By Jenny Febbraro

Eco-consciousness has become a priority for restaurant operators and suppliers. Like every industry, the restaurant sector has had to react to a rapidly advancing climate crisis. This past summer alone, as Canadians watched wildfires rage across the country, it became a salient reality. In a joint effort, diverse factions of the industry from equipment suppliers to kitchen designers are strategizing to minimize energy costs and reduce overall waste. 

“When people think of reducing their carbon footprint, they think of electric vehicles, solar energy, or even eating a veggie burger instead of meat,” says Michael Oshman, CEO of the Green Restaurant Association. “But people rarely include the restaurant industry in their calculations — and it has a massive impact on the climate crisis.” Oshman provides statistics to back up his claim, stating that restaurants consume nearly one third of all electricity. “Think of the environmental costs of air conditioning, transportation of non-local ingredients, and chemicals used for laundering, to name but a few.” 

The Green Restaurant Association allows for restaurants to become certified green restaurants based on detailed steps and targeted solutions that are customized for each unique business. “We will work with vendors and trace back the sources of their ingredients, find out where their waste goes, and what chemicals are used throughout their building in order to create a sustainable plan for them,” he says. 

Oshman told the story of working with one of the biggest airports in the world: “They thought they were recycling, but through our research, we found out they weren’t, so we created a plan to distribute it to a place where it could be properly recycled.” By offloading the investigative work to a third party, restaurants reap the benefits of sustainability while also accessing environmental expertise that caters to them. “Our clients range from Harvard University to Fortune 500 companies to credit card companies,” he says.

On average, Oshman says that it costs a restaurant approximately $55 a month to earn the certification and to work towards even more sustainable practices to reduce its overall carbon footprint. “In the end, it actually saves the restaurant money — from energy savings to shipping fees.” 

And it’s not just the operators who benefit. Oshman says that a recent survey conducted by the association found that 79 per cent of customers care about sustainability. He says all guests, but especially the younger generation, are more aware than ever of the climate crisis and the need for restaurants to participate in change. 

“Restaurant guests are a captive audience and are beginning to check for green certifications,” he notes. “You can now get an MBA in environmental sustainability. It’s the first time in history for something like that. There are more documentaries on Netflix about eating responsibly. So yes, people are more knowledgeable on the topic and care more than ever.”

For Oshman, reducing a restaurant’s carbon footprint might even mean changing the menu. If you are serving fish, for example, Oshman says that the type of fish may change. “Why serve something that comes in a truck from far away — or is on the brink of extinction?” he says. “Not all miles are created either. If it arrived on a truck — that’s more pollution, but ingredients that arrive by ship — that’s less pollution emitted.”

The Winnipeg-based Assiniboine Park Conservancy operates three Certified Green Restaurants, including Park Cafe, Gather Craft Kitchen & Bar and Tundra Grill. Laura Cabak, director, Communications and Public Relations, says working toward the goal of sustainability just makes sense. “The conservancy is operated on behalf of the City of Winnipeg and is home to the Assiniboine Park Zoo, The Leaf, gardens and greenspaces — it’s mission is to connect people to nature,” says Cabak. “So, it makes sense to integrate green initiatives in our three restaurants.” 

These include creating a green roof, which reduces summer energy use by 10 to 40 per cent, using LED lights, incorporating produce from the extensive kitchen gardens and eco-friendly cleaning products with minimal packaging, as well as introducing motion sensors on lights, low-flow taps and toilets to reduce water usage, and forgoing tablecloths. The restaurants have also developed an extensive recycling and composting program. 

“We strive to operate our restaurants in a way that minimizes our environmental impacts and creates a more sustainable future for both our customers and the planet,” explains Bob Braun, director of Food and Beverage, Assiniboine Park Conservancy. “These are across-the-board changes to nearly every element of our operation — including our sustainable and delicious dining options.” This includes keeping the menus rotating through seasonal vegetables and preserving locally grown vegetables for year-round use. 

QSR operators are also on board with reducing their carbon footprint. Wendy’s has been eco-conscious for years. “Before we put a name to our environmental strategy in 2020, we had been tracking our energy use and identifying conservation opportunities since 2009,” says Anna Blitz, vice-president of Corporate Social Responsibility, The Wendy’s Company. To do this Wendy’s has earned renewable energy certificates and purchased lower-carbon products as well as moved to on-site energy generation. 

Its Global Next Gen restaurants, for example, showcases its most energy-efficient design yet. “They are more energy efficient with elements like lighting, special energy-saving windowpanes and HVAC to decrease energy usage and costs by about six per cent per year,” explains Blitz. “But all franchises are encouraged to engage in Wendy’s Energy Challenge, which has global franchisees undertake energy efficiency improvements and to track and report their energy consumption.” By 2023, that translated to nearly 1,800 franchise-operated restaurants and all company-operated restaurants reporting their 2022 energy data — with the goal of lowering it year after year. 

Wendy’s has also dramatically improved its waste-reduction efforts. This includes the goal of sustainably sourcing 100 per cent of customer-facing packaging in the U.S. and Canada by 2026. For now, the clear plastic drink cups, made from polypropylene, can be recycled in select municipalities, while providing educational info for customers on how to properly dispose of and recycle their packaging via How2Recycle labelling. 

“We’ve also reduced our cutlery use in bagging procedures to reduce the number of bags and amount of cutlery used,” says Blitz. “That’s resulted in only 30 per cent of our delivery orders containing cutlery — a huge decrease.” In Canada, Wendy’s also transitioned from plastic to paper straws diverts approximately 62 million plastic straws or approximately 100,000 pounds of plastic per year from landfills. 

While the changes are incremental, Canadian operators have embraced the journey towards a carbon-neutral kitchen. Though even an optimist like Oshman says change can’t happen overnight. “Think about change. Change is slow. Change is not easy. But even small steps will get you there — you just have to start. It’s for the good of our industry and our planet.”

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