Restaurateurs consider how their business impacts their carbon footprint

Man and Woman at Restaurant looking out window to see compost container, solar panels, and windmills
Illustration by Daniel Garcia

In today’s eco-conscious world, a growing number of restaurateurs are thinking about how their business decisions impact their carbon footprint. However, the foodservice industry faces a number of unique challenges compared to other industries, says Jill Doucette, founder of Synergy Enterprises in Victoria, B.C. 

“Many operate in very tight productive spaces where natural gas, water usage, and organic and non-organic waste production are high. Air flow needs to be moving constantly to control temperatures. There’s a lot going on.”

Experts and operators who have spent time on carbon-reduction programs will tell you however, that not only is a carbon-reduction plan good for the planet, it can also be good for the bottom line.

There are typically three key sources of that contribute to carbon footprint in commercial kitchens: energy and fuel used for cooking and heating; the waste generated from kitchen operations or takeout packaging; and the food itself, including downstream and upstream supply-chain activities, explains Doucette.

These are key areas being targeted by Wendy’s, which has spent the better part of the last decade making a concerted effort to reduce the carbon footprint across its chainwide operations. “We saw a lot of potential to increase awareness of energy use and management and improve our environmental footprint and our economic model,” says Liliana M. Esposito, Chief Corporate Affairs and sustainability officer
of Wendy’s.

The initiative has led to a number of equipment investments and upgrades, including installing LED, HVAC systems, and energy- and water-efficient warewashing equipment, among others. Esposito estimates that moving to more efficient warewashing equipment for example, reduced water usage by 47 per cent per cycle. 

A second energy-management piece was renewables. She reports that 22 of its Florida restaurants in Florida are now solar powered. “We are looking to increase renewable-energy projects. The biggest challenge is getting access to it as there is more demand than supply.”

A third area is examining the total footprint of purchased goods and services. “Restaurants heavily rely on animal protein, she adds. That’s a large part of our Scope 3 [emissions] footprint. The challenge is in quantifying the impact of the supply chain, and what suppliers are doing to reduce their footprint. How do we as a purchaser quantify and understand what is happening?”

Wendy’s has launched a number of initiatives in this area, from identifying feed additives that can reduce methane emissions from raising cattle to land-management options. 

The food component may be one of the more challenging areas to quantify, but Polytechnique Montreal is doing its part by being the first in Canada to quantify the greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions generated by its cafeteria meals and posting their carbon footprint on the menu board. 

“Our research includes sourcing, cooking, and serving but not disposal,” says Patrick Cigana, senior advisor for the College’s Office of Sustainability. “Upstream food waste and farm production were all taken into account.” 

Cigana says its work has drawn interest from hospitals and universities. “Numbers-wise, food is not negligible as a source of CO2 emissions. Within a restaurant the percentage can be very significant. I would venture it could be more than half.”

The greatest impact in food production tends to be red meat, dairy products, and anything greenhouse grown (such as tomatoes) where a majority are heated with fossil fuels. “Growing foods has more impact than even packaging,” explains Cigana. 

From a societal point of view, the data being generated is valuable to high-volume operations such as hospitals, universities, and engineering firms with large foodservice operations, he notes. “Between two menu choices and all other things being equal, if one is clearly lower, some may choose to go that way. We don’t expect anything radical. We are just saying here is the impact of your choices. After that it’s up to you.”
Calen McNeil, founder of Big Wheel Burger in Victoria, BC, says his establishment achieved carbon neutrality 10 years ago. “We had not idea what if would cost or if it was affordable. We just knew it was a good thing to try to do.” 

The restaurant commissioned Synergy to work out the metrics, achieving carbon neutrality within a year of introducing their carbon-reduction plan. 

All of the restaurant’s eat in and takeout packaging is compostable. It also monitors emissions by staff, suppliers, and the restaurant itself, and takes measures to reduce them. It has forged partnerships with environmentally sustainable farmers such as Hank’s Grass Fed Beef, which uses hydroponically grown wheat grass (reducing water usage by 90 per cent)
for feed.

“We also make sure the equipment we purchase is the most efficient on the market and that waste such as oil is disposed of the best way possible,” says McNeil. “For example, we found a bio-diesel company on the Island.”

As much as what they do is good for the environment, it’s also a good business model and has drawn a very loyal customer base, says McNeil. “It’s something that has inspired other businesses. We share all our information with anyone who asks.”

The big thing is just the desire to do it, says McNeil. “The biggest barrier is fear. Becoming carbon neutral is not without some cost, but it has paid back in droves.”

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