Sustainability becomes post-pandemic survival strategy


It’s been a hectic few years, therefore we can all be forgiven if the environment has slid a few notches down our list of priorities. But now, “if we’re serious about building back better, we should make an effort to embrace sustainability,” says André LaRivière. But what does that look like in 2022?

Ideas about sustainability are shifting and LaRivière, the principal and developer behind SFP (Sustainable Foodservice Professionals) Sustainability Training Ltd.says he sees it as a component of “futureproofing,” or designing for success in the face of unexpected change.

For Bruce McAdams, associate professor at the University of Guelph’s School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management and executive director of the University’s Sustainable Restaurant Project, “the future is about being a ‘climate-friendly’ restaurant. You’ll hear that term in Europe, but not yet anywhere in North America.”

For consumers, menu ingredients, table service and packaging are the most visible hallmarks of sustainability. Diners want to know where their food is coming from, a demand that’s becoming easier to satisfy, thanks to a growing list of resources, such as new software called Klimato, which calculates the climate impact of food.

Egg Farmers of Canada has just introduced its National Environmental Sustainability Tool (NEST), which enables Canadian egg farmers to track and manage the environmental footprint of their own farms. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association’s Verified Beef Production Plus (VBP+) certifies sustainability standards for beef-cattle operations. Like the VQA wine program and Ocean Wise, these can be used as selling points with diners.

At the service level, simple adjustments offer significant environmental payoff while reducing costs and engaging customers. “Training can make or break a practice,” says Anna Pham, executive director of the consultancy Leaders in Environmentally Accountable Foodservice (LEAF). “When servers ask first rather than automatically giving diners water, ice, straws or condiments, they’re preventing waste and presenting an environmentally responsible image.”

“We had a restaurant save $4,000 per year on lemons, because servers were going to a table with a lemon wedge that was not used or appreciated by guests,” says McAdams. He cites another example, a fish-and-chips outlet that saved hundreds of dollars after servers started to ask whether diners wanted ketchup or tartar sauce. “Doing a garbage audit is a really easy way to see what’s not being used.”

As for packaging, consumers are already growing less tolerant of waste than they were, temporarily, during the first wave of the pandemic. Also, the federal government is moving towards a single-use plastics ban that would apply to food containers, cutlery, stir sticks and straws, with a target date of late 2022. Outlets that are still using these will have to pivot fast.

“Although it’s a terribly challenging time, you’re really pushing your luck if you’re not at least getting up to minimum expectations,” McAdams says. “The more advanced companies have really thought through their packaging and one-use items.”

For instance, Tim Hortons is replacing brown hot-beverage lids with more recyclable white ones and testing a plastic-free fibre lid and a re-usable cup. Wendy’s is moving from plastic-lined paper cups to clear recycled-plastic cups, likewise easier to recycle. Swiss Chalet received the 2022 Global PAC Award for Sustainable Design for new packaging made from 100-per-cent recycled paperboard. Some companies are exploring edible and plant-based food packaging.

However, “the bigger issues that operators tend to forget are waste, water and energy use,” says McAdams. Switching out low-efficiency lighting and appliances can offer quick ROI, he says, and small tweaks can add up to big savings on water costs. Even in areas where fresh water is plentiful, this reduces water-treatment energy inputs.

“At a student-run restaurant at University of Guelph, we were able to save 30 per cent,” he says, with simple steps such as changing the aerators on faucets, fixing leaks, running dishwashers only when full and thawing products in the fridge instead of under running water.

Anna Pham advocates training bartenders to fill their ice well to match demand, instead of literally pouring money down the drain as melted ice. She also suggests lowering energy bills by adding curtains or a cold-weather vestibule, if they are in keeping with the decor. Plastic-stripping curtains for the walk-in fridge are big energy-savers too.

“This is such a spreadsheet-driven industry, but there are lots of columns missing on the spreadsheet,” says LaRivière.

“With this societal focus and governments getting involved in climate change, it’s going to happen quickly, and you’re wise to get on board now and be recognized as a leader at the front end,” McAdams says. “It’s part of the new landscape.”

By Sarah B. Hood

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