The Green Report: How Restaurants are Changing Their Approach to Sustainability

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PJ L’Heureux didn’t set out to make sustainability a top priority when he founded Craft Beer Market in 2011. “The biggest reason kind of fell in our laps,” he says. When remodeling the space for Craft Beer Market’s first location in Calgary, L’Heureux wanted to pay homage to the business that had been there for 35 years. “We took down the reclaimed wood and reused it all,” he says. “In doing that we, as a team, sat back and said, ‘okay, how can we do more?’”

Today, Craft Beer Market (with locations in Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa and Toronto) has a long list of earth-friendly initiatives. The restaurants have comprehensive composting and recycling programs; use biodegradable to-go containers, napkins and other paper products; and serve Ocean Wise sustainable seafood. In addition, all of the company’s beer systems use Bullfrog Power — a green-energy retailer that puts 100-per-cent green electricity onto the grid to match the power consumption of its customers. Even the staff uniforms at Craft Beer Market are eco-friendly. Team members wear Levi’s waterless-technology jeans, created with a process that saves tens of thousands of gallons of water every year.

L’Heureux says being sustainable aligns with the values of its craft-brewery partners, which have sustainability built into their businesses. “And we’re doing it because we believe it’s the right thing to do.”

Craft Beer Market is just one of a growing number of foodservice companies and restaurants taking action to be more environmentally conscious. Sourcing local food, energy and waste reduction and eco-friendly packaging are just a few of the green practices companies are implementing to help reduce the industry’s environmental footprint.

Pita Pit Canada is equally committed to implementing more sustainable solutions at its locations across the country. In 2016, the company collaborated with its packaging partners to launch a greener alternative to traditional food packaging. Called “thinbarrier eco,” the packaging uses a grease-resistant, vegetable-based coating that eliminates the need for wax. The product is recyclable and compostable and decreases crude-oil consumption in wrap production by 60 per cent.

Aside from being better for the environment, the new packaging helps Pita Pit meet the demands of conscious consumers. “Today’s consumers are demanding environmentally friendly packaging and it’s really table stakes from their standpoint,” says Kevin Pressburger, president of Pita Pit Canada. “Every pita we sell is delivered in some type of disposable device, so the end user must feel good about what they do with their waste.”

The eco-friendly packaging is only the first step in Pita Pit’s sustainability journey, according to Pressburger. “We’re trying to make our chemicals more green, while still being mindful that we have to create a safe foodservice environment,” he says. And with new store builds, the company is using green-construction elements wherever possible, including recycled concrete floors, repurposed equipment and energy-efficient light bulbs. In addition, when Pita Pita executives look at a potential new product or partner, they ask questions about sustainability practices, says Pressburger. For example: Is the product sourced, produced and shipped with sustainability in mind? Is there an opportunity to reduce the amount of cardboard the items are shipped in? Does the producer have an animal-welfare program in place? “These are some of the questions we ask as part of our partner and product vetting, just to make sure we make better decisions for the future of our company and for the foodservice industry as a whole,” says Pressburger.

In the QSR segment, which is built on speed and convenience, environmental initiatives can have a big impact. “Think of how many different restaurants and concepts there are and the sheer volume of waste they’re creating,” says Pressburger. “Every ingredient comes in a case, a tin, a bag and our finished product is delivered to a guest in something disposable, which also resides inside another package. So, it’s our responsibility to make sure we do our part.”

While national chains have the ability to influence change on a wide scale, smaller foodservice operations are also doing their part to make a difference. For example, Winnipeg’s Degrees Restaurant, operated by the University of Manitoba’s Student Union, holds a level-three LEAF certification (Leaders in Environmentally Accountable Foodservice). The restaurant uses compostable packaging, composts its organic waste, sources local food and its chemical inventory is at least 70-per-cent Green Seal products. “We want to hold ourselves to the highest standard possible, partly to demonstrate that being sustainable is possible and is actually good for business,” says Ryan Woods, Degrees Restaurant and Catering manager. In terms of the benefits of being more environmentally friendly, Wood says, first and foremost, it has to benefit the environment itself.

“Also, it’s good for the image and reputation of the restaurant. As the average consumer becomes more ecologically aware, it’s crucial this industry reflects this awareness,” he adds. “A consumer who is truly concerned about the environment is probably more likely to prefer an electric car than a monster truck. We hope to invoke the same power of choice when it comes to lunch and hope folks make the right choice.”

One barrier to going green is the preconceived notion that eco-friendly initiatives come with a big price tag. However, Janine Windsor, president of LEAF, believes that’s changing. “There used to be the idea that ‘going green’ was going to be cost-prohibitive, but there are many things restaurants can do that don’t cost anything and can result in dollars saved,” she says. “And for those that do invest in bigger changes, the ROI is well worth it.”

For example, putting a focus on reducing energy use and all types of waste — food, water, supplies and energy — result in lower operating costs, says Windsor. And, as others have noted, these initiatives can give restaurants an improved image and market advantage. “Consumers like to know about the businesses they visit and the stories behind them, especially when it relates to the food they eat,” says Windsor. “People like to know if their seafood is sustainably caught, where the ingredients came from and that the staff is paid a fair wage. Showing commitment to the environment can result in customer loyalty and decreased staff turnover because people feel good when they support a business that’s doing good.”

Tricia and Ronald St. Pierre, owners of Locals Food From the Heart of The Island in Comox Valley, B.C., share that do-good philosophy. The husband-and-wife team opened their restaurant in 2008 and about five years ago, relocated to the Old House Hotel, which was built in 1938. They renovated the building, which allowed them to implement eco-friendly measures in many departments. For example, they installed energy-efficient equipment in the kitchen, used energy-efficient lighting and double-paned all the windows. Last year, the St. Pierres changed their chemical supplies to a line of eco-friendly products, which helped the restaurant earn level-three LEAF certification.

Locals Food From the Heart of The Island also has a thorough recycling and composting program. “We work with local producers who pick up our raw vegetable scraps to feed their animals,” says chef Ronald. “The other thing that is a little different than most restaurants is we don’t have any deep fryers in our kitchen. So that has a huge impact [because of waste oil].” In addition, about 85 to 90 per cent of its food comes from a 100 to 200-km radius.

“We just want to put out a really good product where no land or people were exploited in the production — it’s just the way we wish to do business,” says Tricia. “We have 55 employees and they’re all on board and everybody looks for ways to reduce, recycle and repurpose. When you have that cohesive philosophy, it feels good and keeps us on plan.” The St. Pierres also align themselves with food producers that have a similar philosophy. “We’re fortunate that we can choose who to do business with and support the people that we know have really good practices,” says Tricia. “We look for kindred spirits wishing to make a living while still being kind to the earth and producing quality products.”

Looking at the big picture, Ronald says the restaurant business can also play a role in ensuring better practices in food production in general. “The population overall will continue to grow and if we want to be around for centuries to come, we have to do things to be sustainable,” he says. “As a group, we can put pressure into assuring food production continues to be done in a healthy, sustainable way.”

L’Heureux has a personal goal to speak to the foodservice industry about the importance of going green. “We can teach some of the bigger restaurant groups and chains to say you can do it — it doesn’t have to be a small mom-and-pop shops,” he says. “Anyone can do it, it just costs a bit more [if you’re a bigger company]. But, again, it’s the right thing to do.”

Written by Rebecca Harris

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