One of the biggest restaurant industry stories – and challenges – of 2019 was about sustainability. Even brands that had taken the initiative to invest in compostable, eco-friendly packaging were surprised to learn that these materials were still ending up in landfills. Blue Bottle Coffee, which operates coffee cafés across the U.S. and parts of Asia, is one such business, and it is handling the problem in a way that’s worth watching if you’d like to improve your record (and story) when it comes to sustainability. Blue Bottle Coffee’s CEO, Bryan Meehan, recently announced that since discovering that too many of its 100 percent compostable, bioplastic cups and straws were ending up in landfills, the company created a policy that by the end of 2020, all of its U.S. cafés will be zero waste. (According to Zero Waste International Alliance’s definition, this means that at least 90 percent of the operation’s waste will be diverted from landfills.) The company is also testing out a program in the San Francisco Bay area to eliminate single-use cups – until now the company has gone through 12 million single-use cups annually in its U.S. cafés alone. Meehan also pushes a commitment to not only recycle but to reduce and reuse – and tells stories about his family’s efforts in these areas. He readily admits that it’s not an easy, inexpensive or convenient undertaking to make similar changes at Blue Bottle. He says on the company’s blog, “a commitment to reuse will wreak havoc on every aspect of our pilot cafe’s operations. We expect to lose some business.” But by taking an extreme stand and being open with consumers about its plans, the company also stands to increase its relevance – and win business in the process.
The single-use plastic toys that have long been associated with children’s meals at brands including Burger King and McDonald’s could soon be part of restaurant history. As the New York Times reported recently, Burger King has pledged to eliminate all non-biodegradable toys in its restaurants worldwide by 2025, and efforts are already underway in Britain to collect old toys from customers, then melt and recycle them into playground equipment and tray tables. While McDonald’s hasn’t gone that far as yet, it has scaled back its distribution of plastic toys in markets beyond the U.S. and has also launched an effort to reduce the impact of its toys. When you look at your brand, are there areas where you could be more environmentally friendly – with both your children’s meal giveaways and beyond? J. Ottman Consulting, an environmentally focused marketing firm, runs a community website called WeHateToWaste.com, where consumers can weigh in on how restaurants can adjust their practices to minimize waste and enhance their brand as it relates to the environment. For one, consumers see oversized portions as a waste and appreciate flexible (or shareable) portion choices and prices, which can also help broaden the appeal of a dish to seniors or other guests who are watching their diets or aren’t looking for large servings. Next, rethink any all-you-can-eat branding, which makes waste inevitable. If and when guests ask to take food home, make it easy for them by offering eco-friendly packaging that also includes instructions for reheating leftovers and keeping them fresh – or incentivize those who take the initiative to bring their own to-go containers. Your efforts may play a role in their decision to choose your restaurant over another.
Your guests want to know exactly what they’re eating: A recent Nielsen global sustainability survey found that 67 percent of consumers would like to know everything that goes into the foods they eat. In the U.S. specifically, 46 percent of consumers say claims about food products have a direct impact on their buying decisions. So the origins of the food you serve, as well as the language you use to describe it, are heavily influencing your guests’ decisions about whether or not to purchase an item from you. So how do you improve upon your current efforts to enhance transparency? Study your existing supply chain and ensure you understand the direct sources of your ingredients, as well as the labels your suppliers use, from “organic” to “all-natural” so you can explain them when asked. As Webstaurantstore advises, your menu should list ingredients, mark common allergens and highlight locally or ethically sourced foods. If asked, you should be able to provide nutritional information in your restaurant or online. (Food Safety Magazine advises you verify nutritional information with a third party whenever your information is more than a year old or if you have changed suppliers or ingredients.) Identify substitute suppliers who can help you improve upon certain areas of your supply chain – and determine if and how much you need to raise menu prices to compensate for the difference without alienating your guests. You may need to introduce new dishes to offset ingredient changes you need to make to your core menu. Finally, educate your guests about the changes you are making and why – and take pride in them on your menu. Your guests want you to outline your supply chain for them and use brand names and labels to identify the ingredients they will be consuming. Their input may even be helpful to you as you make gradual menu improvements on a continuous basis.
Restaurant operators may feel pressured to minimize their food waste. But eliminate it? It’s a lofty goal but one that Henry Moynihan Rich, owner of the hospitality company Oberon Group, aimed to take on in an effort to become a model for restaurants looking to minimize or eliminate waste, GrubsStreet reports. Brooklyn’s Rhodora Wine Bar, formerly named Mettā, has adopted such practices as ordering wine in compostable boxes, eliminating liquor brands that don’t use recyclable caps, using a dishwasher that uses electrolyzed water that requires no soap, sourcing cheeses with edible rinds, eliminating paper receipts and sending used wine corks to a non-profit called ReCORK that turns corks into shoe soles. Any food left on guests’ plates will be fed into a large composter. Consumer waste from restrooms is collected in containers from TerraCycle, a company that collects and recycles items that are difficult to recycle elsewhere.
Restaurant take-out supplies comprise a large percentage of the waste that ends up in oceans and landfills. Beyond limiting your single-use plastic, particularly the black plastic that research has confirmed is hazardous not just to the environment but also to human health, there are steps you can take to scale back your waste and to send the message to guests that you care about the environment. Start by conducting a waste audit so you have a clear picture of which menu items, packaging and office supplies generate the most waste, then adjust portion sizes and purchase orders accordingly. Buy non-perishable items in bulk if possible and use suppliers who can provide recyclable products and use less packaging on the items you purchase. Make extra napkins, straws, lids and other paper goods available upon request only. Finally, minimize the paper you generate by asking guests if you can email or text their receipt instead of printing it.
Your sustainability efforts could soon be visible front and center for people considering your restaurant for their next meal. Yelp just unveiled its Green Practices Initiative in an effort to help consumers understand how restaurants approach sustainability. Yelp reviewers will now be asked if in their experience a restaurant uses plastic bags, utensils or straws, compostable takeout containers, and whether or not the restaurant offers a discount to guests who bring their own beverage containers. The results won’t be visible immediately but will gradually build a trove of data that will eventually be included in Yelp’s restaurant reviews.
In 2019, one of the top trends Technomic forecasts for the restaurant industry is a deeper consumer demand for transparency — and not just about the food you serve. There is a growing expectation from consumers that you will be up front about your packaging, health and safety, corporate social responsibility, corporate performance and other aspects of business that demonstrate your values. Perfection isn’t critical: 85 percent of participants in a Cone Communications/Echo study said they are satisfied if a company is transparent about their practices even if those practices need improvement. The benefits of transparency can range from improved health and safety reports to simpler menus to improved connections with employees and the public. To enhance the transparency of your business in 2019, look at your shortcomings and find ways to be more open and clear about how you’re trying to solve each problem. For example, Mike Husman, a coach with the executive consulting firm The Entrepreneur’s Source, said a quick-service client who struggled with long wait times (and customer complaints about them) placed a timer in the restaurant to show its average serve times, which then decreased substantially. If you struggle with a foodborne illness outbreak, get approval from your lawyer to inform people about the problem and announce the steps you’re taking to fix it. When you share financial information, help people connect the dots: How do your employees’ actions translate to more sales and visits? How does your business spend the money it earns and where are your biggest expenses and investments? Even if your employees don’t have an actual stake in your business, approach them like they do by finding ways to gather and implement their input and show how they impact the organization.