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Why Sustainability is not a Luxury for Foodservice during the Pandemic

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In a crisis, survival is the goal. We trim expenses to the bone, and streamline into the most efficient and agile versions of ourselves. But there are some aspects of foodservice that are not luxuries, like sustainability. “There’s a perception that sustainability comes at an additional cost,” says
Josh Prigge, founder of Sustridge Sustainability Consulting. “In reality, sustainability adds longterm business value.”

Prigge’s recommendation? Start by tracking your actual numbers. “Water use, energy use, waste: what are the numbers and costs? That will show you where to start.” It can also focus your efforts where the most immediate payback can be found. The next step is to develop an overarching strategy. “Each restaurant has different priorities: one might work on energy conservation, another on local food supply. A comprehensive approach embeds sustainability into the culture of the organization.” The best way to do that is to engage all your stakeholders in the process: customers, suppliers and above all, employees. “Employees want to work for a company that shares their values and beliefs. Sustainability can
be a lens to drive innovation.”

When it comes to sustainability, energy is often overlooked, and it shouldn’t be. “Foodservice is the most energy intensive commercial business per square foot,” says Robert Edwards, Business Advisor, Private Sector IESO. “As restaurants begin to rebound, it’s going to be all about the bottom line. Rent, the cost of food, of labour, these will only go up. So you want to reduce the costs that are under your control, like energy.”

The first thing to do? “Get started. Invest some time in understanding how and when your restaurant uses energy.” Then reach out to your local utilities for no- and low-cost solutions. Edwards strongly encourages operators to take advantage of the energy-saving programs offered across the country by all levels of government. “Save on Energy has Direct Install programs available in Ontario, including one called Small Business Lighting. They’ll send a third party to survey and consult with you and will install up to$2000 of LED lighting for free.”

They’re currently working on adding refrigeration and HVAC measures to the Small Business Lighting Program and anticipate them being available in the fall. These are programs worth taking advantage of. And they come with ancillary benefits. “When you have a pleasantly lit environment, it may lead to customers lingering to enjoy another drink, or coffee and dessert,” Edwards explains. When things are more comfortable, people stay longer. That’s true for both your front and back of house. “Direct Control Kitchen Ventilation (DCKV) controls temperatures for employee comfort, and since it’s not as noisy, it’s also good for guests.”

Kitchens have made great strides in recent years when it comes to eliminating food waste. What seems like a strictly environmental choice can also be a sound financial decision. Reducing waste not only cuts costs but can also increase revenue. Kent Wallace from Greenspace Waste Solutions, who helps companies reduce both the amount and cost of their waste, shares that customers prefer to dine in restaurants that share their values and beliefs.

Like Prigge, Wallace suggests the first step is to really measure your waste. “What are you throwing out that you shouldn’t be?” Breaking down all cardboard for recycling can be time-consuming, but it can significantly reduce waste pickup costs. His next recommendation is to improve your organics program. “Food is 70-90 per cent water: when it decomposes in landfill, it can end up in our water table. Programs that divert organics from landfill also reduce carbon dioxide and methane, two main greenhouse gases.”

Composters are a good choice for operators with green space, or who grow their own ingredients. Larger operations might consider getting their own biodigester, a worthwhile investment on both the sustainability and profitability fronts. “After two years, it eliminates all food waste costs.”

“Everyone wants to go green,” Wallace says, “But no one wants to add extra jobs or costs.” The key to that is education for operators, for employees and for customers. “You’re doing it for the next generation, and to remain in the public eye. Doing the right thing will build your business. What’s good for the environment and the world is good for your bottom line.”

“There’s a misconception that being more sustainable is costly,“ says Sean Kavenagh, a board member with LEAF (Leaders in Environmentally Accountable Foodservice). He encourages operators to start with no-cost measures, like reassessing dishwashing practices to save energy and water, controlling food waste and reaching out to others in the industry. “Talk to your suppliers. Chances are they’re trying to be more sustainable too!”

Kavenagh advises pursuing no- and low-cost avenues first because it can be easier to find savings than new revenue. “If you’re typically operating at about a five per cent profit margin, then $1,000 in savings can be equivalent to $20,000 in new revenue.” Though new revenue is not out of reach. “According to a Technomic survey, 79 per cent of consumers report that they would prefer to dine at Certified Green restaurants.”

Sustainability can also help with staff retention. “According to another Technomic survey, 78 per cent of employees report that they would be more excited to work at a Certified Green restaurant.” Which, as the industry faces a notable staffing shortage, makes sustainability initiatives a bonus when attracting employees. “Make it part of their role and responsibilities to regularly brainstorm sustainable initiatives.” Everyone agrees that a collective approach is the best way forward. “It’s too much for one person,” says Prigge. “Activate your staff, get them involved.”

Edwards also recommends reaching out to your local BIA. Kavenagh suggests connecting with other restaurant operators. “You might be surprised to see just how collaborative they are!” And there are many companies, like Wallace’s Greenspace, that offer free consultations. Above all, communication is key. “Even when you fall short of targets,” Prigge says, “People care that you have a plan and are working towards it. People want to know that you’re being proactive and trying.”

Looking for resources to create a more sustainable business?

  • SUSTRIDGE CONSULTING helps businesses plan and enact sustainability measures.
  • SAVE ON ENERGY: offers education, programs and incentives to help foodservice operators reduce their energy use and cost.
  • GREENSPACE WASTE SOLUTIONS, a Restaurants Canada affiliate partner, helps foodservice operators reduce the cost and amount of waste streams.
  • LEAF’S mission is to help foodservice operators reach improved sustainability standards.

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