Food companies and brands have been, in recent times, actively demonstrating their commitment to sustainability. Most major players in the food industry are restructuring their business practices to align with their sustainability goals – different aspects of the business are being re-evaluated, from supply chains to production methods, distribution channels and even packaging. While making the switch to more sustainable processes brings with it its own set of challenges, there’s one common trend – everyone is, gradually, getting on board with sustainability.
What does this increasing emphasis on food sustainability mean for another significant stakeholder in the food revolution – restaurants?
Food Away From Home (FAFH) is becoming the norm
Today, people are eating out more than ever before. Americans, for instance, eat out on an average of 4 or 5 times per week – that’s about 18.2 commercially-prepared meals in a month. More and more, people are choosing dining out over cooking. So much so that in 2015, Americans’ dining expenditures overtook their grocery sales. And it’s not exclusive to America – across the globe, people are actively seeking out restaurant meals. Various factors are contributing to this increasing food consumption outside the home – urbanization, more women in the workforce, rising demand for ‘foreign’ foods, easy accessibility to eating options, to name a few. Rise in disposable incomes is another contributing factor – people increasingly have the resources to support their varied food choices. As people juggle demanding careers and nuclear families, they’re often left with little time for meal preparation – and this is where restaurants come to the rescue.
Additionally, there has always been an allure to dining at restaurants – the ease and convenience that comes with eating out is tempting for most people. Eating is also about more than just food – for millennia, the act of eating has brought people together, giving them a sense of belonging within their communities; more people bond over eating than most other activities.
Restaurants are traditionally associated with food wastage – chefs are often forced to throw away perfectly edible food on account of freshness, storage challenges and even aesthetics. It is estimated that nearly 10% of restaurant food purchases make their way to landfill; additionally, patrons end up not consuming a significant chunk of the food they order at restaurants.
As many socially and environmentally-conscious consumers strive to be more ‘green’ in their everyday lives, it becomes pertinent to ask – are consumers prompted to think along the same lines when it comes to their eating habits, namely, eating out? The answer is, not all that often. While eco-friendly restaurants are increasingly gaining popularity, they are usually not the first choice when people decide to eat out. The idea of ‘green’ restaurants is still a novelty, something new to be ‘checked out’ – not yet the norm.
This is where the opportunity for those in the foodservice industry lies – to show diners that a ‘fully sustainable’ restaurant is just as exciting and diverse as a ‘normal’ one. Consumers tend to respond positively to new brand innovations, as long as they serve their original purpose – in restaurants’ case, whipping up good food for their patrons. Restaurants have a monumental advantage over others in the food sector simply because consumers choose to visit restaurants not out of need, but pure desire; restaurants can leverage this preference to make consumers view their eating habits through the sustainability lens. Show consumers how they can be active agents of change simply by deciding where to eat.
Sustainable business practices are necessary across all sectors, and restaurants will have no choice but to rethink their strategies. An all-encompassing approach that evaluates every aspect of the business is necessary. As the number of restaurants making a commitment to environmental stewardship will eventually grow, we can expect to see certain practices that will be more universal in the next decade.
Restaurants will adopt a Farm to Table approach
Most fresh foods and vegetables make a journey of about 1500 miles before they reach their final destination, like supermarkets and restaurants. This puts a considerable strain on the environment. Locally grown produce is not only more fresh, but also uses up less energy during harvesting and transportation. Restaurants, by supporting the local economy, also stand to develop mutually beneficial relationships with local farmers.
All produce at The Captain’s Galley in Scotland is sourced exclusively within a 50-mile radius of the restaurant.
Seasonal menus will dominate
As restaurants source their produce locally, their offerings will depend on produce availability – ingredients with short growing seasons won’t always be on the menu. This will help chefs be more creative with the dishes; rotating the menu is also a great way to keep customers interested.
Relae in Copenhagen, winner of the 2015 Sustainable Restaurant Award, has a menu that rotates nightly, to correspond with the availability of local, organic ingredients.
The Perennial, in its aim to be “the most environmental restaurant ever”, has a 360-degree approach to sustainability; everything from the cutlery to furniture is designed to be as sustainable as possible.
Patrons will be encouraged to choose their own portions
One of the prime reasons for per capita food wastage at restaurants is the portions patrons are served. Restaurant portions are more often than not unrealistic – either too little or too much. Replacing standardized serving sizes with customized options will not only reduce the amount of food that goes to trash, but also give customers a bigger say in how their meals are prepared.
McAlister’s Deli’s ‘Lite Choose Two’ feature lets customers choose their own portion sizes from a variety of health-conscious options.
Bring Your Own Food (BYOF) will expand beyond drinking establishments
While the BYOF trend is widely popular in several breweries and taprooms worldwide, it has, understandably, not caught on with restaurants. In the future, however, restaurants will adopt BYOF policies that encourage patrons to carry certain kind of foods like dips, condiments, personalized allergen-free ingredients, etc.
In their garden barter program, Maine restaurant Gather accepts surplus home produce from customers in exchange for restaurant credit.
More restaurants will grow their own food
Many restaurants around the world are now choosing to grow their ingredients themselves – roof-top gardens and window boxes are gaining popularity. Growing their own food will enable restaurants to have quick access to produce; this will be a huge contributor to reducing their carbon footprint, and help chefs understand their food better. Additionally, this will help in the recycling of food wastage; leftover food can go straight to the garden in the form of compost.
Chicago-based restaurant Uncommon Ground, named the ‘World’s Greenest Restaurant’ in 2013, grows a number of their ingredients above their restaurant, in what is hailed as America’s first certified organic rooftop farm.
Chicago-based Sandwich Me In adopts the zero-waste approach, and managed to produce only 8 gallons of trash in two years.
Restaurants will look beyond food
Making the food that’s served as ecofriendly as possible is the first step restaurants can take toward enabling sustainable consumptions; however, food sustainability involves more elements than just the food. A 360 degree approach will see restaurants making themselves ‘fully sustainable’; this will include energy-efficient appliances, recycled menus, biodegradable cutlery, etc. – in other words, all-around ‘green’ infrastructures.
Azurmendi in Spain uses photovoltaic solar panels, geothermic electricity systems and harvested water in t he restaurant. Additionally, the architecture is designed to be eco-friendly.
Restaurants will now, more than ever, need to be active participants in the sustainability dialogue. As the world anticipates a food crisis which will fail to support the 9 billion-strong population the planet is expected to reach by 2050, restaurants have an all important role to play in driving responsible food consumption.
This article is a part of MSLGROUP’s report The Future of Food Communications: Winning Share of Mouth in the Conversation Age.
With a specialization in Advertising, Melanie has worked in the digital space with brands from the banking, healthcare, oil & energy, political and consumer sectors. She has also worked on media buying campaigns across print, radio, television and OOH. At MSLGROUP, she tracks inspiring digital initiatives for People’s Insights. Connect with her on twitter: @melanie_joe