Virtually every industry was hit hard by last year's COVID-19 pandemic in one way or another, but the restaurant industry faced particularly tough challenges.
When the lockdown restrictions came and either eliminated, or severely limited, on-premises dining, many small restaurants were forced to close their doors, putting owners, chefs, and servers out of work. As for the restaurants that did survive, they had to adapt to rapid changes and employ new methods to make it. If there's a silver lining in all this, it's that many restaurant owners are discovering that they can both reduce operating costs and attract new customers by working towards environmental sustainability.
Essentially, sustainability refers to practices that support the natural environment and avoid depleting resources that can't be easily replaced.
In other words, it's the practice of supporting present needs without compromising future abilities to support similar and growing needs. Sustainability isn't just about the environment, either. It also refers to any practices meant to achieve financial security without compromising the future. Sure, it involves using energy-efficient equipment and eco-friendly tools, but there's more to it than that.
If you're up to the challenge of starting your own restaurant, here are some great ways to make sure it's a sustainable restaurant.
When you think about waste in the food industry, you likely picture expired produce, like tomatoes, being tossed in a dumpster and taken to a landfill somewhere. Sure, you could always try and compost expired food that's no longer safe to eat, but wouldn't it be better to eliminate the food waste in the first place? Sometimes, restaurants even throw out food that's still perfectly safe. Here are some friendly practices you can use to avoid these outcomes in your restaurant.
The first thing you'll need to do is conduct a waste audit. This basically means that you need to check your trash each day before you throw it out to see how much food is going in. It's honestly a great idea to go ahead and track how much product you're throwing away altogether, but you'll at least need to separate your produce and meats (including seafood and other white meats) to see the true food waste. Once you weigh each category of food, you can begin focusing on the areas that need the most attention.
You'll likely benefit from some staff training, such as teaching cooks to make more efficient cuts that both clear more meat from the product and help it last longer. You can also use the data from your waste audit to help you stop over-prepping foods that are thrown away at high rates. You may even want to investigate your supply chain. You can support your community by sourcing fresh produce from local farms, and it's a good idea to practice safe and efficient food storage from the start.
Make sure all food is placed in the proper container before being refrigerated, and make sure you're keeping ideal temperatures in your freezer. Speaking of your supply chain, you can even use your restaurant POS system to track inventory and only send restock updates to your vendors when you really need to.
Restaurants are also notorious for water consumption, and with sustainable practices, you can avoid wasting it.
Yes, this can involve upgrading equipment and constantly looking out for leaks in pipes or faucets, but there are other practices you should think about too. For example, instead of always providing water as the standard beverage while guests wait on their order, you can switch to only offering it to guests who ask for it. Another easy way to reduce your water consumption is to train your staff on the most efficient ways to load your dishwashers, and only run them when they're full.
If you're thinking about selling pre-packaged water in your new restaurant, you may want to think again. These products generally come in plastic containers that are a major culprit for ocean pollution. If you do want to sell water that doesn't come from the tap, consider selling it in compostable hot cups instead.
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Speaking of compostable products, it's best to use friendly restaurant supplies or to eliminate paper and plastic whenever possible. This is one of the best ways to brand yourself as eco-friendly and cut unnecessary costs. Just your paper receipts alone help contribute to 1.5 billion pounds of waste per year in the U.S. alone. You can largely eliminate this by relying on a customer-facing POS system for orders and converting to digital receipts that can be emailed, texted, or sent over your mobile app. You'll need to keep paper receipts as an opt-in practice since not everyone will have a smartphone, but this is an excellent way to reduce your waste.
Speaking of paper products and plastic, huge amounts are wasted every day on plastic utensils, straws, napkins, paper towels, and other products that get thrown directly in the bin after a customer picks up their takeout lunch order. Instead of relying on styrofoam containers and plastic lids that take so long to break down, look for sustainable products for restaurants, like cardboard, that won't stay in landfills for so long. You can find compostable eco-products that will reduce your carbon footprint and make for better alternatives to plastic bowls and plastic straws.
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The need for temperature control and insane amounts of power in order for your kitchen equipment to run properly is a major concern for the environment. Every bit of electricity used has an amount of pollution attached to it, making energy-efficient tools an easy win when it comes to being a sustainable restaurant business. While energy-efficient products can have a higher cost to start, the savings are returned over time as well as lowering the carbon footprint of your kitchen. Don't forget to turn the lights and non-essential equipment off if you're the last one out at the end of the night!
From there, you should look at the cleaners used within the kitchen. A majority of them contain toxic chemicals that while great for sanitizing, can have a horrible impact on the environment. Adjusting your cleaning supplies and lowering power usage is a great starting point.
Choosing menu items that are always popular and in demand is obviously the best way to keep orders consistent, but just like many of the practices that put profits before sustainability, it doesn't work well in the long run. See what foods are in season and what meals you can create from that list. Not only will this provide your customers with new food and showcases of your restaurant's skills, but you'll find out that you can often get great prices on food when purchased in season.
Let's face it, paper is more or less viewed as a waste product in general thanks to the transition of every analog interface becoming a digital screen. Even receipts have become obsolete with options available to send receipts via text message or email at almost every digital POS system. If you're taking out ad space in a local magazine or travel guide, you can transition to fully digital marketing such as email campaigns, Google ads or even just spending time increasing your social media following.
The other side of disposable products is what you provide to your customers. Styrofoam and plastic containers are a cornerstone of takeout cuisine, but no longer have a home in the modern kitchen. By showing you are an eco-friendly and sustainable food provider, you can garner meaningful customers that look forward to reusable or recyclable containers although not every compostable container is made equally.
A large portion of the cost for ingredients is the shipping and processing it takes to safely transport each item across the country. As mentioned earlier, local food is often cheaper when purchased during the harvest season as the delivery cost is typically just picking it up within a couple of hours of your location. Shopping local also shows customers you truly care about your community, something that goes a long way in the world of restaurant referrals.
Don't let the excitement of local produce and meats get ahead of you. Properly dating and storing your perishables is key to decreasing food waste and cost which benefits you and the environment. Make sure there are no discolorations or foul odors coming from your ingredients, even if you think they should still be good.
To help yourself even further, you can embrace an efficient online ordering system that collects all your delivery apps on one device for a flat fee. Instead of including utensils and paper products with individual packaging with every order, you can make these optional, so the only patrons who get them will be the ones who actually use them. This is also your best way to take advantage of the soaring popularity of online ordering.
Practicing sustainability can seem like a lot of work at first, but it's actually a great way to make sure you rely on renewable resources and save costs in the long run. You can also advertise your sustainable methods to draw in younger customers, who tend to be more eco-conscious.