Diners agree that sustainability is important, but what does that actually mean when visiting a restaurant? How can an operator buy locally and still offer value? Is supplying information on their green ethics helpful or preaching? Elly Earls reports on new research by OpenTable and The Caterer
You'd have to have been living under a rock for the past couple of years not to be aware of the huge environmental challenges facing our planet.
Research carried out by restaurant booking platform OpenTable and The Caterer has confirmed that our eating-out habits reflect our growing concern for the environment, with some 85% of over 200 operators saying their guests now think sustainability is either very or somewhat important.
Respondents perceived diners' greatest sustainability priorities to be the use of resources and waste, followed by concern about what they put in their bodies and then climate change. Yet there is still confusion about exactly how they can translate that concern into action, with 57% saying they don't think their diners know what sustainable dining means.
For Andrew Stephen, chief executive of the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), neither of these findings comes as a surprise. "At some point soon, we'll stop writing surveys that ask ‘Do you think sustainability is important?' because it will genuinely be a given," he says.
"However, while people think quite a lot about transport and energy systems, the debate around how food interacts with those problems is a lot more nuanced. I think turning that concern about the big picture into a set of principles that you eat by is very important, and we very much see that as our role."
Andrei Lussmann has worked in the hospitality industry for 30 years and set up his chain of restaurants, Lussmanns Sustainable Fish & Grill in 2002. His restaurants have more than 200 different sustainability measures. He agrees while diners – particularly the younger generation – are becoming more aware of sustainability issues, most people are still going out for the same reasons they've always gone out – what he calls the four Cs: "Is the cost right? Are the staff charming? Is the restaurant convenient? And, most importantly, is it consistent?"
"There's a lot of chaos and confusion around sustainability," he says. "If everything else is right, then it becomes an exciting thing that people talk about, that adds personality and gives your restaurant a USP, but I don't think it's a key driver in getting customers through the door."
Speak your mind
When asked how they communicate about sustainability programmes they are running, half of survey respondents said their staff let diners know when they ask questions in the restaurant, 38% use their website, newsletters and other marketing channels to talk about it, 36% rely on signage in their restaurant or information on their menus, and 30% says it's part of their brand and concept.
The difficulty, according to Stephen, is finding the right tone to communicate your sustainability measures without alienating customers. "There's a big gulf between putting a CSR report together and setting multi-year percentage reduction targets compared to the sort of visceral hunger someone feels when they're about to order some food," he says.
"Eating in a restaurant that shouts about every sustainability issue will not be fun for anyone. You don't really want to know that the business is committed to becoming carbon zero by 2050 – that's not going to affect what you order."
Lussmann agrees. "You have to find a very, very fine balance in terms of getting the right information over at the right time. It's almost trying to get people to see it and hear it when they're ready in their moment, rather than pushing it down their throat," he says.
"You've also got to pick your winners and talk about those. People aren't interested in the little Hippo bags we put in the loos that mean we reduce the amount of water or the type of washing up liquid we buy. There are lots of things we do that we don't get a chance to talk about because it's not exciting."
The SRA's advice is for restaurants to try and express what they're doing at dish rather than brand level. One way they can do so is by joining the organisation's One Planet Plate campaign, which encourages chefs to devise one dish demonstrating ethical sourcing and sustainability, which will also be promoted on the SRA website.
"If the business is able to say this is the most sustainable dish on the menu, then we've got a chance," Stephens believes. "It's quite a big shift to get all staff to be able to talk credibly about all provenance on all ingredients on a whole menu. Giving people knowledge about one dish and why that's a great choice is a lot more manageable than upping the level of knowledge across the board."
Another approach is to really nail one thing – whether that's food waste or staff wellbeing. "A whole number of things go into operating sustainably; the challenge for restaurants is how they can keep it simple," says Adrian Valeriano, vice-president of Europe, the Middle East and Africa for OpenTable.
"How can they focus on that one thing that's super-important to them, that they're most passionate about, and make that the thing they not only talk to their diners about but educate their staff to talk about clearly and concisely."
Make the ingredients work for you Some 78% of survey respondents said they thought being seen as a sustainable restaurant would give them a competitive advantage, with the most popular measures including reducing plastic packaging (67%), reducing food waste (64%), sourcing products and ingredients locally or sourcing lower-impact ingredients (also 64%) and reducing energy use (51%).
Stephen says the maximum impact will come from shifting food procurement towards less carbon-intensive food. "The embodied carbon of the restaurant is 80%-90% in the food procurement," he says. "And beyond the operational benefits, if you're providing delicious recipes to people who are more plant-led, you're also influencing people on the most important shifts they need to make in their own diet."
At neighbourhood bar group Darwin & Wallace, sustainability has been at the core of the business since day one. When it comes to food procurement, this means working with suppliers like local farm co-operative Lake District Farmers and Watts Farms, a group of farms around the London border.
"Even though the product costs us a lot more money, we can deliver it to the guest and actually stand by it," says executive chef Simon Duff. In addition, menus are always seasonal, which means not using ingredients like strawberries or asparagus. "I'll put them on my specials, but never on the menu because each menu lasts three to four months and I can't guarantee British supply for the whole period," he explains.
Lower your waste, lower your costs
Unsurprisingly, the research found that cost is a significant issue facing operators, with 61% citing it as their greatest challenge to operating sustainably. Duff can understand why. Last year he switched to free-range chicken, which is four times what he was paying before. But he says it is possible to offset the cost. "First, you have to make the decision and stick with it; then it's about putting the time and effort in and making it work for you," he advises.
"We break down the chicken and use every single part in every way we can, which then brings down the price – that means things like stocks, sauces and wings, all these little bits. Then, at the end of the day, you can make it work as a business."
According to Doug McMaster, whose zerowaste restaurant concept Silo is opening in London this month, this approach can go beyond the food: "There are many ways a restaurant can reduce the amount of waste they produce that don't have to be expensive or complicated," he says. "Our restaurant furniture and fittings are created using materials that would otherwise have been wasted, our plates are formed from plastic bags, our tables made from mycelium, the light fittings from crushed wine bottles, and our bar front is made from a combination of yogurt pots and end-of-life leather."
That said, McMaster admits he did have cost issues for years until he got used to doing things differently. "Now we operate on a 6%-10% food cost and 40% staff cost, which is a really compelling business model."
Help is at hand
For Valeriano, the most surprising and encouraging findings of the survey were that 66% of operators thought that the purpose of a company is to create a positive change in the world, just ahead of making money (60%) and that almost all – an impressive 97% – think that businesses have a responsibility to grow sustainably.
Yet less than half (47%) think they know what it takes to make their restaurant more sustainable. The good news, Valeriano stresses, is that they don't have to do it alone. "Other restaurants in their network and partners like the SRA or OpenTable can really help to make this a much more manageable process," he says.
OpenTable offers restaurants the chance to voice what they're passionate about on their profiles, while the SRA has a host of free resources designed to help restaurants evaluate where they currently are and initiate change.
The Food Made Good 50 is a great place to start – it's a 10-minute exercise that helps restaurants work out whether they're leading or lagging when it comes to sustainability and gives them 50 ideas of things they could be doing.
"We'd also really encourage people to sign up for our free food waste roadmap," says Stephen. "If you can do food waste well, then that's a good indicator that you're going to be able to do some other things well, because it involves control, caring and data collection. But there's a big cash prize on the table."
If you're a bit further along, Duff also recommends getting involved in the SRA's group sessions, where restaurateurs share what's worked for them and what hasn't.
"When you're making decisions, you have to weigh up so many different options and it can be very confusing," he says. "But if someone has done research on something, you don't need to do it all yourself. Some people in the group have knowledge on certain subjects and you will have knowledge on something else. I find it really useful and have tried to make sure I free up a bit of time to go to the session because it helps me and the business."
Rovi: small steps to sustainability
Yotam Ottolenghi's newest restaurant in Fitzrovia, Rovi, serves a menu with vegetables at its heart but with a focus on fermentation and cooking over fire. For general manager Gabor Papp, sustainability means thinking about the long term and replacing the higher, short-term financial results for the more reserved, long-term goals by following what they believe in.
He says every little thing the team can do helps, but that they focus mainly on their menu and how they can reduce waste. For example, they carefully source suppliers, ideally locally, and those who they respect and admire. They have their own garden where they grow vegetables. And while the menu is vegetable-focused, meat dishes are made from unconventional cuts of meat, such as the offal in the beef kofta and the mixed grill.
"We also use fish heads to make our curry sauce that is served with grilled halibut. Our lobster oil is made with shells, sake lees are used to marinade cucumber, beetroot is cooked in coffee grinds and pickling liquids are used in vinaigrettes," says head chef Neil Campbell.
The team also separates recycling and crates are sent back to suppliers. Even water that isn't drunk by customers is emptied into a bucket. The water is then boiled and used to mop the floor. The biggest challenge the team has faced is understanding that every small thing they do on a daily basis makes a difference.
Explains Campbell: "All the best practices take extra time, for example, walking to the recycling bin instead of throwing things out, or emptying water bottles in a bucket instead of just pouring it in the sink, but not everyone is willing to take these extra steps."
OpenTable is the world's leading provider of online restaurant reservations, with more than 52,000 restaurants, in more than 20 countries globally, using its software to seat over 128 million diners monthly. OpenTable helps diners discover and book the perfect table and helps restaurants deliver personalised hospitality to grow their business. Find out more about OpenTable and how they help restaurants run and grow at restaurant.opentable.co.uk.
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