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Sustainable Practices a Win-Win

Published: July 2021

For many restaurant operators, 2020 meant a turning to takeout to keep their businesses afloat – which, in turn, meant tons and tons (literally) of disposable containers and other single-use items. 

Now that restaurants are returning to “pre-pandemic” conditions, it’s time to think about sustainability again. And thankfully, it’s easier than ever to reduce waste and take up Earth-friendly habits. 

Worried that sustainable ingredients and practices might seem like a costly investment? Statistics show that consumers are willing to pay more for high-quality, locally sourced foods and feel good supporting environmentally friendly businesses.  

According to data from The International Food Information Council, more than half of consumers value a commitment to sustainability and sustainable farming. And a 2015 survey from Nielsen found that nearly three out of four millennials would be willing to pay extra for sustainable fare.  

Nielsen also predicts that consumers will spend $150 billion USD on sustainable products – those that are “clean,” use fewer emissions or have less packaging – by the end of 2021. 

Big names in food are becoming more sustainability-minded by the minute. Recently, Panera Bread introduced “Cool Food Meals,” which labels menu items that have a smaller carbon footprint. And Eleven Madison Park, widely considered to be one of New York’s best restaurants, shocked the food world earlier this year with the announcement that it was going completely vegan.  

But even if you aren’t planning on a major menu rehaul, consider your sources. Relying on local meat and produce reduces CO2 emissions from transportation as well as excess packaging. Buzzwords like “organic,” “grass-fed” and “sustainably sourced” go far in building trust between you and your guests. Adding more plant-based offerings to your menu will please the growing number of consumers who are actively eating less meat while saving Earth’s resources. 

Your journey toward sustainability can even start today, by limiting single-use and disposable items – which, despite a “recyclable” or “compostable” label, are likely to end up in landfills. How can you combat the waste? Only offer straws, cocktail napkins and plastic flatware by request, and be sure to ask guests if their meal is dine-in or to-go before serving food in disposable containers.  

Even better: Let guests know they can bring their own takeout containers for leftovers, or cups for coffee and tea. You also can replace individually wrapped items like sweeteners and condiments with bulk items. Some restaurants have eliminated disposables almost entirely, switching to durable, sustainable materials like glass, aluminum and recycled plastic for both dine-in and carryout. 

While it might seem like a stretch to expect guests to return used containers, offering a discount, coupon, or punch card can be a huge motivator. Chains like Just Salad and even Starbucks have experimented with similar incentives.  

Along with being easier on the environment, this switch can also save on trash hauling costs, and though reusables come with a large initial investment, a study by the group ReThink Disposable found a cost savings of hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year. 

Adopting “zero waste” practices also means considering how food scraps are treated. Whether you’re adding tonight’s leftover greens to tomorrow’s salads or making infused simple syrups with already-squeezed citrus rinds, it’s an opportunity to flex your culinary creativity and think outside the box.  

Ultimately, sustainable practices are a win-win: Operators can save money and resources, and guests can enjoy a meal that aligns with their values. Whether you’re starting small or making big changes, your actions today can affect our planet’s future. 

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