Why different food service businesses have different sustainability challenges (and what they can do about it)

To wildly paraphrase George Orwell... All food service businesses can become sustainable, but some will be more sustainable than others.

Let me explain.  We know that the food service industry is not homogeneous, but is made up of contract catering, event catering, hotels, and thousands of different styles of restaurants and more.  And yet we would like all of them to be more sustainable, without really thinking about what that means, and what is realistic for each sector.

At IntoFood, I have worked on sustainability projects with many different food service businesses, from contract caterers to hotels, high street restaurants, vegan cafes and lots in between.  And they all have very different sustainability profiles, which is one reason why generic certification schemes are not really fit for purpose anymore.  Its not about getting across the line, its about continuous improvement.  What we often overlook are the practical ways (your recipes, your sales, and your production "accuracy") to allow that improvement to happen.  I will come back to this later, but that reality looks something like this:

 The three key leverage points for sustainability.

The three key leverage points for sustainability.

Variations across the industry

Let's take climate change as a key indicator of sustainability - its not the only indicator, but its certainly one we cannot ignore - we see a wide variation in how "climate-smart" the food is across the industry.  And when we talk about food and climate change, we are unavoidably talking about the balance between animal-based and plant-based foods.  

This graphic below shows how much variation exists, using "carbon footprint per kg of food purchased" for different kinds of food service businesses.  Note, this is based on real data.  And of course variation exists within contract caterers, within hotels and within high street restaurants.  Why?  Because of differences in their menus, their sales profile and their efficiency.

 (Burger restaurants and vegan cafes tend to represent to two end points on this line!)

(Burger restaurants and vegan cafes tend to represent to two end points on this line!)

An obvious example, to make the point.  A high street restaurant with a menu that is largely based around meat dishes (think of steaks, burgers, lamb chops, BBQ ribs) will almost always have a higher environmental impact than a staff lunch restaurant because people dining out in the evening are more likely to eat a heavier meal than they would at their lunch buffet.  So a direct comparison is not appropriate.  What is appropriate is to aim for a reduction in environmental impact, relative to the type of food service business.  And the way to understand that potential is to think of food service as a system in its own right.  

Key leverage points for sustainability

The food you buy is ultimately the indicator of how sustainable you are, but this is influenced by three key factors : your recipes, your sales and your efficiency.  Your three leverage points for being more sustainable are to design more sustainable recipes, sell more sustainable menu items, and minimise waste.  In practical terms your procurement is based on ingredients for recipes, volumes for expected sales and some "buffer" that is your waste risk.  Here is that formula again in a bit more detail.

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For example, a TexMex restaurant might have a beef, pork, chicken and a mushroom burrito.  If 95% of their sales are beef, pork or chicken, then small adjustments to those menu items can have a greater overall impact than selling more mushroom burritos.  25% less meat in the meat burritos can mean a much lower overall impact than selling a few more vegetarian dishes.  But again, it depends on your sales; you cannot look at your recipes in isolation.

In a different context, a staff lunch buffet might introduce a meatless Monday.  This is a good thing.  But they could achieve the same overall result by using 20% less meat on Tuesday to Friday.  Or double that impact by doing both!  And if they do not communicate the meatless Monday very effectively (ie, do not successfully sell it as a concept to their guests), then they could risk over-producing and creating an unintended waste problem.  

Or you could focus totally on reducing waste, but end up selling more of the "high impact" meat-based menu items, and actually increasing your overall impact.

It really is: "(Menus x Sales) + Waste".  And the great thing about this approach is that you can measure all of these leverage points : what ingredients are you using in your recipes, what are you actually selling, and what are you actually throwing away.  Optimising these relationships is the key to being more sustainable.  

So where does this leave us when we look at the variation in sustainability across the industry?  Well, every food service business is different but all of them have an opportunity to make "non-drastic" changes to their menus, focus on selling the more sustainable dishes, and link these approaches to production routines that minimise waste.  This approach should give an overall reduction in your environmental impact, and it is this change that counts.  Some types of food service will always be more sustainable, by nature, but all have opportunities to move in a sustainable direction.