Over the last 5 years we have identified 3 key leverage points for profitable and sustainable food service : menu engineering, production control, and sales mix.
A key way to increase sustainability is of course through your food concepts, and this is where menu engineering comes into play.
For fixed price service, small changes towards recipes with a lower climate change impact can give you consistent margin increase. With fixed price service well-designed vegetarian dishes can have a similar effect, albeit probably at a lower sales volume.
For non-fixed pricing, it’s a bit more complicated, but done right it can be really effective. Here is a quick (based on reality) example: a street food outlet sells meatball wraps and falafel wraps, priced at £6.50 and £5 respectively. They want to reduce their environmental impacts and whilst they know that the meatball wrap has a much higher carbon footprint than the falafel wrap, the meatballs are popular so they want to keep them on the menu.
By offering a “half and half, meatballs & falafel” wrap that is priced nearer the meatball wrap price point, they can actually create a dish that sells well to the more environmentally conscious meat-eater and earns them more money. And if they market this dish well, it gives a real win-win (see Sales mix below).
Food waste has rightly been in the spotlight, although I don’t think we can claim job done just yet. Customers often get the blame for high levels of plate waste, but it is not all their fault.
In buffet service, over-production can be a big driver of food waste, where we serve a bit too much of everything, in order to be on the safe side. Reducing over-production of course will have direct and pretty immediate cost benefits.
In restaurant service, inconsistent portion control (which you could see as the “real-time” equivalent of serving too much on a buffet) has the same effect. With a chef background myself, I think I can say fairly honestly that portion control in the industry is mixed, some good, some not so good. Tightening up here can reduce food waste by customers who could not finish their meal, and keep actual margins more in line with theoretical margins. And, as with menu engineering, it is often the small repeatable changes that have the highest overall impact.
This is where the benefits of menu engineering and production control can be multiplied via sustainability-oriented sales. Put simply, if you create a new food concept with dishes that are optimised to be more sustainable and profitable, and tighten up on production, then you can multiply your benefits by driving sales towards these “lower carbon, higher margin” dishes.
As a rule of thumb you should be aiming to introduce menu options in the high sales range that have lower environmental impacts and better margins than previous dishes. The high sales will multiply the benefits.
So having 2 veggie options on a menu of 10 choices is not really going to make a different if the veggie options are not particularly high margin and have low sales. You could achieve more by introducing meat dishes with less meat, but better margins and higher potential sales, on the grounds that the meat-eaters who buy these dishes are probably choosing them instead of even meatier alternatives. The vegetarians and flexitarians can prop up your veggie sales, but the meat-eaters can give you the greater change over time by buying more of your new lower carbon, higher margin, and high sales dishes.