3 things caterers should focus on to drive sustainability

Recent research highlighted some challenges to, and opportunities for, increased food sustainability in catering.  Here are three concrete areas to focus on that have been shown to bring about success.

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Some recent research has looked at the constraints, challenges and opportunities for caterers and food sustainability, loosely concluding that different caterers have different challenges, but there are in fact some common challenges and opportunities.  Which sounds about right.  (If you want a quick overview of how menus and customer type influences sustainability, have a look at this).  Taking this as a given (that different caterers have different challenges) this research discussed constraints for caterers being related to the consumer base, the sector (public/private), service delivery (in-house/out-sourced), contract type (concession, commercial etc), costs & bottom-line issues, and skills & knowledge.  (Access the research paper here).

Breaking this down a bit, there seem to be some common issues across these different constraints:

- the type of consumer impacts the food you can serve, for cultural, financial, and demographic reasons.

- concerns about cost are prevalent, although this can be overcome by smart pro-sustainability menu engineering.

- knowledge and skills are key within the catering organisation (both in-house and out-sourced) at many levels, from a lack of sustainability management roles and overall corporate culture, to pro-sustainability knowledge and skills among chefs.

So if you want to overcome these challenges you need to focus on these three areas:

1. Understanding the relationship between food costs and sustainability

The idea that sustainability costs more money is only partially true and this misunderstanding normally stems from the idea that "certified sustainability" costs more money (think MSC certified seafood, organic produce and so on).  But while on a product by product basis this may be true (mostly), we are not in the business of feeding people by individual products - we serve meals made up of many different ingredients and it is this ingredient mix and menu sales mix that defines your actual food costs.  Depending on your contract (concession, commercial and everything in between) this will influence your profit. 

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And here is the key point: there is a growing consensus in research that the two non-negociables with food sustainability are that we need to consumer less (but better) animal-based food and we need to reduce food waste.  Both of these will reduce your food costs, and intelligent menu engineering will allow you to include higher cost individual products within a more sustainable balance of ingredients and less wastage.  I bang on this rather a lot and use a simple formula: Menus x Sales + Waste.  If done properly, you can manage your food costs and increase sustainability (see here for more on how this can be done). 

2. Appropriate communication with your customers

"Consumer type" is rightly identified as a challenge to sustainable food service.  So the question we should be asking is "How to communicate this so that guests come with us on the journey?".  I have recently been collaborating with specialists in corporate culture, conflict resolution, and the psychology of communication (see here for our concept for Food Sustainability Heroes). 

You need to do 3 key things here.  1. Build knowledge and understanding throughout the catering business - a lack of "Sustainability Managers" has been noted by Goggins in his research, in addition to variable or low skills and knowledge within catering staff in the kitchen. 2. Understand how to communicate sustainability to different types of customers.  Should you talk about health, or the environment, or focus on food trends? It depends who you are talking to.  3. Relate this to how you present the food in the restaurant buffet.  This is where choice architecture, nudging and how you present each dish gives you the ability to shift consumer choice towards sustainability in a more subtle way. 

3. Measuring your real impacts

If you are going to menu engineer in a pro-sustainability way, reduce your food waste, and combine these initiatives with effective communication, you need some numbers to firstly understand your impacts and secondly to feed the communication decisions.  Storytelling is just data with a soul, after all.  So take steps to understand which recipes and food concepts are more sustainable, and how you can combine these concepts to create a food service that is designed to help customers choose sustainably.  When you have this in place, then you can talk about it with your customers (both directly to your guests, and higher up in the corporate ladder when you are agreeing contracts, bidding for new contracts, or simply reporting to your clients).  No data, no storytelling.  The goal here should be continuous improvement, broken down into goals that can be backed by data.  Cut your climate change impacts by 10% in six months, reduce your food waste by 30% in three months, increase your servings of fruit and vegetables by 15% in six months.  

So this is where you need to focus.  Find the cost profile that allows you to serve more sustainable recipes and food concepts by thinking beyond certified sustainable products and audits, and look more towards the two non-negociables : less but better meat and less waste.  Build the knowledge and skills throughout your catering business, from top to bottom, and understand that you can communicate effectively with different types of customer.  And measure your impacts, because that is the data that allows you to communicate the what and why of your sustainability, allows you to actually track your food costs against your sustainability, and create food concepts that are tailored to your customer type, contract type and all of the other organisational constraints that seem to act as barriers to change.  Knowledge is power, both for your staff, your concepts and for your customers.

If you want to learn more about designing sustainable food concepts, measuring and reporting on your actual environmental impacts, and "best practice" learning opportunities within your catering organisation, just click here.