Food Waste

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. 

3 "must have" plans for successful food sustainability projects

It does not seem to matter what KPI you are going for, in food sustainability projects things will get messy if you do not have clear plans in place for skill requirements, measuring outcomes, and audience-specific communication plans.

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Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know, you need plans or the wheels fall off.  Of course.  It goes without saying.  But there are "nice to have" plans, and there are "must have" plans.  Hard-earned, coal-face experience has taught me that, when it comes to food sustainability projects, there are three kinds of plan you cannot do without: a skills plan, a measurement plan, and a communication plan.  Here is why they matter and how they are interrelated.

Skills plans

Almost by definition, food sustainability initiatives involve some changes to routines, to menu plans, and to procurement policies.  And for people to be engaged in change they normally need to know why, how and what.  "Why is this a sustainability issue?  How will we do it? What is the expected outcome?"  Staff who are fully engaged in the sustainability issues at hand - be it food waste, climate change, sustainable seafood, plant-forward menus or any other issue you care to pick - will almost always respond more positively because they understand the reasons and they can build a sense of ownership for the solution.  It sounds obvious, but it gets missed more often than it should.  And the kind of skills needed will vary in different parts of the organisation; the sustainability skills you need in the kitchen are not the same as for front of house, or for client relationship management.  Try implementing a new food concept without making sure that your client account managers or regional managers have got the skills to explain why you are doing it, and you'll see what I mean.

Measurement plans

How you measure - the tools you will use - means having a plan in place that includes a usable tool for accurately measuring the impact you are trying to affect.  A food waste tracker, an analytics tool for procurement impacts, customer satisfaction tools and so on.  Test the tools before you commit to a full-blown industry-wide project.  What you measure needs a bit more thought too.  For example with food waste, you might want to define categories of food waste that you will measure; for climate change you might want to measure recipes (to define "planet-smart" recipes) and procurement (to benchmark your actual carbon footprint).  But you might also want to measure sales of different recipes to understand which recipes sell best and how that relates to your sustainability.  And of course for food waste, wouldn't you want to measure on a daily basis?  But probably not for a project to increase the amount of sustainable seafood you are buying - here a monthly procurement analysis might be enough. One common mistake is to rely on annual audits alone.  Annual audits give us an overview of what happened, but give us no real data on how or why.  And if you are not sure that your measurements are meaningful then you cannot really communicate your outcomes very clearly. 

Communication plans

I tend to view communication plans in terms of who they are intended for: internal on-site, internal management, client on-site and external client relations.  Each group needs a different message in terms of goals, and then later on what you achieved, any new best practices, revised targets, and areas for improvement.  Each communication plan needs to be clear, concise and tailored, but linked to the measurement plans.  It's about storytelling, but storytelling is just data with a soul so your measurements and data should act as your evidence.  And get this, if you communicate a new project to someone and their response is along the lines of "I don't know why we need to do xxxx, why does it matter?", then you've got yourself a skills gap and something to add to your skills plan.

So these plans are not old school project management file cabinet fillers - they are early phase plans that you improve over time.  Assess your skills gaps, build a draft measurement plan, provide first stage communication plans.  Take onboard questions and ideas, and then revise the skills plan, adjust the measurement plan, and polish the communication plan.  Two or three iterations of this and you will avoid the trap of going ahead with a bold initiative only to find the staff do not really know what the issue is, you cannot make sense of the measurements, and key people are not really aware of what is going on and what to tell your guests and clients.

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3 things that food service businesses can do to increase both their sustainability and their margins

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.

Menu Engineering

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.

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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).

Production control

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.

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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

Sales mix

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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.