Menu Engineering

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. 

8 no brainer "meat free" dishes, and their "less meat" cousins

The last 5 years have seen a welcome acceptance within the food industry that we need to eat fewer animal products ("we" being us lot in developed countries, by and large).  The practical implementation of solutions is more challenging however.

Here we  do our bit and throw into the pot 8 no brainer "meat free" dishes, and their under-estimated cousins, the "less meat" equivalents.  The key point is that "meat free" is not the only way to reduce consumption of animal products.   Great tasting "less meat" dishes can actually achieve more in the long-run.  A little every day, and so on.

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1. Curry

Anyone who can make a good curry will tell you that it's all about the spices.  You don't really need much or any meat to make a curry shine.  I often use lentils as the base ingredient, because they are packed with protein and have a meaty feel to them.  Cauliflower also seems made in heaven for curry. 

And your "less meat" equivalent?  Well here's the thing, if the flavour is in the spices then the amount of meat you use is only really indicative of your customers' expectations.  If you re-frame the dish as "Lentil and chicken" rather than "Chicken", then you shift people's expectations, and you don't need to use 100 or 120g of meat.  80g is plenty in a well-spiced dish.

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2. Pasta

Obviously, anything where you are using garlic, tomatoes and olive oil.  No need to tell chefs how to do this!  Many different vegetables can bulk out the dish so that its not just a bowl of carbs.  Your use of seasonal vegetables fits really well here: spring greens, summer veg, autumn roots.  All on a base of garlic and tomato sauce.  Or pesto. Etc.

And their "less meat" cousin?  Bacon.  Does any other animal product provide so much flavour for so little volume?  Or a good smoked ham if you are feeling fancy.  You could just go for a carbonara, but its more interesting to use small amounts of strong flavoured meats with your seasonal veg, no?

So you get the idea.  Here are the other dishes that make sustainability easy!

3. Pie (part 1: pastry-based pies)

A vegetable quiche is nothing new to the culinary world and, again, plays very well with your seasonal sourcing goals. And the "less meat" cousin?  Quiche lorraine with a twist.  Smoked fish (please go "beyond salmon").  Amazing flavours for tiny amount of meat or fish.  20g goes a long way.

4. Pie (part 2: Shepherd-ish)

I know people say you shouldn't mess with classics, but really?  Classics are only classics within the time-frame we give them, so let's give the food snobbery a miss and see the opportunity.  A meat free shepherds pie is a wonderful thing.  The key is to use the right vegetables: mushrooms, beans, lentils (hello again) are great for that fill-you-up pie feeling.  And you go "less meat" by using some meat, but not too much.  Lamb for the shepherd's pie purists, beef for the cottage pie converts.  But you don't need to make it all about the meat. Change the name, change the game.

5. Pælla

Ok, so you want to annoy some purists?  I'm with Jamie Oliver on this one.  Food purists are only a few steps away from food fundamentalists, and that's not what we need right now.  Pælla is perfectly suited to both meat free and "less meat" options.  Why?  Because the flavour is in the dish and its clever use of ingredients (see curry, pasta and so on).  You can use tiny amounts on chorizo and mussels to give a pælla a lift.  If you go meat free, charring some of your veg to accentuate the flavour, or even smoking them (smoked red peppers?) will add an extra flavour dimension, and loads of colour.  And colour counts in a dish like this.

6. Risotto

Same principles as pælla.  Say no more.

7. Burgers

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Recent work by the Wold Resource Institute looks at the concept of "power dishes" - those dishes that are culturally influential and good options for re-framing how people think about their food.  Burgers are one of these "power dishes".  And with good reason, partly because you find burgers everywhere, and partly because they are the kind of poster boys for unsustainable food systems : the massive associated environmental impacts from beef and connotations with junk food.  But they're popular, so there is a lot of scope for creating change.  Most people will have seen good and bad veggy burgers, but it is fair to say that the "standard" is improving.  The best in my opinion combine the stodginess of beany/starchy ingredients with the some crunch.  We could of course just wait for the Impossible Burger to get their price low enough and off we go, but I fear that is going to be a long and winding road my friends.  And here is the beauty about a burger... whilst there is a strong burger trend for all things "gourmet", not many people have seen the light with "less meat" burgers.  You don't really need 150g of beef to make a great burger.  Swap out 60g of meat for beans, sweet potato, lentils, mushrooms and so on and you create something with a new dimension in flavour and texture.

8. Burritos

Ok so we are dipping deeper into fast food territory here, but let's be honest, there is a growing trend for good food on-the-go, so we might as well get it right.  Apply the same rules to a burrito (or any of the wrap family) and you can make something truly delicious with no meat.  Again, your protein rich veg features a lot here, partly because of the "proteiny-ness" but also because they can handle a bit of chili.  And the "less meat" cousin?  Instead of 150g of meat in a large burrito, use 75g.  Easy.  We had a client who did just that.  They did the marketing for the new dishes really nicely and everyone was happy.

So there you go.  Lots of menu areas where meat free and "less meat" ideas are already considered mainstream (mushroom risotto,  carbonara and so on).  What we need to do is add some good old chef creativity and we create a whole new food movement around new twists on old classics.  The real challenge is how to change menus when they are rooted more in meat as the star of the show.  Steak is a really easy example of course  Half a steak, anyone?  Clever chefs can reinvent these dishes too though, but it is admittedly a bit more challenging.  The trick is to focus on the dishes that you can change, make a big deal about them, and over time you can start to make changes in the more challenging dishes.

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.