Sustainable Catering

"One Planet Plate" shows the many different ways to eat more sustainably.

Why One Planet Plate is a great step in the right direction for thinking about recipe development as a way to tackle the complexities of food sustainability.

Sustainable decision-making can be complex

Food systems contribute at least 25% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions (1), are major consumers of available water (2), major causes of deforestation (3) and both terrestrial and marine biodiversity loss (4), and yet about a third of the food that we produce is never actually eaten (5).  Added to that, food demand is predicted to increase globally by a further 50% before 2050 (6).  I think we can call that an unsustainable system.

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It is also highly complex system with multiple challenges that are sometimes aligned and sometimes not.  Does meat with a lower climate change impact also have higher animal welfare?  Does the lower carbon footprint of most fish always make it a better choice than meat?  If not, why not?

One Planet Plate and recipe "KPIs"

Which is why the One Planet Plate initiative by the Sustainable Restaurant Association is so timely – shining light on recipes that contribute to the solution in different ways, through low carbon footprint, local sourcing, better meat, sustainable seafood or low waste.  As part of this initiative I helped them on the low carbon footprint part of this, looking at a range of recipes that would have a lower (or higher) carbon footprint. 

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The really interesting thing about this work was the variation in recipes and, whilst the vegan or vegetarian dishes were all the lower carbon footprint dishes, there was a big gap between these and “the meat dishes”.  Fewer dishes seemed to be embracing “less meat” for individual dishes, which is in no way a criticism of the recipes, more a reflection on an opportunity that the industry might not yet be making the most of.  A curry with 60g of chicken is more sustainable than a curry with 120g of chicken – it does not always have to be vegan.  I also saw that a number of dishes that were proposed by chefs as low carbon footprint did in fact have higher carbon footprints because of the dairy content – we often forget the role dairy has in the prevalence of livestock in our food systems.

And whilst of course recipes using more meat do tend to have higher carbon footprints, if the meat has come from a farm with high animal welfare then this is in itself a step in the right direction.  The goal really is for us to use “less but better” meat rather than trying to unrealistically remove meat, fish and dairy from our diets, as well as celebrating local, buying sustainable seafood, eating healthier more plant-based meals, and cutting food waste.

At IntoFood I use carbon footprint as one of the KPIs for sustainability because climate change is one of the defining challenges of our time.  But I also know that this needs to be seen within the wider context of these other issues. Yes, we need to serve much more fruit and vegetables, less meat, fish and dairy, and avoid air-freighted food and unnecessary packaging.  But we also need to focus on the quality of the meat, fish and dairy that we are using.  Having a low carbon footprint is a good way of putting real numbers on what you are doing, especially if you combine it with high animal welfare, less waste and the use of certified sustainable produce.  So well done to the Sustainable Restaurant Association for putting these issues into context in what may turn out to be the first real attempt to get the industry to think about recipe development in a way that captures the complexity of sustainability challenges.

References

1.       Vermeulen, S. J. et al. (2012) Climate Change and Food Systems. Annual Review of Environment and Resources. 37. p.195-222

2.       www.unwater.org/fileadmin/user_upload/unwater_new/docs/water_for_food.pdf

3.       Kissinger, G., et al. (2012) Drivers of Deforestation and Forest Degradation: A Synthesis Report for REDD+ Policymakers. Lexeme Consulting, Vancouver Canada, August 2012

4.       WWF (2015) Living Blue Planet Report

5.       FAO (2014) Food waste footprint. Full cost accounting (www.fao.org/3/a-i3991e.pdf)

6.       Alexandratos, N. and J. Bruinsma. (2012) World agriculture towards 2030/2050: the 2012 revision. ESA Working paper No. 12-03. Rome, FAO

It's not just what you eat, but what your food eats.

Or... why animal feed needs to be a key indicator for sustainable foodservice.

Most sensible people agree that animal products have a disproportionate impact on natural resources, climate change and, in certain cases, our own health.  And whilst most metrics for understanding your impacts tend to make beef look like the bad boy of food sustainability, there is also a consensus that we need to reduce our intake of animal products in general, and eat more fruit, vegetables and healthy grains.  What is less clear is how we decide what meat/fish/dairy we should be eating, even when we are eating less (you can watch a short explanation of what "Less But Better" meat really means here).  For example greenhouse gas emissions always make beef, lamb and cheese look like a bad choice.  The same goes for land-use requirements, when "land-use" does not differentiate between cropland versus grassland and so on. 

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So this is all helpful to give us metrics to reduce our overall meat intake, but it does not help us make decisions between and within types of meat.  Is pork better than chicken?  Is this chicken better than that chicken?  Here we use data from FAO as a baseline to illustrate how knowing the type and source of animal feed can help us make informed decisions.

Impacts from different types of animal feed

Firstly, some definitions.  Here I use two key impacts:

- land-use change carbon impact, estimating the carbon emissions from deforestation etc to clear land for growing animal feed.  You could also see this as a very rough proxy for biodiversity loss, albeit with some caveats.

competitive land-use, estimating the land-use requirement to produce animal feed when that land could have been used to produce food that could be eaten directly by humans.  This matters in a world of limited agricultural land, growing populations and persistent hunger in some regions.

In this article I use three different types of feed to show the different impacts:

- soy from South America.  High land-use change impacts; high competitive land-use (assuming the land is now competing with human food since it has been changed from a natural habitat).

- grains from Europe.  Low or no land-use change impacts; high competitive land-use.

- ecological leftovers (eg grass, byproducts from agriculture that are not suitable for human consumption). Low or no land-use change; low competitive land-use.

Bear in mind that these types of feed have different feed efficiencies (ie the conversion rate of feed to meat) with ecological leftovers being generally associated with lower feed efficiency.  So the below scenarios are simply models to illustrate how we can use this as a principle to go "Beyond Carbon" in terms of indicators for more sustainable meat choices.

This chicken or that chicken?

Imagine that two staff restaurants both serve a chicken casserole for five hundred guests each, using 100g of chicken per serving.  So each kitchen buys 50kg of chicken breast.  Restaurant A uses chicken that has been fed an even split between soy from Brazil and grains from Europe.  Restaurant B uses chicken that has been fed only grains from Europe and ecological leftovers.  Based on FAO data for land-use change, crop yields and taking an average feed efficiency of 3:1 (3 kg of feed produces 1kg of meat), Restaurant A will have an additional land-use change carbon impact the same as driving over 1000km in a family car, whereas Restaurant B will arguable have no additional land-use change climate carbon impact.  For competitive land-use, Restaurant A's chicken meat would need over twice as much cropland than the chicken meat from Restaurant B.  So the chicken in Restaurant B is demonstrably a better choice.

This beef or that chicken?

The next day Restaurant A serves chicken (again... but today it's a curry), but Restaurant B serves a beef wok.  The same volumes as before, and Restaurant A uses the same chicken supplier, but Restaurant B uses beef that has been fed only ecological leftovers.  Classic LCA research shows that beef has a carbon footprint of around 25kg of greenhouse gases per kg of meat (give or take a bit), and chicken normally comes in around 5kg of greenhouse gases per kg of meat.  However, this normally assumes a low impact for land-use change carbon impact for the chicken, so in this case (based on FAO data for soy from South America) the actual carbon footprint of Restaurant A's chicken could increase to around 9kg of greenhouse gases per kg of meat.  It is still lower than the beef, but the gap has been closed a bit.  Note that we have not included the potential for carbon sequestration on the land the cattle may be grazing or indeed put a value on the carbon stock of that land if the carbon is stable, so the beef could in fact be no worse that the chicken based on carbon footprint alone.  And then let's look at competitive land-use: the beef is fed on ecological land-use so has virtually zero competitive land-use requirements, but the chicken's cropland requirement would be very significant (around 500 metres squared of cropland, loosely calculated from feed efficiency rates and FAO yield data). 

And remember this is just one day in the life of two restaurants.  Multiple that fifty times and we're still nowhere near the volume of chicken being served on a daily basis, even for a medium-sized foodservice business.  So the beef has a higher carbon footprint, but the chicken is putting more pressure on limited cropland, and in this case, deforestation.  Are we done with the "just eat less beef" thing now?

Animal feed as an indicator

These scenarios are just examples, using FAO data with a big old bundle of assumption thrown in.  It is not a peer-reviewed research paper and it of course does not mean your chicken has this impact, or your beef is not impacting competitive land-use (it almost certainly is).  But it does show how understanding what your food eats is really important for understanding the impacts of what you eat, and what decisions you can make to reduce your impacts.  Eat less meat, but eat better meat.  Animal feed is one of the factors you need to consider, and IntoFood can help you start to understand this.

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.

want our free checklists toolbox for food sustainability projects?

What the future might hold: Food service in 2025?

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In a staff restaurant, somewhere near here, 2025...

Wednesday morning 8.30am, April 30th.  Weather: cloudy and cold.

Executive chef Maria checks the app for meals ordered, showing how many guests are due to eat lunch today, and who has pre-ordered the hot main dishes, salads and take-away.  Her team uses this to plan the production for the day, combined with historical data showing them how much food from the salad bar and deli station is normally eaten on a cloudy day in April, the average portion size per guest, and how much is normally wasted. 

The hot main dishes are designed to provide 30% of the daily recommended volumes of all key nutrients, and stay within the suggested carbon, water and resource-use budget per person.  They do not always stick to these limits, because not all guests like the same thing, and Maria and her team have license to create their own menu plans as long as it keeps them within reasonable boundaries.   They also receive the allergy and nutritional alerts for the guests who have specific dietary requirements, so they can ensure every guest has a good lunch option.

By developing food concepts that are optimised for health and environment, and by minimising waste, Maria has been able to cut environmental impacts by 40% in the last 2 years, without having to make drastic changes to the way she runs the kitchen.  She just has better information, especially now that guests can provide accurate feedback on the lunch app.  Back in the old days, she never really knew which dishes were most popular, so there was always a bit of guesswork as to whether new dishes would fly or not.  Maria can now predict pretty accurately which new ideas will be popular by looking at the guest satisfaction history.  If you're going to try a new dish, fail early and fail gently.

She is even trialing RoboSoup, the first product designed for large scale catering that takes data from their stock control and creates soup recipes that will use up any food at risk of going out of date.  The soups are pretty good too, and this could be extended to the salad bar and delis soon, as well as providing take-away suggestions.  The "food to go" trend of 2018 & 2019 didn't really last, but the remnants of it can be seen in the small but regular number of guests who want their lunch to take-away.

Wednesday morning 9.30am

In his office, Ed receives an alert on the lunch app asking him if he would like to choose his lunch for tomorrow.  He doesn't always choose, because sometimes he needs to be elsewhere at short notice, but because he has joined the company's Green & Mean cycling group, he has signed up to get recommendations for the healthiest and most "planet smart" choices for each day.  To be honest, Ed's not too sure what all the different metrics are, but the gizmo that shows him which dishes will give him the biggest nutrient bang for its environmental buck does the job.

Wednesday lunch

Ed gets an alert showing 30 seconds queuing time for lunch, so head downstairs to the restaurant, scans his smart phone and collects his lunch.  After lunch he swipes right for sweet potato curry, but swipes left for the root vegetable panna cotta, and later that afternoon Maria gets all of the feedback on her phone for that day's service.  She was right, the root vegetable panna cotta was a step too far.

Wednesday 2pm

 Maria needs to make her food order for next week and she still does most of her ordering for twice weekly deliveries.  The really fresh produce from the indoor salad gardens can be delivered every day by drone, but she only uses this for the ultra perishable produce and at certain times of year when the ordering system shows her it will be a better choice.  For everything else she gets recommendations based on previous orders, the time of year, best price options, and which producers have updated their sustainability data.  Apparently this is all provided on the Foodchain, which is a bit like the system they used for bitcoin before the crash but it deals with food not money.  Maria doesn't really care how it works as long as it helps her make good ordering decisions from the different suppliers she uses.  She knows really talented chefs who still have their recipes in their heads so that they can be creative every day, but even they use the Foodchain for making purchasing decisions because it can all be done on their smart phones.

Because it is also the end of the month, she gets her sustainability report for the food they have bought, sold, and wasted for April.  Good news; she is 8% better than March for total procurement, with 99.2% production effectiveness.  Guest food waste is down to 10g per guest as well.  Her food costs are within budget, the nutritional quality of food served in April is within the recommended ranges, and they only used 80% of their carbon, water and resource budget.  Still, she's done her six hour day, so anything else can wait until tomorrow.

 

In an office in oslo, 5th january 2018...

You may not think all of the things that happened above are (a) on the cards or (b) will be used by everyone, but the reality is that by combining better information with human talent, we can create a food service industry that is a cause for good in ways that are measurable and evidence-based.  And in fact the underlying technology for a lot of the things I described are in some shape or form already here, or at least not that far away.  The question is, how far down the road are you and how far do you want to go?  I know caterers who get accurate daily waste reports, who know the environmental impacts of their recipes (at least on some metrics), and most caterers have "level 1" nutritional and allergy data.  Guest feedback systems exist, and we are learning more about communicating healthy and sustainable diets every day.  Indoor food production systems are all the rage in the urban agriculture world and drone delivery is not that far away.  Caterers can already get monthly and quarterly data showing their sustainability across multiple dimensions (clients of IntoFood can at any rate), and a "blockchain for food" has been successfully tested for food safety.  The gaps are only really in some data areas, scale, and software integration.  Seven years to get there, so who'd bet against it?

PS - with apologies to fans of root vegetables and panna cotta, and soup gurus the world over.

PPS - I checked, 30th April 2025 will be a Wednesday.

Power to (and of) the people!

It is a bit of a corporate mantra isn't it?  "We are only as strong as our people".  Or for Richard Branson: "Clients do not come first. Employees come first".  All well and good, no arguments there from me.  I am not here to argue whether organisations walk the walk or not, but I do think I can argue that, for sustainability, there is no doubting the power of employee engagement.  Sure, you need to measure and manage your impact against goals, but in my experience a critical factor is also about the people, and how they engage your customers.  Why is this especially important in sustainability?  Because shifts to a more sustainable way of doing things involve change by definition, and normally require a new way of looking at things.  And change is always our biggest challenge.

In food service the need is clear.  I have seen food waste initiatives struggle because of a lack of leadership, and new menu concepts die because of lack of engagement from front of house staff or resistance from key members in a kitchen  But I have also seen 25% reductions in climate change impacts, 20% increases in servings of fruit and veg, 50% reductions in food waste, with both happy teams and happy customers.  Part of this is down to smart solutions, but a big part is down to the people.

Organisations, NGOs and advocacy groups are latching on to this too.  The Chef's Manifesto, part of SDG2 Advocacy Hub, is a great example of getting chefs together and creating awareness and solutions.  As they say, working together we can help deliver a better food system for all.  When it comes to food waste, renowned food waste reducers Winnow are running a chefs campaign For The Love Of Food, focusing on food waste.  Again, getting chefs talking and sharing solutions.  At IntoFood we have recently taken a very concrete "skills-based" approach.  In the autumn we ran a set of surveys and interviews with chefs in order to learn more about what they knew about food sustainability.  While the sample size was small, the message was clear.  Only 5% of chefs felt they had a good enough understanding of the environmental impacts of food.  Indeed, the majority said they wanted to know more about key impacts such as food waste, climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean habitat loss, deforestation, and how to apply this knowledge to their jobs.  These are the sort of issues that research is clear on: we need change.

Start 'em young for sustainability training!

Start 'em young for sustainability training!

Why does this matter?  Because if you really want to succeed in sustainable food service, you cannot just tell people what to do.  You need to engage them in the "why", not just the "how" and "what".  And you cannot just pin all your hopes on the chefs.  Like I said, I have seen initiatives fail because middle managers assumed the on-site staff would just nail it, or the front of house team totally disengaged from what the kitchen team were trying to achieve.  But I have also seen restaurant managers walking around talking with guests about food sustainability, and inspiring people to go on that journey with them.  It's not just down to the chefs.  So we need to give people across the industry a good understanding of why it matters and what they can do in their jobs, every single day, to be part of the solution.  All the way down from the CEO to the dish wash team.  And if you really want to create change... start 'em young with more focus at catering colleges, schools and apprenticeships.  Food sustainability should be a core education for food service professionals at all levels and all ages.

Food service will benefit from this on a business level too.  The people who understand the issues (the "why") are not only more likely to implement initiatives successfully, but they are also more likely to find new solutions on their own.  Which means you have a greater opportunity to let them get on with it, rather than always checking that they are doing what you asked them to do.  I have not seen any research on staff turnover, but my gut feeling is staff that feel part of a cause for good are more likely to stay.  I know I would anyway.  So we need to give power to the people in order to benefit from the power of the people.

IntoFood helps food service businesses with two key things: reducing food-related environmental impacts and training their staff.  You can see more about our software solutions for measuring and managing impacts here, and our online sustainability training courses at The School of Sustainable Food Service.

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 tech trends that can help food service to become more sustainable and profitable

Tech and food sustainability: the right data in the right place at the right time

Food systems contribute around 30% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, are responsible for 70% of water consumption, cause deforestation and both terrestrial and marine biodiversity loss, and yet about a third of the food that we produce is never actually eaten.  Added to that, food demand is predicted to increase globally by a further 50% before 2050.  I think we can call that an unsustainable system.

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Food service businesses can take a leading role here, and that is where technology and data can help.  Smart systems can allow customers and food service providers to understand their impacts in terms of menus, waste, procurement and sales.  This can give businesses insights that go beyond profit and loss and allow sustainability to be built into business processes.  The key is to have the right data in the right place at the right time, so that people can make decisions from a triple bottom-line perspective: environment, health and economy.  How, for example, can a restaurant serve meals that minimise environmental impacts, optimise nutrition, and are still profitable?  And still delight their guests?

Here are 3 trends I see helping to drive sustainable food service:

1.       Sustainability data in kitchens.  Understanding the impacts of your recipes, your production, your waste.  And joining it all up so you can really aim for sustainability.  Companies like Winnow Solutions (www.winnowsolutions.com) are nailing the waste issue, and my own company IntoFood (www.intofood.no) is tackling some of this from a recipe and procurement angle.

2.       Sustainability reporting that is data-driven and research-based.  Integrated reporting can apply sustainability to standard KPIs (revenue, sales, costs and so on).  This allows food service businesses to understand how their food concepts are performing from a business perspective as well as a sustainability perspective, and adds value in a number of ways.  Firstly, unless you are measuring your sustainability, you cannot really communicate it and, in the future, your brand is going to be tied more and more to your sustainability.  It also allows businesses to identify which sites are high performers for both the financial and environmental bottom line, and then build best practices across the business.

3.       Communication with customers.  We are only really dipping our toes in sustainability communication, but new apps and platforms are coming to the fore where customers can make sustainable choices.  Customer-facing portals will allow guests to understand more about their food choices and, when applied to a pre-ordering solution, restaurants can encourage guests to make sustainable choices and simultaneously benefit from pre-sales information.  This helps front of house to manage bookings and helps the kitchens to plan their production better.  Customer feedback can then help to develop menu plans that move continually in a more sustainable direction. 

Which all then looks a bit like this (if tech folk ran restaurants!) :

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The hunger for sustainable solutions seems to be growing in both the industry and with consumers, so it is key that both research and technology come together to create credible solutions.  Many of these solutions exist in some shape or form, but they are not yet very well integrated.  It is this integration that will give the full picture.

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. 

Case study: ISS Catering cut their carbon footprint by 10% in 6 months

At IntoFood we see our role as giving caterers the right data, in the right place, at the right time.  The best bit is when they take this, run with it, and cut their environmental impacts.

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I'm not going to throw a spoiler at you, just watch the film about how ISS Catering, Norway, have used IntoFood to become even more sustainable.  They take the approach that "meat is a treat" and, whilst animal products are an important part of a healthy food offering, getting a better balance between animal-based and plant-based foods is both healthy and more sustainable.

Oh go on then! Spoiler alert: 10% lower carbon emissions, a 12% increase in servings of fruit and vegetables, and on budget.  

 Proud of them.

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.