One of the biggest trends in the restaurant industry right now is sustainability. Consumers want to know that the food they eat is responsibly sourced and that restaurants they eat at are minimizing the damage their operations do to the environment.
A big part of our job in the restaurant industry is to give guests what they want. That means restaurants are looking for ways to become more sustainable, and since profit margins in the restaurant industry already tend to be so thin, there’s real incentive to do so in the most cost-effective ways possible.
There are many ways to make your restaurant’s operations more green, and not all of them cost a fortune. Here are 12 sustainable practices you can incorporate at your restaurant, all as cost-effectively as possible.
1. Take advantage of seasonal products
Why do it: One of the easiest and best ways to make your restaurant more sustainable is to rotate your menu offerings depending on what’s in season. There are so many benefits, including food that’s in season is at its freshest. Guests’ mouths will water at offerings like “farm fresh asparagus” and (for those in Toronto) “Niagara peaches” on your menu.
What it will cost you: Using seasonal produce, cheese, meats and more can actually save your restaurant money, because these items are in abundance during their natural harvesting season, which drives their costs down.
2. Green your supply chain
Why do it: Many restaurants employ vendors that ship products hundreds if not thousands of miles to reach all their customers. Not only can shipping long distances drive up product prices, it produces an excess of unnecessary carbon emissions that are hard on the environment.
Take a look at your supply chain and see if it’s possible to localize it. Odds are you have local vendors who can provide you with products that don’t have to travel long distances to get to you.
What it will cost you: Local vendors may not be the cheapest available, but they might offer bulk deals on local goods that allow you to save on staples and large orders. Buying locally should save you money on shipping costs, as well.
3. Be cognizant of where you get your seafood
Why do it: Overfishing and unsustainable fishing practices are great dangers to the health of our oceans. If your restaurant serves seafood, you’ll have to be extra vigilant about making sure it comes from sustainable sources. Always follow guidelines for serving sustainable seafood, like those released by the Marine Conservation Society or the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.
What it will cost you: Sustainable seafood can be more expensive, but shopping what’s in season or what’s available locally can help keep costs down.
4. Serve more vegetarian and vegan options
Why do it: You may have seen recent headlines about how reducing meat and dairy consumption is the best way individuals can reduce their negative impact on the planet. Your restaurant can reduce its impact by replacing a meat option or two with more vegetarian and vegan dishes or at least offering a substitution.
What it will cost you: Meat and dairy aren’t just some of the least sustainable ingredients on your menu — they’re also some of the most expensive. Since produce costs significantly less than meat, vegetarian and vegan menu items can have higher profit margins than meat dishes, meaning this may actually save you money.
5. Grow some of your own produce
Why do it: Another trend in restaurants of late is onsite gardens. Chicago’s Uncommon Ground, home of the first certified organic rooftop garden in the U.S., is proof that no matter how urban your restaurant’s location, there’s a way to grow at least some of your own produce. You can choose exactly what ingredients you grow, and it doesn’t get more local than your own backyard — literally.
What it will cost you: If you don’t have a green thumb, you may have to hire extra help to tend your garden. But any costs for labor and supplies will be offset by what you save by growing produce instead of buying it.
6. Reclaim your decor
Why do it: When it comes to decorating your restaurant, not everything needs to be brand new. Source used linens, dishware, lighting fixtures and wall decorations from thrift shops, auctions and other restaurants that are closing.
What it will cost you: This one will likely save you money. Used items are typically sold at a discount, compared to paying the prices of brand new items. Reclaiming your restaurant decor will save items from going in the trash, and save you cash.
7. Buy top-quality appliances
Why do it: While it may seem like it’s more sustainable to purchase used appliances to save them from going to a landfill, it may actually be better for the environment to look for newer, if not brand new, kitchen fittings. Newer appliances are more energy efficient and easier to repair if they break down, meaning they won’t need to be replaced any time soon.
What it will cost you: Newer, higher quality appliances cost more up front than older, used or cheap ones. But quality lasts, and new appliances cost less in energy usage, so the return on investment (ROI) on more expensive, new appliances is higher over time.
8. Consume less water and electricity
Why do it: Saving on water and energy is an easy way to make your restaurant more sustainable. You can install timers on lights, open windows on nice days rather than run the air conditioning, and install low-flow toilets and sinks in your restrooms.
What it will cost you: There may be an upfront cost if you choose to install energy- and water-saving methods like light timers, LED lightbulbs and low-flow sinks and toilets, but the savings on your future energy and water bills will offset those costs.
9. Cut down on waste
Why do it: Many restaurants create far more waste than they need to. Food scraps, leftovers and other waste that goes into the trash can likely be saved, repurposed or avoided. If you find yourself throwing away a lot of expired food, you can keep better inventory and order less. If your guests aren’t finishing their meals, you can reduce portion sizes. If you have a lot of scraps, you can use them to make homemade stocks and sauces.
What it will cost you: Cutting down on waste will save your restaurant money, not cost it.
10. Join a recycling program
Why do it: Most cities in the U.S. and Canada now offer some kind of recycling program, and tons of restaurant waste, from food packaging to glass wine and liquor bottles, can be recycled instead of thrown away.
What it will cost you: Many recycling programs are free, but some do cost small fees to join. You can find out what’s available in your area at Earth 911.
11. Green your cleaning regimen
Why do it: The chemicals contained in a lot of common cleaners are harmful to the environment. They contribute to smog, pollute water and can harm animals. A relatively simple way to reduce your restaurant’s negative impact on the Earth is to use more environmentally friendly cleaners.
What it will cost you: Because of the popularity of sustainable cleaning products, many of them are comparable in cost to the products you may already use. You may also be able to negotiate the price for more expensive products if you buy them in bulk or have a good existing relationship with a vendor who supplies them.
12. Ditch one-use plastics (as much as possible)
Why do it: You could go big like A&W Canada and turn all of your remaining plastic straws into a giant sculpture announcing that your restaurant is ditching single-use plastics. Being more subtle about it is OK too, but it’s still a worthwhile goal. A&W’s move alone kept an estimated 82 million straws from ending up in bodies of water and landfills. Your restaurant could contribute to this environmentally-friendly trend while also saving significantly on otherwise needless plastic straw purchases.
What it will cost you: If executed correctly, this move could actually save you money in the long run. While it’s true that straw alternatives individually cost more than cheap plastic straws, there are ways around this. First, simply offer your guests drinks in glasses. If they really need a straw (or if you have drinks like milkshakes), then use recyclable and reusable straw alternatives like biodegradable paper, bamboo, pasta, or even metal.
13. Advertise your restaurant's sustainable practices
Why do it: Like we said above, today’s restaurant guests want to see sustainability when they eat out. Let them know what you’re doing to help the environment by including it in your marketing efforts.
What it will cost you: Advertising your sustainable practices doesn’t cost any more than what you already spend on marketing. You can use social media, email lists and other marketing practices you should already be taking advantage of. Plus, recent surveys have shown that 60 percent of consumers want to seek out sustainable restaurants, and over two-thirds of them are willing to pay more to dine at sustainable eateries. Going green can attract new loyal fans and give you room to increase prices if you need to offset the costs of doing so.