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Defining Sustainability in the Restaurant Industry

Shivani Ganguly | Monday October 1st, 2012 | 1 Comment

tomato goat cheese saladWithout a doubt, U.S. consumers want sustainable food, and demand is growing quickly. According to the Organic Trade Association, the market for organics alone has gone from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010.

Interest in local food is also on the rise. According to the USDA, as of mid-2011, there were 7,175 farmers markets in the U.S, a 17 percent increase from 2010. Restaurants like Lyfe, a new fast casual chain launched by former McDonalds‘ execs and Mission Local Eatery in San Francisco are leading the charge towards more sustainable restaurant options. But as the market continues to grow, these restaurants and others like them struggle to define sustainability for their customers and suppliers. Restaurateurs and consumers often don’t know how to weigh the various attributes that fall into the sustainability bucket.

For example, is it better to eat something locally grown that isn’t organic? With so many considerations, from food miles to pesticide use to the impact on local economies, it’s tough to say. Local usually wins out for me, and it tends to be touted on restaurant menus as well. But it’s important to remember that smaller growers sometimes forego organic certification due to cost, so it’s worth asking your server how the veggies were grown if you’re concerned. Of course, it’s hard for restaurants in most places to guarantee that everything is local and/or organic—they need to have a reliable supply of products at a cost that doesn’t break the bank.

And it goes beyond just local and organic considerations. Eating seasonally is preferable because it takes less energy to produce and often is more nutrient rich then the same type of vegetables grown indoors or in foreign climates, according to FastCasual.com. (Plus, it tastes better!)

Not to mention ethically produced, healthy, green, GMO-free, and eco-friendly. Sustainability in restaurants can encompass everything from how waste is managed, to how employees are treated, to how the food impacts the health and well-being of its patrons. What sustainable attributes are most important to you when you’re choosing a “sustainable” restaurant?

Image credit: wine me up, Flickr


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  • Randy

    Very helpful article. I DO get confused with all the various guidelines around sustainability. Maybe we need a checklist, similar to what this article offers.