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Institutional Food You Can Stomach

By Ali Hart

Bon Appétit Management Company, an institutional food service company, has 400 locations in 31 states, 10,000 employees and $550+ million in revenues. And last week the company welcomed its 1,000th small farmer into its “Farm to Fork” program. Yes, you read that correctly.

Yesterday at the Sustainable Food Summit at San Francisco’s Ritz Carlton, Maisie Greenawalt of Bon Appétit walked us through how her company was able to implement an array of sustainability programs that are changing the way people view institutional food, or “onsite restaurants” as they like to call them.

When the company first introduced the idea of partnering with small farmers, it was told that it couldn’t be done (by the small farmers themselves). In fact, one reportedly said, “You don’t deserve my melons.” It’s not surprising that he didn’t want to sell to a company that would be serving the fruit of his labor in cafeterias but you know how this story ends. A local Bon Appétit chef repeatedly visited this farmer at 5am until he agreed to come to the kitchen and watch the staff savor his melon. Needless to say, the persistence paid off and helped to launch the companies “Farm to Fork” program.

Bon Appétit also sources sustainable seafood. This initiative involved convincing both chefs and customers that it was the right decision. A taste test between farmed and wild salmon helped to convince both that the cost differential was justified. (The chefs also saw photos of farmed salmon covered in lice.)  Through a partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, Bon Appétit only sources approved fish. Interestingly, the company does buy Chinese tilapia – on Seafood Watch’s red list – with the support of the watchdog. By purchasing from one particular producer who farms sustainably, both organizations are rewarding good practices.

For one day each year, the company removes meat from its menus and, according to Greenawalt, people notice. Overall, Bon Appétit has reduced purchases of beef by 33% and only sources the hormone- and antibiotic-free variety. The company has also reduced food waste by 25%, 40% of which is diverted to composting and pig feed. Without knowing hard numbers, it’s difficult to ascertain the true impact of these percentages, but it’s encouraging to see these efforts in place.

This case study is proof that companies can lead change in seemingly slow-moving industries. The keys to getting customer buy-in for Bon Appétit are: giving them better alternatives, showing them they’re not losing anything by switching, and partnering with values aligned institutions.

What’s next for the company? Look for a major initiative on factory farms this year. I know I will be.


Ali Hart is a sustainable communications and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and storytelling. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to make sustainability inconveniently fun.

Ali Hart headshot

Ali Hart is a media strategist and content producer helping change agents harness the power of humor. From developing creative TV and web concepts to managing comedians to strategizing grassroots campaigns, she has devoted herself to exploring which messages and messengers inspire behavior change for good. Ali holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, where she currently laughs.

Read more stories by Ali Hart