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Interview: Brandon Tidwell on Darden Restaurants' 2013 Citizenship Update


Earlier this year, Darden Restaurants, the Fortune 500 restaurant giant known for brands like Red Lobster and Olive Garden, released its 2013 Citizenship Update — which includes some pretty impressive numbers related to sustainability, culture and corporate social responsibility (CSR). With its latest report, the world’s largest full-service restaurant operator is making it clear that sustainability is a priority.

Thanks to efforts that have been in place since 2009, Darden achieved its water reduction goal of 15 percent per-restaurant two years early. The company also plans to shrink energy use by 15 percent per-restaurant by 2015 (compared to a 2008 baseline), which it is well on the way to achieving with a 12.3 percent drop as of last year, according the update.

As of 2013, the company's Darden Harvest program — which sends fresh food that isn't served to community food banks across the U.S. and Canada — has donated more than 66 million pounds of food with a fair market value of nearly $600 million since its inception in 2004. The company is also making waves in sustainable seafood sourcing, an increasingly important issue as ocean health concerns mount. Last year Darden bought 100 percent of its shrimp, 85 percent of its salmon, and 80 percent of its tilapia and catfish according to Global Aquaculture Alliance Standards.

3p sat down with Brandon Tidwell, manager of sustainability for Darden Restaurants, to talk about the latest Citizenship Update and where the company is headed when it comes to sustainability.

TriplePundit: The Darden Harvest program is one of your oldest sustainability programs, and the company recently surpassed 66 million pounds of food donations. What can you tell us about how the program is going?

Brandon Tidwell: The program continues to be a real success point for the restaurant companies that are engaged. We brought Yard House and Eddie V's into the program last year, so those two brands have been integrated and are now participating. Last year we donated around 11 million pounds of food. Given that trajectory, I'd say now we're at about 73 million pounds that have been donated.

It's an integrated process for us and something that our employees really like because they know the food is going to help serve the needs of people in their local community. One of the things that we're working on in the last couple of weeks — and we talked a little bit about this in the report but we didn't disclose too much — is piloting some organic recycling opportunities at three of our restaurants based in Kissimmee, Florida.

3p: Sounds great. Can you tell us more?

BT: The work there is really about when we can't donate the food for human consumption, which is the preference of the EPA, how do we divert food that can go potentially for either animal feed or anaerobic digestion? So the particular project we're working on in Kissimmee is diverting food that is then processed and turned into feed for both chickens and cows.

We're trying to see how this fits within our operations, what the service levels need to be and how we can adapt our other waste services accordingly. Based on this three-month trial, we hope to do a lot of learning and begin to look at marketplaces first and foremost where [organic waste diversion] is becoming regulated, like in Massachusetts, but then also in markets where you're starting to see services become available, such as even in Nashville.

We're hoping to eventually have one pilot at each of our brands — LongHorn Steakhouse, Olive Garden and Bahama Breeze — and set up a model that can be replicated in different restaurants across the system.

3p: Have you found that the infrastructure for organic waste recycling has expanded to the point that you can now consider it on a broader scale?

BT: Yes, I think what we've seen is there is an emerging infrastructure for hauling and processing. There's a lot of equipment that's now on the marketplace that can actually process the stuff onsite, but the challenge is that our restaurants are built so efficiently that we don't really have the space for onsite systems. So we've got to be able to identify the hauling structure and make sure that what that food is being used for is productive.

It's coming up in pockets in some markets. Like I said, in Massachusetts it's becoming a regulation to properly dispose of organics. In other markets, people simply see a business opportunity. We want to try to align with those emerging businesses and see what we can do to help meet the needs we have, while at the same time addressing the concern about getting as much of our waste out of the landfill and into more useful purposes.

3p: According to the Citizenship Update, Darden’s environmental efforts have saved the company more than $20 million since 2009. Is this trend of reaping both financial and environmental benefits something that you expect to continue as you expand these programs?

BT: It's a really great question. With anything, we are always looking at the financial model. With most of our energy-saving programs, like the Energy Manager program which we've now expanded from 10 pilots to 60, we're seeing between 5 and 10 percent energy savings either on natural gas or electricity.

There's an initial upfront cost, but the payback period is one that shows a definite ROI and over time will demonstrate a lower energy cost for that restaurant ... These things take time and they take some intensive research and collaboration across literally four or five different departments in the company, but everyone is committed to seeing this play out.

3p: Can you briefly speak to some of the water-reduction programs described in your most recent report?

BT: A lot of what was happening in water happened early on, I would say in 2009 and 2010, and we're now seeing the fruition of that labor. Our equipment team is dedicated to finding solutions that will help reduce our water, and our operations teams are looking at ways that we can reduce water in our overall day-to-day. Between those two initiatives and those efforts, we were able to see a significant reduction in our water usage.

If we think ahead, I think the question is going to be: Can we capture more water? Is there more opportunity? Because cooking and preparing meals is a water-intensive process to begin with, and you also have a lot of food safety concerns and want your dishes to be washed well. It's a balance you have to play out: How much water can we actually reduce while maintaining our commitment to food safety and quality?

3p: What kind of challenges do you face when rolling out sustainability and CSR initiatives on such a large scale, across thousands of restaurants in the U.S. and Canada?

BT: What we used to do is ask: What are the technologies that we can apply across the brands? But then you have restaurants of a different age and equipment of a different age. We've got over 2,100 restaurants, some of which are more than 30 years old. Obviously, the newer a restaurant is, the newer the technology and most likely the more efficient a restaurant is compared to a restaurant built 25 years ago.

One of our projects over the last 12 months has been partnering with a third-party provider to look at the dynamic nature of managing 2,100 restaurants and assess how they're behaving related to our energy, waste and water goals and where the best opportunities are. Rather than trying to do something broad-based, we might focus particularly on markets where we think we have the most ability to capture savings.

It's about tailoring ... and making sure we're maximizing those opportunities, so we can show the financial ROI to our teams and at the same time being able to bring to market the technologies that are going to make that happen. It does require a more prescriptive and more surgical approach. I think we've been able to capture a lot of what we can do from a purely brand perspective. Now, we're getting into a more surgical way of thinking about energy and water management.

3p: Can you tell us anything about developments that we can expect to see in the next year?

BT: A lot of it really has to do with what's going on in our supply chain. The goals that we set for 2015 and the focus that we've had since 2009 was first and foremost about taking care of what's going on within our four walls and getting our natural resource management under control.

Now, the question that we're getting from external stakeholders as well as even guests is: How are you managing these issues within the supply chain? How was this product sourced and brought to market? So we're working with the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and the Global Seafood Sustainability Initiative to improve the sustainability of those commodity groups and move those industries forward. Internally, we're also starting to invest in supplier management tools that allow us to get better data from suppliers and improve traceability.

Images courtesy of Darden Restaurants

Chart courtesy of U.S. EPA

Mary Mazzoni headshotMary Mazzoni

Mary Mazzoni is the senior editor of TriplePundit. She is also the co-host of 3BL Forum: Brands Taking Stands LIVE! and the producer of 3p’s sponsored editorial series. She is based in Philadelphia and loves to travel, spend time outdoors and experiment with vegetarian recipes in the kitchen. Along with TriplePundit, her recent work can be found in Conscious Company and VICE’s Motherboard.

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