The American restaurant industry generated $825 billion in sales last year and employed more than 15 million people. Despite their collective financial clout, individual restaurants operate on slim profit margins. Constrained by small spaces and high expenses, restaurants often struggle to implement new systems that can lessen their impact on the environment and the communities they serve.
Composting in a restaurant, for example, means making space for separate bins and finding a waste management company that can handle organic material. Donating food offers its own set of challenges when fridges are already cramped with product that is being sold to customers. Still, as customer-driven businesses, restaurants can adapt their strategies to changing values and demands. This means diners have the ability to influence the way their favorite restaurants do business. Here are just a few ways to make your voice heard when choosing your next meal.
Roughly 40 percent of all food produced in the U.S. goes to waste. Local composting ordinances reroute wasted food from landfills while encouraging individuals and businesses to take a second look at what they throw in the organic cart. In 2009, San Francisco passed legislation that mandates everyone (residents and businesses alike) to compost. Trash is separated into three bins: blue for recyclables, green for compost and black for landfill. Blue and green bins cost less monthly than black bins, so it makes financial sense to separate waste and minimize landfill-bound material. The city is targeting zero waste by 2020.
New York City took on a voluntary initiative in 2013 that's similarly aimed at reducing the amount of food waste its commercial businesses send to landfills. However, restaurants faced several issues in complying with the program as many have crammed kitchens and cannot afford space to add extra bins. Compost laws that provide a financial incentive are more likely to be followed. Additionally, when more customers choose sustainable restaurants over wasteful ones, restaurants will be more likely to find ways around composting and recycling challenges.
Chef Jeff Miller leads Mayanoki, the only 100 percent sustainable sushi restaurant in New York City. He accounts this accomplishment to serving seafood that does little to no harm to the environment or the species. Bluefin tuna, for example, makes an appearance on nearly every reputable sushi restaurant menu. It is also a threatened species, with the southern bluefin tuna classified as critically endangered. Mayanoki does not serve typical sushi-grade fish, like bluefin tuna. Instead, Miller uses inventive techniques to make invasive fish species shine on the menu.
The small sushi bar also obliges by the seasonality of ingredients with changing menus, a recent feature of many other environmentally-conscious restaurants. Choosing restaurants with seasonally-based menus guarantees fresh, sustainably-sourced ingredients in your meal.
This strategy is especially effective in self-service, cafeteria-style settings—and case studies show that the way eateries present their food to customers makes a difference. Providing trays, for example, often encourages customers to take more food than they will actually eat: After the University of Massachusetts at Amherst removed trays from its dining halls, it observed a 30 percent drop in food waste. In sit-down settings, an increasing number of restaurants incorporate a range of portion sizes into their menus—such as small plates or half portions—to cut down on food waste.
Hundreds of food rescue and donation organizations operate across the U.S. Restaurants that work with these organizations reap the benefits of appealing to customers and potential tax deductions. Any liability to the restaurant is minimized by the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act of 1996, a federal bill that was passed to encourage more establishments to donate their excess prepared food.
Customers who prioritize responsible solutions to waste in their decision on where to eat encourage restaurants to enact changes in their food waste management. The Green Restaurant Association's DineGreen.com, for example, allows customers to search for sustainable restaurants within their given location. Restaurants are awarded sustainability points by participating in programs such as surplus food donations.
When restaurant staff break down food products into edible portions, leftovers such as vegetable peelings, fat trimmings and animal bones are left behind. Composting is one way to take care of it, but using it for another purpose makes financial sense and shows greater respect for the products—hence the proliferation of restaurants that claim to use every piece of their ingredients. Valuing restaurants that are willing to put in the extra effort encourages others to follow suit.
More than 75 percent of global restaurant-goers want to see eateries be more forthcoming about how they source their ingredients, and around 60 percent seek out organic and sustainable fare, according to a 2018 survey from foodservice research firm Technomic. Additionally, in the restaurant sector, a mere $2,000 in savings can add up to $40,000 in new guaranteed revenue, according to the Green Restaurant Association, meaning small steps to reduce waste and source cheaper, seasonal ingredients can make a hefty impact on the bottom line.
As the business case for sustainability becomes more clear in the restaurant sector, the consumer voice remains one of the most powerful drivers. "Consumers’ growing demands for transparency, local sourcing and sensitive treatment of the people, animals, land and waters in the supply chain should not be ignored," Aaron Jourden, senior research manager for Technomic, wrote last spring. In other words: When consumers talk, this industry listens.
Image credit: Jay Wennington via Unsplash
Jenna Ammann is a student finishing her senior year studying Corporate Finance and Hospitality at UMass Amherst. She has a focus on investigating environmentally and financially sustainable food service business models. Jenna is from Westport, Massachusetts.