By Denise McGuigan
Think about the last time you went out to eat. Did you choose the restaurant based on your cravings, or based on how sustainable the place claimed to be? While we may stand in grocery store aisles agonizing over product claims, do we hold our eateries to the same level of scrutiny?
From years of experience working in bars associated with high-end restaurants, I can tell you first-hand how much preparation goes into setting up for each service: fruit must be cut, juices pressed, silverware cleaned and polished, liquor bottles combined. There is often a disconnect between product aesthetics and how much waste is generated. For example, limes are cut each shift and often thrown out by the end of the night. This cuts their shelf life from a minimum of three days to less than 18 hours. Lime and lemon juices are often tossed within a couple of days to “optimize freshness,” even though pasteurized juices actually have a shelf-life of more than a month.
Can Restaurants Be Sustainable?
But sustainability is about more than just waste. The Sustainable Restaurant Association categorizes sustainability into 14 key areas, ranging from the sourcing of food, to employee and societal impacts, to environmental considerations like waste, water stewardship, and energy efficiency.
Restaurants are the most energy intensive commercial buildings in the U.S., consuming ⅓ of all U.S. energy used by the retail sector. Chains like McDonalds and Chipotle are making strides overseas in terms of using renewable energies, but American restaurants, in many ways, are still catching up. It is difficult for existing restaurants, especially within larger buildings, to access renewable energies, especially depending upon the state in which they operate. Even so, some American restaurants are paving the way. The San Francisco-based small chain eatery, The Plant Café, not only uses entirely organic foods and packaging, but also generates its power using clean energy sources.
The average food service facility uses 300,000 gallons of water per year, from food preparation, to heating and cooling, to sanitation. That’s not even including water service for guests. Many restaurants in California only serve water to guests on an as-requested basis. This one change can conserve thousands of gallons of water each year. However, some restaurants may equate this with a lack of customer service.
Think Before You Yelp
In this era of Yelp where optimal quality is key, and the word “yes” is overused to meet guests’ needs, how can bars and restaurants find a balance between maintaining ratings, limiting waste, and conserving resources? When a guest complains about a dish, it is usually replaced, and the original unsatisfactory food is discarded. And, the more egregious waste occurs before you have the chance to send it back: nearly 10 percent of purchased food is discarded as a result of spoilage, wasteful preparation techniques, or restaurant errors.
For many restaurants, this wasted food will end up in the local landfill. In fact, 15 percent of each local landfill is comprised of food discarded by restaurants, with a total of 33 million tons of food wasted each year in the U.S. To lower this percentage and redirect food sent to landfills, a rising number of restaurants take advantage of composting programs, a great foundation for closing the loop on wasted food. Although composting requires that food waste is collected and hauled to the proper facility, associated fees are often lower than the hauling fees for recycling or garbage pickups. And, about 60 percent of U.S. restaurants currently recycle. In most communities, landfilling carries the highest fees of the three disposal options, so programs that support the diversion of waste provide economic, as well as environmental, rewards.
What About People?
Tipped employees generally make $2.77 per hour. If no one tips adequately for their services or sits in their section that day, these employees cannot make ends meet. I have only worked in one restaurant that offered benefits and paid vacation (though that only came after working there more than a year full-time). Many restaurants do not offer such luxuries. However, one restaurant is making huge strides in employee benefits. Satchel’s Pizza, a Florida-based restaurant, focuses on the value its employees bring to the table (pun intended). Satchel’s employees receive an I.R.A., paid vacation time, profit share bonuses, massages, staff meals, and (drum roll please) a living wage of $15 per hour. Plus, the wait to get in can be up to an hour. Other restaurants may need to take a slice out of Satchel’s handbook.
While restaurants may still fall behind in terms of livable wages, many embrace “farm-to-table” mentalities, locally sourcing food from farmers and fishers committed to justice, sustainable methods, and environmental stewardship. Chez Panisse, Restaurant Nora, and Blue Hill, are great examples of restaurants valuing locally, sustainably sourced, organic ingredients, with conservation practices in place. Not only does the “farm-to-table” concept ensure sustainable sourcing of food, but it also helps farmers and fishers to thrive financially by cutting out the middle man and developing a more personalized relationship with the restaurant.
Your Vote Matters
This generation goes out to eat more than any other. While this may offer opportunities to share time with friends and loved ones, should we feel good about going out to eat where there is as much disposable packaging waste as food, where there are no recycling or composting collection bins, where unsustainably sourced dishes are on the menu, or where food is wasted to keep ratings up? In a time when every diner is an instant food critic with the tap of a key on a smartphone, it is more important than ever to vote with our dining decisions.
Restaurants like Plant Café, Satchel’s Pizza, and many more like them, have proven that restaurants can incorporate sustainable practices while maintaining excellent guest reviews and satisfied employees. With hundreds holding memberships to the Sustainable Restaurant Association, success stories are part of a growing trend. While these restaurants comprise a small percentage of establishments in a sea of competition, their customers are voting for the values that matter to them. The next time you Yelp, keep in mind the best and worst outcomes for the restaurant, its employees, and the environmental resources at stake.
Denise McGuigan is pursuing her Master's in Sustainability from Wake Forest University, planning to work in conservation to preserve biodiversity. Growing up on Long Island, NY, she has always been interested in coastal ecosystems and the outdoors.