Sustainability in the food and drink industry is more important than ever. The customer may have been the catalyst for the restaurant industry’s focus on sustainable, local and environmentally-friendly ingredients, but there is, of course, a bigger picture.
Climate change and its impact on farming and the supply chain is everyone’s problem. The recent courgette crisis is just a taste of what could be to come, with hiked food prices and difficulties getting certain products to the table at all becoming a tangible threat to business.
At a time when world affairs are creating enough uncertainties and challenges for the industry, it is more important than ever that restaurants pull together and take responsibility for the produce they put on their menus.
Here are some other ways to gain some notches on the sustainability scale.
Buy British and local
This one might seem fairly obvious, but there are still restaurants out there, very good ones too, which import a lot of their ingredients from overseas. It is easy to think of this being an issue for the cheaper-end of the industry, but it is a challenge for some excellent high-end restaurants too. Some ingredients are very difficult to source from the UK, some Spanish cured meat, for example. Although there are British companies making real headway, some chefs are always going to prefer to import from Spain or Italy. It’s not the end of the world, and geographically not too far, but real efforts to offset these imports with a focus on locality elsewhere — vegetables and English wines, for example — is a good start. When it comes to meat, it really is very hard to beat high-quality British meat, which brings us to…
The arrival a few years ago of a trend towards USDA Prime beef is worrying. Aside from the major welfare and food safety issues that come from importing American meat, the USA is not exactly down the road. If the carbon footprint from transportation wasn’t enough, new research emerging over the past three years has suggested that the livestock industry itself is responsible for producing more greenhouse gases than cars, planes and ships combined. So what can we do? Firstly, buy British and chip off transportation emissions. Secondly, get creative with your cuts. Of course you want to continue to offer steaks and the like, but what about making the most of offal? Traditionally less-used offcuts are not just suitable for pies and other stews: kidneys, liver and even intestines are working their way onto London’s top menus. A little more thought can mean that you cut your menu’s meat-print down while also tackling another major problem…
We are all throwing too much food (and other things) away. The trend towards nose-to-tail eating is one way to tackle this, but there is still a way to go. It can be a challenge in a large commercial kitchen to keep on top of waste, especially if your menu is varied and you want to ensure that customers have as much choice as possible — there’s nothing worse than your first-choice dish having sold out. Or is there? A good restaurateur will tell you that the way to run a successful restaurant is to overcome challenges by turning them into strengths. You want to be fully-stocked on the dishes that make up the backbone of your menu, but why not plan to run out of select others? Keep things interesting and show off the quality of your ingredients and range of offering by having some dishes that when they are gone are replaced by something equally exciting. This means that the customer knows upfront that you are committed to keeping things fresh and seasonal and that when that dish goes they could be first to try the next. Variety is the spice of life — and key to managing your food waste too.
Speaking of seasonal, and we all should be by now, vegetables are absolutely key to keeping your menu planet and margin friendly. Veggie dishes are no longer just the stomping ground of vegetarians, many customers are turning to veggie dishes as a legitimate meat or fish alternative. Whether it is because they too are conscious of the environmental impact, looking to roots for health reasons or just enjoying how creative chefs have become with plants, nowadays people like veg. This is great news for the environment and means lower food costs for restaurants. The days of the stuffed mushroom are over: long live the veg!
As a restaurant it is difficult to commit to simply ‘being sustainable’. As important as it is, there is still a need to ensure that customers don’t feel pushed out by any price increases. After all, post-Brexit people are — for the time being, at least — feeling financially cautious. Outside of the tips listed above, none of which should increase costs, the key is choice. For most high-end restaurants, offering free-range and organic meat is standard, but for a smaller, more price conscious or newer restaurant this can be daunting. By putting free-range chicken on the menu alongside other options you are allowing the customer to choose whether they go for it or not, and also showing off the quality and sustainability of your menu. Buying organic meats and dairy — or direct from the farmers’ market — supports local farmers who are the only real antidote we have to unsustainable, mass-farming. They are also infinitely higher animal welfare, which will attract people to spend more money too. The days of ‘vegetarian’, ‘vegan’ and the likes are numbered, today people talk of being ‘ethical eaters’ or ‘flexitarians’. By shouting about your organic dairy, line-caught fish and organic, locally-sourced meat you are investing in your reputation, the planet and your business. May they both have a long and happy future.