The foodservice sector is putting sustainability on the menu, serving up innovative solutions to help cut waste, use resources more efficiently and change ingrained habits.
For a sector that is often portrayed as wasteful it’s not an easy, nor a straightforward task yet as the stats show, change is very much needed. According to a study by the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, for example, almost 85 percent of unused food from U.S. restaurants is thrown away annually. In the UK, around 920,000 tonnes of food is wasted at outlets each year, the equivalent of 1.3 billion meals.
And this comes with big consequences. Globally, food produced but not eaten is responsible for approximately 3.3 gigatons of CO2 and 250 cubic kilometers of water – enough to fill 100 billion Olympic size swimming pools.
The tech effect
A growing number of entrepreneurs are creating new tech solutions that are helping to address the foodservice industry’s elephant in the room.
Too Good To Go is an app that connects hungry consumers to restaurants with leftover food, allowing surplus meals to be sold off at discounted prices. “The model benefits the business, the customer and the environment,” says Paulina Herrmann consultant in JLL’s Foodservice Consulting team. “By themselves small initiatives can only skim the surface of the issue but together they can start to drive change.”
Take tech start-up Winnow, which helps restaurants reduce waste by as much as half by monitoring what they throw out. “The more restaurants know about their waste, inventory and processes, the more they can improve,” says Herrmann. “Although a highly skilled chef knows how to re-use food by-products, there are commercial foodservice environments where such technology would be beneficial.”
Some independent restaurants are combining technology and sustainability to create new concepts. Berlin’s Data Kitchen allows customers to order and pay for their food via an app, and collect it at a prearranged time from a futuristic vending machine, helping chefs to better plan to meet demand and cut food waste.
Elsewhere in the city, Good Bank‘s walls are lined with LED-powered vertical farms producing fresh greens that are served up when needed. In Brighton, the UK’s first zero-waste restaurant, Silo, is raising the bar for foodservice sustainability, by trading directly with farmers, using re-usable delivery vessels and an advanced composting system.
Sustainable thinking gathers momentum
Governments are also now taking steps to drive a more sustainable mindset in the foodservice industry. In Italy, a bill was passed in 2016 to reduce waste in schools, hospitals and other public canteens by incentivizing food donations to charity. Denmark and France have also taken action against dumping food waste while the UK has proposed a Food Waste Reduction Bill.
Combined with a growing awareness among consumers around where their food comes from, where the waste goes and a brand’s sustainability credentials, bigger food service brands are taking a greener approach.
“We’re seeing a push for foodservice sustainability from customers, landlords, and legislators,” says Herrmann. As such it’s rapidly becoming mainstream.
Wahaca, which has 23 outlets across the UK, was the first restaurant group in the country to go carbon neutral. By upgrading systems and appliances, the company decreased average energy consumption by 15 percent, with a single battery replacement in one location leading to 75 percent reduction in gas use.
“The equipment revolution, which is key in foodservice, has been a long time coming. Vital solutions, such as cross ventilation or heat retention are becoming ever more efficient and cheaper,” Herrmann adds.
In Cambridge, Whitbread-owned Costa launched their Eco-Pod, which uses 52 percent less energy than coffee shops of a similar size. The building also produces enough energy to supply its own lighting, heating and ventilation. In March 2017, Nando’s opened what it called its “most sustainable restaurant yet,” with eco credentials ranging from responsibly-sourced timber and rainwater harvesters to solar panels and a green wall.
Meanwhile, a number of large property owners have launched ambitious sustainability initiatives. UK-based Land Securities is working towards 100 percent renewable electricity and an 18 percent reduction in carbon intensity across its portfolio. European developer Hammerson is aiming for net positivity in resource use, water and socio-economic impacts by 2030.
“Goals like this demand a lot from tenants,” says Herrmann. “Whether they’re set by governments or landlords, they require a big transformation in equipment and resources. This, in turn, affects how real estate is fitted out.” Yet Herrmann believes that the industry is making a concerted effort to work together to drive positive change. “There’s also support coming from landlords to make sure that tenants can achieve the set goals.”
More work required
Despite these advances, there are many challenges along the road to transformation. “One of the problems with sustainable fit out is the initial cost,” says Herrmann. “The upfront investment required can be off putting.”
However, according to Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI), with upfront planning, a sustainable approach to a standalone restaurant need not cost more than between two and five percent extra compared with a regular fit out. “You can make back around 20 percent of the construction cost over the lifetime of the restaurant,” says Herrmann. “However, in an industry with relatively low profit margins and a high failure rate, quick return on investment is important to operators”.
Another key issue is addressing deeply ingrained habits within the industry. “Training staff to turn off a dishwasher that’s running 24/7 can have a huge impact,” says Herrmann. “Likewise, consumers piling their plates at buffet style restaurants can also led to huge amounts of waste. Changing behavior is key to creating a truly sustainable industry.”
Nevertheless she believes that the outlook is promising. “Big companies are showing it can be done, and customers will demand it from others,” concludes Herrmann. “There’s going to be a major push; sustainability will become non-negotiable.”