The New Order: Five Important Focus Areas for Greener Operations

By Tara Milburn, CEO & Founder Ethical Swag

For restaurants, the official entrance into the ‘recovery stage’ is by no means a finish line. Still recovering from diminished margins, restaurateurs are facing heightened consumer standards in the new, post-pandemic market. And many of those standards involve responsibility in its many forms.

Throughout the paused activity of 2020 and 2021, people everywhere were reminded of the delicate ecosystem that exists between individuals and their communities, as well as between people and their planet. When less trips to the office almost automatically translated to clearer night skies and more sightings of wildlife, the imperative to address the twin pandemic of climate change became unignorable. Similarly, when people began making sacrifices for their neighbors—wearing a mask, social distancing, limiting their outings for the necessities—the instinct to advocate for fellow community members, including the employees of local restaurants, returned in a healthier form.

From environmentally to socially responsible practices, diners and patrons are entering this new normal armed with novel understandings and adjusted expectations. But for restaurateurs, times remain tough, and budgets remain understandably thin. Luckily, a commitment to more sustainable operations can coexist with healthy profits, and even growing margins. Below are five important areas of focus for restaurant and catering professionals who are re-imagining their operations for a newer, more sustainable normal.

First Priority: Getting Smarter

One of the largest problems on the hands of restaurant and catering professionals through the unpredictable supply and demand of COVID-19 was food waste. Problems with supply left a deficit of some items and a surplus of others. Changing consumer demand made it hard to understand how much was too much. Often, the resulting waste was not only the food but also the associated costs and energy spent on more waste management.

To intercept this problem at the beginning, restaurateurs can make a meaningful investment into smart technology, powered by AI and machine learning capacities, that is better able to predict the restaurant’s need at the supply stage. Monitoring consumer preferences, patterns, and sales data from all touch points, AI-empowered solutions can predict the need for ingredients with record accuracy. The same tools can also go as far as to place the order with the supplier and monitor the order’s progress through the supply chain, abstracting much of the work from the restaurateur and saving them time in the process. While smart technologies can be a sizable investment, their contributions to the net operating income are almost instantly notable, and they’re increasingly becoming the best (and only) answer for the many supply chain concerns raised through the pandemic.

Second Priority: Greener Appliances

With a smarter system at the head of the kitchen, restaurateurs can turn to the other appliances they use on a day to day basis. Green technology has rapidly improved over the last many years; not only are green appliances more efficient, they’re also more affordable. And while an entire kitchen upgrade can seem daunting at the beginning, it’s also the case that green appliances are cost effective from the moment they're installed, saving the restaurateur large margins on their energy costs. So, while owners might not be able to make the switch to green appliances all at once, the cost equation needs to take into account the amount of energy costs they’ll incur before they switch, and the sizable reward from eco-conscious consumers they might be missing out on until the right solutions are in place.

Third Priority: A Team-First Orientation

A 2020 study showed that while consumers rate their dining experience more positively when the restaurant has properly implemented green practices, their satisfaction with the restaurant’s environmental performance isn’t enough to offset poor service experiences. In addition, consumers are becoming increasingly attuned to how employees are treated when making their purchase decisions.

That gives employers three important reasons to ensure they’re providing a healthy and supportive environment for their teams: to ensure quality service, to meet consumer ideals, and to simply treat others the way they deserve to be treated. Sustainable team dynamics come from fair pay, competitive policies like health care and time off, and cultivating a culture that makes it easy for employees to communicate in an open and stress-free manner.

Fourth Priority: Proper Packaging

The take-out, order-in habits established through COVID-19 are likely to persist for at least the short-term future. And a restaurant’s commitment to sustainable practices is perhaps most easily visible through the packaging that they chose. Using less delivery packaging is a great way to begin. For the necessary packaging, try to opt for biodegradable materials and packaging with a high recycled content. Some restaurateurs have gotten creative with this step, offering their patrons multi-purpose packaging that they can use for other purposes around the house.

Fifth Priority: Assessment and Improvement Strategies

The post-COVID restaurateur is juggling many priorities. Sustainable solutions certainly need to be near the top of their list, but they don’t need to reinvent the wheel in order to operate responsibly. Owners can engage with sustainability experts and undergo audits on their existing practices, helping them understand their current ecological footprint and what they need to prioritize to get that down. Working toward sustainability certifications, third-party companies can help restaurant owners learn how to vet their suppliers, and how their employee policies are, or aren’t, setting their team up for sustainable success.

The extent to which owners can integrate these sustainable efforts and green solutions into their client and staff engagements will determine their efficacy. Customers need to see the renewed commitment to sustainability exemplified in order to reward it. Incorporating more plant-based menu items, including on the menu the details of a local sourcing strategy, and adding an in-store visual and web-accessible one-pager regarding your strategies for food waste; these are easy ways to put your solutions forward.

Internally, owners can commit to sustainable gifting and recognition initiatives to celebrate their teams while upholding their sustainability ideals. Some owners have spearheaded local community service opportunities focused on environmental health, and others have offered match-donation programs to help employees extend their commitment. Along with an ongoing commitment to operational responsibility, and a true aim set on minimizing the cost incurred to people and planet, these simple steps will help restaurateurs play a meaningful role in improving our new normal.

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Originally published at Modern Restaurant Management (August 25th 2021)