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Sustainability in Foodservice: Where We Stand Today

Sustainability in Foodservice: Where We Stand Today

Sustainability has become a standard part of the foodservice industry’s lexicon. Individual members of the community have long embraced the concept. But actually putting it into practice? Well, that’s been a different story. Until now.

Sustainability in Foodservice: Where we stand nowThe concept of sustainability started off years ago in a cloud of green talk, marketing initiatives and abstract, far-off notions of environmental responsibility and friendliness. But the good news is that the foodservice industry has come a long way since then. A growing number of foodservice operators now understand the real, measurable business incentives behind adopting sustainable practices, such as energy, water and waste management.

“Nowadays, it’s less about tree hugging and more about Wall Street, metaphorically speaking,” says Richard Young, senior engineer and director of education at the Food Service Technology Center (FSTC) in San Ramon, Calif. In short, he notes, “It seems like in 2013, sustainability initiatives came back to life and gained some traction in the industry. There were a lot of positive indicators, and in fact, sustainability has become more of a standard practice among companies and industry leaders. People are beginning to see the dollars associated with sustainability and know that it makes good business sense.”

Despite this progress, the industry still has plenty of opportunity to grow its sustainability efforts. Leaders making headway with sustainable initiatives and/or LEED building certification represent the minority of foodservice operators. But as the foodservice industry slowly inches away from those large-scale economic challenges and cutbacks of the last five years, there’s optimism on the horizon.

“When business is good, it’s easy to say, ‘Hey, let’s be green,'” Young says. “When business is tough, it’s easy to turn your back. But more companies are beginning to look at sustainability as part of a bigger picture.” While the notion of sustainability may have blossomed from the focus on climate change and businesses doing their part to reduce emissions and not deplete resources, saving costs wherever possible in a postrecession world represents the core of this concept today. As a result, a growing number of foodservice operators now incorporate sustainable initiatives as part of their standard operating procedures and business plans.

The Industry Has Responded

To the need for long-term sustainability, that is.

In September of last year, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) launched theConserve Sustainability Advisory Council to help restaurateurs understand environmental awareness and become more resource efficient. Led by industry co-chairs John Mulcahy of Georgia-Pacific and Jim Hanna of Starbucks Coffee Co., the council consists of 14 foodservice and allied industry members and sustainability experts, including Young. The council’s mission is to research and provide best practices for the industry at large, the association’s members and its Conserve Sustainability Education Program (CSEP) for operators. This past year, the council took up a special focus on sustainable packaging, Young points out.

The industry now pays increased attention to the sustainability of packaging materials, from compostable disposables to what foodservice products arrive in, Young notes. Buying in bulk, encouraging customers to use reusable mugs and switching to compostable materials are all part of the effort to reduce the harmful landfill waste that predominantly plastic-based packaging can cause.

Aside from this new focus, the NRA’s Conserve program has a few other initiatives in the works for the coming year, says program manager Jeff Clark: relaunching the website for easier access to the council’s best practice findings, tips and videos; the development of an “Ask the Expert” column throughout the year to share viewpoints from industry voices in the sustainable space; more new sustainability education sessions at the NRA Show in May; and how-to toolkits on recycling and minimizing food waste for members. “We are also continuing to grow the Food Waste Reduction Alliance as we hope to decrease food waste nationally,” Clark says.

Like packaging, the beverage portion of the industry has entered the sustainability equation as of late. Young points out that the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCA), for one, has taken strides to educate the industry about coffee bean growing and sourcing and its impact on climate change. The SCA and other beverage associations have launched several of their own “guides for greenness” to get operators on board with sustainability.

LEED Catches On

After some years of slow growth and occasional obscurity, LEED is finally reaching its heyday in the foodservice community. The November 2013 release of LEED Version 4 fully integrated foodservice equipment and kitchen energy and water loads into the criteria. Now, kitchen energy and water use can no longer be left out of total building energy modeling.

“In the past, if you were developing a standard LEED building you could ignore the process loads and all the energy and water use in the kitchen,” says David Zabrowski, director of engineering at the FSTC. “It was a great way for businesses to simply experiment with new technologies and cherry-pick things. People would build a green restaurant or building and do everything but use energy-efficient equipment, or just put in a piece or two. Now, they can’t skirt around this. The new criteria specifies that you must model all process loads, including those in the kitchen.” Operators can do that by using the baseline list of suggested energy-efficient equipment pieces developed by the FSTC.

Again, sustainability has business incentives, especially in LEED design. “People are beginning to see returns on their investment in LEED from a few years ago and incorporating aspects of LEED into their business as standard practice,” says Young. “They can identify real dollar savings by cutting waste, water and energy, and as a result, those that take the leap toward LEED don’t want to go back.” For many chains, new prototypes incorporate the lessons and designs learned from existing LEED stores, and the number of newly certified buildings has increased.

For chains developing in overseas markets, LEED-style design plays an important role in the concepts’ growth. “Energy management is even more expensive in other parts of the world, and certain governments require higher levels of sustainability,” Young says. “Many companies realize that if they build more efficiently they will make more money by saving on costs here and abroad.”

Young explains, “The foodservice world has become more accepted by the LEED world.” As a result, he adds, “we’re not an oddity anymore. They now recognize that some buildings have big kitchens and that they matter and there is a huge opportunity for energy and waste reduction.”

An influx of energy- and water-saving equipment items hitting the market is a direct result of the demand for new technology and stronger performance rates, Zabrowski says. “These new technologies and products are driven by a heightened awareness of energy costs and also partially due to younger generations who are more technically savvy. Finally there is more of a market for innovation and more efficient equipment.”

For example, as demand increases, the cost of energy-efficient fryers continues to decrease. Charbroilers and ovens now feature more advanced thermostatic controls and lids to reduce energy use. Dishmachines rely on heat-recovery systems to reduce energy consumption. And demand-controlled ventilation has become must-have technology for most kitchens.

Consumer Drivers

On the food side of the business, consumers remain powerful drivers of sustainability. This includes consumers showing a strong interest in foodservice concepts that source their ingredients from local providers and those that use on-site gardens. “When it comes to food, people are always more interested,” Young says. “They’re also willing to pay more for fresher, more sustainably produced food that’s healthier and tastes better.”

On the efficiency and design side, again LEED has a draw. “People like to be in nicer, brighter, cleaner buildings, and that’s what LEED buildings are like,” Young says. In fact, some chains report higher rates of comparable store sales among LEED-certified locations as compared to locations without LEED certification.

A growing number of municipalities continue to develop regulations around Styrofoam, waste and water management, but despite their good intentions, some skepticism about the actual effectiveness of these efforts remains. For example, Young asks, will a ban on Styrofoam truly reduce carbon emissions? Or does this simply represent one of many measures that will work together to make a difference? “I think people would rather have intelligent scientific answers and move forward with that information than just have blanket restrictions and laws telling them what to do,” Young says.

The Future of Sustainability

Education plays an important part in laying the groundwork for the sustainability of sustainability. Providing future generations with the information, priorities and value of these initiatives appears to be critical to effecting long-term change.

Starting this year, the American Culinary Federation requires culinary professionals to take at least one course in sustainability to earn the organization’s coveted accreditation. “All young chefs will have had to have had some sustainability training by the time they graduate, and we’re seeing more energy, water and waste management as well as farm-based learning becoming more a part of school curricula,” Young points out.

The ongoing challenge when it comes to sustainability, however, centers on the complexities associated with energy, water and waste management. As such, looking at the bigger picture is — and will continue to be — the biggest part of the long-term process.

Sustainability and the College Sector

At Michigan State University (MSU), Carla Iansiti, sustainability officer for Residential Hospitality Services, has not only helped sustainable initiatives play a larger role in her university’s business practices and educational programs, she also created her own full-time position just to handle all of the work.

From developing a schoolwide recycling and composting program to sourcing more than 66 percent of food from local purveyors to instituting trayless dining to improving water and energy management in the kitchens, MSU’s initiatives reflect the actions of many colleges and universities around the country as this segment of the foodservice industry strives to make sustainability not just an abstract concept but a priority and part of doing business. In most cases the students play a huge role in implementing these practices and represent a key factor in the success of programs, says Iansiti.

MSU in particular takes these sustainable practices one step further with LEED-certified buildings, as well as complete, closed-loop food systems through the use of an on-campus farm and cattle ranch, and strong support for local vendors (nonfood vendors, too) to help build back Michigan’s economy. In addition, MSU’s goal is to reach 70 percent waste diversion by 2015. The college tracks waste through its Clean Plate program and uses the feedback to reduce the amount of food produced. To track water usage, MSU places submeters throughout its kitchens. All procurement strategies now incorporate energy- and water-efficient equipment.

“We work to ensure long-term sustainability through innovative and balanced strategies that encourage environmental stewardship and educational enrichment,” says Iansiti. “Every year my students ask me what are we doing to be more sustainable. My phone and email goes berserk , actually. What are we doing about our global footprint? How much gas do we emit? How many semi-trucks of straws do we have delivered? How does what we do impact animal welfare, the economy, the weather? These are the questions they ask.”

Students, it seems, hold a large stake in the future of sustainability.

Sustainability in Healthcare

The heathcare foodservice sector has made noticeable strides in sustainability, most notably among facilities undergoing recent renovations. A portion of this comes as part of a larger goal to expand healthier, more nutritious and better-tasting food offerings. Food sourcing and back-of-the-house operations like energy and waste management go hand in hand for many of these institutions, when it comes to sustainability.

Eskenazi Health, formerly Wishard Health in Indianapolis, reopened late last year in a new facility that includes a 6,000-square foot on-site farm. In fact, Eskenazi is one of just a small percentage of new or remodeled healthcare facilities with on-site farms and/or LEED certification.

Sky Farm, a rooftop garden with raised beds accommodating wheelchair patients and volunteers, won’t supply the hospital’s entire produce needs for its servery-style marketplace, full-service restaurant Café Soleil and various grab-and-go/retail outlets, but Eskenazi management expects it will yield enough this upcoming growing season to make a noticeable difference in food quality. Some of the farm’s produce will also be available for purchase by hospital staff for consumption at work or at home. A local grower with urban garden experience helped build the farm and will begin preparation for the growing season this spring.

In addition to serving as a symbol promoting healthy eating, “the farm is about bringing more fresh vegetables and farms into our operation,” says Tom Thaman, director of food and nutrition. “Many of our patients come in with obesity issues and diabetes, so as a healthcare facility we need to model healthy behavior.” As an additional exhibition of its focus on health and nutrition, the hospital eliminated the use of fryers and swapped out sodas and candies in vending machines for healthier options.

As a member of the Partnership for a Healthier America, an initiative bringing together private, public and nonprofit organizations fighting against childhood obesity the organization has several benchmarks it is trying to meet. But the hospital also has another mission: earn certification as a LEED Silver building, which it expects will happen this year. To help achieve LEED status, the hospital also focuses on managing its energy and water use and waste.

Eskenazi has also looked to be a model for resource management and environmental sustainability as well, by switching from Styrofoam to compostable disposables and by purchasing its own on-site composter/dehydrator to support its composting and recycling program. Since the program’s implementation, the hospital has collected about 20 pounds of pre- and post-consumer compost per 2,000 meals. The hospital also bought water-saving equipment and systems, including some Energy Star-rated items, for the kitchen.

From a business perspective, sustainability has long-term advantages. “If companies and organizations like us do not become more responsible by recycling and managing waste and other resources, our costs will go up,” Thaman says. In essence, sustainability is a community effort — a preventative measure to keep waste, energy and water costs from continuing to rise in the future. “We also want to be good stewards of public money as a public hospital, and energy, water and waste management plays a part of that because we see a return on investment and longer-term savings,” he adds.

The advancement of sustainability initiatives in the healthcare sector truly depends on “how committed senior leaders are,” Thaman says. “Slowly, though, hospitals are starting to understand the importance of this commitment to modeling both good health and environmental responsibility.”

Restaurateurs as Farmers

With the National Restaurant Association listing “uber-local” sourcing and on-site gardens among the association’s top trends for 2014, many restaurants, namely independents, have gone one step further by building and operating their own sustainable, self-sufficient farms. By doing so, these restaurants continue to reshape this country’s food distribution system — making it more regionally, seasonally and sustainably focused — and in the process, source better-tasting and more environmentally friendly food. They are also developing financially viable models for small-scale local farming.

Morten Sohlberg, chef and owner of the 10-year-old Smörgås Chef Restaurant Group, first took this step in 2010 when he bought a 150-acre farm in the foothills of New York’s Catskill Mountains. Now, Blenheim Hill Farm supplies fresh meat, produce and eggs to Sohlberg’s multiple restaurants, including three Smörgås Chef and three Crepes Du Nord locations in New York City. Together, Sohlberg’s restaurants serve more than 300,000 guests a year.

In addition to an array of crops, the farm raises a small flock of Icelandic sheep, Hereford beef cattle, several breeds of pork and many chickens for both meat and eggs. A 3,000-square-foot, hydroponic, insulated and heated greenhouse lengthens the growing season, producing a number of different crops each year, including a variety of lettuces and greens, herbs, heirloom cucumbers and tomatoes, beans and more.

“We wanted to make sure we can trust the products we are using in our restaurant and serving our guests,” says Sohlberg, explaining one of several reasons for the farm. “We wanted to make sure we were serving produce grown without pesticides and hormone- and antibiotic-free meat that doesn’t come from commercial feed lots. We found there was so much fraud in the modern food system that we started plotting and preparing to be more efficient and produce some of the food ourselves.”

In essence, the Norwegian-born Sohlberg’s philosophies intersect with another growing trend — one where more restaurants and chefs are exploring “new Nordic cuisine,” which centers around sustainably grown and produced vegetables, meat and seafood and relies on simpler cooking to showcase the high quality and superior taste of this minimally processed food.

In fact, Sohlberg plans to open a fine-dining restaurant centered on Scandinavian cuisine in New York’s West Village, with a menu almost entirely based on Blenheim Hill Farm’s bounty. Sohlberg’s venture represents the next horizon in farm-to-table dining, with restaurants putting their own personal stamp on the food they serve. “We basically have enough product to have our own distribution system, which gives us more control over our inventory and menus,” he says. “The concept is that we’re now a part of every step of the product we’re selling.”

He adds, “Right now we are almost 100 percent self-sufficient and 100 percent able to absorb all products that come from the farm.” Sohlberg will drive to the local farms that supplement the supply, just to make sure they are in fact sustainable as advertised. “Our strategy for this is that we have different layers of use — when there is a surplus of something we try to be creative with our menus to be able to use it all. When harvesting pigs and animals, we use all parts, including the head, tongue and cheek, making terrines, pâtés and other specialties. As a result, we have become so much more knowledgeable in our own kitchen by being forced to adopt a new set of skills we originally didn’t think we had to have.”

During peak season, restaurant staff or Sohlberg himself will make the three-hour drive to the city, transporting produce from the farm , where he lives part-time with his family (who also helps out), to the restaurants via refrigerated truck. A full-time farm crew offers additional support. After a few failed managers, Sohlberg has taken to managing the farm himself, while continuing to learn all he can about farming and long-term maintenance.

Sohlberg takes a top-down approach when it comes to the question of what to plant, letting his growing interests take precedence and designing menus around those products. He also collaborates with foragers to bring in other specialty foods like mushrooms, wild herbs and nuts. Local food processors help cure, smoke and make sausages out of some of the meat from the farm.

“Our goal is to be as self-sufficient as we possibly can, but also serve food that tastes good and have enough variety,” says Sohlberg. “I think we’re at the very beginning of what food looks like in a restaurant. With more restaurants running farms, there is going to be some interesting innovation in the food industry.”

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