Nutrition experts predict that sustainability and plant-based protein will be the most important restaurant trends in 2017. Plant-based protein, primarily pulses, continues its popularity from 2016, which the United Nations declared the Year of the Pulse. Organics continues to trend as well. Both organics and plant-based protein are closely tied to sustainability.

Sustainability is a critical issue in our world as we anticipate almost 10 billion on the planet by 2050. How will we feed all those people without depleting our resources? We’re all concerned about it! Yet anyone who has ever owned or worked in a restaurant knows how difficult it is to maintain a “sustainable consciousness” in the current environment.

Consider, for example, disposables, a significant budget item in any place that includes carry-out or catering as part of their business model. If well-meaning operators try to move away from styrofoam to something more environmentally friendly, they can anticipate sticker-shock. On the other hand, washing real dishes isn’t automatically more sustainable. Restaurants use 5,800 gallons of water per day on average.

Or consider health department rules that require leaving the water running while a worker dries hands with a single-use towel so the towel can act as a barrier between clean hands and shutting off the faucet. Then there’s recycling that requires washing recyclables before adding them to the recycling bin. Regulations that prevent people from bringing in their own dishes to fill. Air-conditioning and heating that runs as people enter and leave.

We haven’t even gotten to the food yet! Food that has already been wasted in its path to the restaurant, culled in the fields, in grocery stores and by other handlers. Food that is rarely from local farmers. Food that travels a long way, using precious resources. City regulations that don’t allow composting vegetable waste within city limits — and who can come and pick it up to take out-of-town? Frying oil and other grease.

Most restaurants, to keep their prices down, build on a scaffold of unfairly priced food, food that relies on a farm work force that in the U.S. is 70% low-paid undocumented migrant workers, food that with current practices adds to environmental degradation without paying for restoration. Food that uses (and wastes) increasingly precious water resources.

A few leaders in the U.S. and other countries are setting off boldly in new directions. Meet some of them:

Laura Abshire, Director of Sustainability Policy and Government Affairs, National Restaurant Association. According to Laura, consumers are driving the trend toward more sustainability in restaurants. “People like local sourcing, and like knowing where their food comes from,” said Abshire. “They like knowing that they’re helping their community and that their food didn’t travel very far and hasn’t been packaged as long.” The National Restaurant Association proactively established its own environmental education program called Conserve. Information on this initiative is online at conserve.restaurant.org. The program is free and open to anyone looking for information on running a sustainable restaurant. As Laura says, “You can save a little bit on your bottom line, and you can show your customers that you really care about them and their values while also doing something good for the environment as well.”

Jack Cheney, graduate student at the University of Washington’s School of Marine and Affairs, studies Washington’s raw oyster industry, the largest in the U.S. and home to Taylor Fish Farms in operation for five generations supplying fish bars, shipping worldwide and always sustainable. Of oyster farming, Jack says, “What’s more farm to table than a raw oyster? There’s nothing that’s done to an oyster from the time it’s taken out of the water to the time it’s put on your plate at the restaurant.” Cheney talks about the positive environmental impact of oyster farming in addition to a minimal carbon footprint: “Oysters are sustainable. They’re clean for water. One oyster filters 50 gallons of water per day. It provides a wide berth of environmental benefits to the ecosystem.”

Arthur Potts Dawson, owner of acclaimed London restaurants Acorn House and Water House, opened in 2006. Potts Dawson hit the international scene in 2010 with his Ted Talk, A vision for sustainable restaurants. He “wants us to take responsibility not just for the food we eat, but how we shop for and even dispose of it.” His restaurants feature rooftop gardens, low-energy refrigerators and wormeries that turn food waste into compost, proving a sustainable approach is profitable and serving as training grounds for the next generation of green chefs.

Betsy Fink, co-founder of Millstone Farm, an incubator for community-based food systems. Betsy works with local markets and restaurants to expand local food networks. Through the Betsy and Jesse Fink Foundation, she combats food waste.

Fedele Bauccio & Ernie Collins are the founders and owners of Bon Appétit Management in California. Frank and Ernie believed the restaurant industry, colleges and corporate cafeterias wanted and needed something other than what they were getting in the 1980s. What they needed was real food, freshly prepared. Their made-from-scratch food goes out to a contract market and 650 restaurants with which they work. They have been committed to health since their beginning and pioneered environmentally and socially responsible practices designed to create a more sustainable food system. In 1999, they launched Farm to Fork, widening their focus to the communities in which they operate. They have been front-runners in all the issues related to sustainability including antibiotic use in farm animals (2003), switching to rBGH-free milk (2003) and cage-free shell eggs (2005), food’s role in climate change (2007), farmworker rights(2009) and animal welfare (2012). Many nonprofit and industry groups honor Fedele’s work.

Douglas McMaster, owner and operator of The Silo in Brighton, UK, is the first zero-waste restaurant in the UK. Features he introduced in this minimalist environment include a special compost machine displayed near the entrance that will process all the restaurant’s food scraps, supplies delivered in reusable containers, ingredients mostly from local farmers and producers, flour milled on site and booze brewed in the basement. Meals come on plates made from recycled plastic and drinks in recycled jam jars. A chef and activist, McMaster says, “Choice is something which is wrong with the food industry. The places with more choice create more waste and have lower standards, that’s an absolute fact.” He offers just six daily main courses at Silo.

Ted Turner & George W. McKerrow, founders and owners of Ted’s Montana Grill, are passionately committed to Planet, Plate and People. Their motto is, “Eat Great. Do Good.” Their Sustainability Metrics are impressive. Further, they work hard to engage other restaurants in the idea of “going green.” In 2008, McKerrow and Turner visited five cities as part of a national tour, “The Green Restaurant Revolution.” Created to heighten awareness about the restaurant and hospitality industry’s environmental impact on the planet, the tour brought together industry leaders and future influencers to talk about the opportunities and challenges of going green and to stimulate conversation and ideas on solutions. More than 800 restaurateurs, hospitality leaders and culinary professionals attended five industry events. A front page USA Today article featured the company’s environmental commitment: Can restaurants go green, earn green?

What Can You Do? Every restaurant can contribute to sustainability by raising consciousness throughout its operation and paying attention to four areas:

  • Waste reduction
  • Water conservation
  • Energy efficiency
  • Renewable energy

Experiment with locally sourced and seasonal foods. Engage your customers in your effort to create a more sustainable experience. Take advantage of free resources like Conserve from the National Restaurant Association. Find out what is available in your community to assist you in your efforts. And while you’re doing all that, remember that appreciating beautiful, delicious, fresh food is the first step toward a conservation program in your restaurant.

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