Restaurant sustainability: 12 steps to reduce food waste

Twenty-five years ago, most chefs wrote menus according to what they liked to cook and what they knew guests would like to eat. Few people considered the seasonality of items or the consequences of importing ingredients from across the globe.

Now, of course, the landscape within the restaurant industry has changed dramatically, with guests more conscious than ever before of where their food comes from. And with increased awareness comes an increase in responsibility for restaurants to be more careful in their sourcing and more responsible in how they operate their businesses.

We talked to four restaurant operators who have made sustainability a top priority. Suzanne O’Connor is the executive chef at The Scottish Cafe & Restaurant in Edinburgh, a member of the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) that’s been rated a Three Star Sustainability Champion by the organization. Vikas Malik is the marketing manager and John Page is the operations manager at the Gate in London, acclaimed vegetarian restaurants. Jamie Grainger-Smith is the restaurateur behind London’s T.E.D Restaurant, the first-ever restaurant to be built by accredited, vetted and trusted sustainable suppliers. Finally, Bradford Heap operates restaurants in Boulder, Colorado restaurants—including SALT, Colterra, and Wild Standard—according to a golden rule: Serve food unto others as you would have food served unto you.

In our conversations with these leaders, we learned that changing restaurant operations to be more sustainable is a process and an evolution, and your team must be committed to making it work. Here are 12 things you can do to get started.

Quick links
Cook what’s in season
Partner with the right producers
Grow it yourself
Buy locally, in bulk
Think beyond the food
Start small
Manage your waste–all of it
Do your homework
Train your staff to be passionate about the cause
Extend your mission to the community
Plan for the long haul
Prioritize customer satisfaction above everything else

1. Cook what’s in season

The number one thing that can be done to make a restaurant more sustainable is to keep the  menu seasonal. At the Gate, the team changes the menu four times a year—one for each season—and rotates in two new dishes every six weeks to accommodate ingredients with short growing seasons, such as asparagus.

At the Scottish Cafe, O’Connor changes her menu monthly so she can serve the freshest possible produce at its peak. And she doesn’t stop with produce—even proteins such as seafood and cheese are removed from the menu when she can’t find a good, sustainable source. When fish or squid are in a period of regrowth, for example, she’ll swap in smoked salmon. Operating this way requires a certain amount of flexibility and creativity on the part of the kitchen staff, but the quality is well worth the effort.

2. Partner with the right producers

At T.E.D restaurant, Grainger-Smith has set up an accredited sustainable supply chain for the industry, a network in which he connects restaurants to responsible suppliers and operators. Suppliers take an online test to show that they are following sustainable practices, and restaurants have ethical partners to choose from, as well as opportunities to tap into sharing and discount programs.

Page estimates that 90% of his suppliers are family-oriented businesses. The owners of the Gate have been working with one of their vegetable producers, Nature’s Choice, for 25 years, and they make regular visits to the farms to understand the ingredients better. Just as consumers are interested in knowing the source of their meat and fish, they can identify and learn about the specific farms that grow their vegetables.

“For us, it’s our core value: utilizing people who are still caring about what they do,” says Page. “We’re not a number, we’re a person.”

When it comes to sourcing, Heap supports local cottage industries. One of his best friends has the largest organic farming operation in Colorado and plants around three dozen different varieties of lettuces and vegetables for Heap’s restaurant menus. Another friend began ranching on his land with local, organic, humanely raised lamb, then expanding to beef and pork. Heap is thrilled to buy his product and support his business. He used to work with around 15 vendors, but now it’s just five or six. “One of the big thrills for me is to write checks out to my friends, not to Sysco.”

Working with small farms is more work for an operator, requiring multiple phone calls and visits. But the payoff is huge: “You don’t have to do as much with beautiful products,” says Heap. A little sea salt and olive oil go a long way in showcasing ingredients at their best.

3. Grow it yourself

O’Connor’s team at The Scottish Cafe & Restaurant has taken local sourcing so far that a couple of years ago they started their own kitchen garden for the restaurants and hired a gardener to tend it. She sees it as an opportunity for chefs to learn about how ingredients grow—carrots, cabbage, beets, broad beans—and give the cooks a new appreciation for those items in their cooking. They are challenged to include every bit of what they grow, and to reduce the food waste they do have, they send it back into the garden as compost.

4. Buy locally, in bulk

Since the Scottish Cafe & Restaurant specializes in Scottish cuisine, O’Connor sources as much possible product locally as she possibly can. Now she finds that local suppliers will come to her because they know how she sources her food. Her current goal is to find a new Scottish supplier for the restaurant every single month. She also purchases peak-season produce in bulk (when it’s delicious and inexpensive) and finds creative ways to use it, such as drying, freezing and preserving.

Page advises limiting the items on the menu so that excess food isn’t wasted. “If you can manage your menu and stock rotation and embrace the seasons when things are cheaper, that is my fundamental must-do.”

5. Think beyond the food

Sustainability doesn’t stop with your menu. When Grainger-Smith built out the space for T.E.D, he partnered with a salvage company to source Victorian skirting boards and old doors, as well as tiles and reclaimed wood for the floors (he knows where all his wood is from and has certificates for his floors and tabletops). He was able to allocate some of the money he saved on materials to purchasing better-quality, environmentally friendly, energy-efficient equipment that reduces the restaurant’s carbon emissions.

“I didn’t want everything brand new and shiny,” says Grainger-Smith. “It gives the restaurant a certain warmth; it’s not polished. It has a welcoming feel, and people really seem to be enjoying that.”

Think about things like water usage and train your staff to turn off the tap when it’s not in use, as O’Connor did at The Scottish Cafe & Restaurant. Her team also installed lights with motion detectors in the hallways so they don’t stay on at all hours of the day, and they challenge themselves to reduce energy consumption by just a little bit—five to 10%—every month.

Consider your wine list, too, and look for producers offering biodynamic, carbon-neutral and organic wines. (Grainger-Smith even has one supplier who brings in his wine by sailboat from Portugal!) Including these products on your list is a great way to start conversations with guests about your philosophy and what you stand for.

6. Start small

Malik and Page have a saying at the Gate: Don’t try to run before you walk. Think about your goals and break them down into what’s achievable now versus what you’d like to achieve in the future. Make a roadmap, but understand that it could be years before you can make the changes you’d like to make from a business standpoint.

Start by printing your menu on recycled paper—or feature it entirely online—and use linen napkins instead of paper ones. Research creative ways to reduce your waste and find out what it will cost you to invest in energy-efficient equipment. Even if you’re not there now, you can set yourself up for success by getting your staff on board and creating the ethos and infrastructure you need to move forward.

As awareness grows, new sustainable business opportunities are constantly entering the landscape. Page says that in the beginning, simple things like bottled waste and cardboard waste were the focus, and now sustainability is the general ethos in the restaurant industry.

7. Manage your waste—all of it

General waste, or landfill, is the most expensive kind of waste for restaurants, so find every opportunity to reduce it. Food waste can be weighed, measured and go to compost so you know it’s being utilized elsewhere (or in O’Connor’s case, it can go right back into the garden).

Recycle glass and cardboard, and return packaging to your suppliers to be reused. Since O’Connor has relationships with all of her suppliers, she tells them not to send anything in a styrofoam box. If you don’t have to get rid of the packaging, you’ll reduce your carbon footprint and your recycling bill will be lower.

When choosing takeout and delivery containers, consider the environmental impact of the packaging and opt for compostable materials.

“If you look at what content goes into your bin every day and you take your bottles out, you take your food out, your paper out, you take out your coffee grinds—then you look at what you put in the bin,” says Page. “Think if there’s anything else you can take out. You’re reducing, so that’s actually a cost you’re saving.”

8. Do your homework

Sustainable, ethical business operations require a significant amount of research when it comes to sourcing food, materials and equipment and dealing with waste—especially when you do it in a cost-effective manner. O’Connor recommends starting by asking for as much information as possible about the products you buy and the producers who make them. Being aware of the choices you’re making is the first step.

From there, look for opportunities to minimize any cost increases that sustainable practices may bring. For example, at the Gate, cardboard waste is collected for free. The restaurant pays a levy tax through their local council, and with the tax the city will collect cardboard free of charge. That saves Page from having to find another party to handle that waste, but he never would have discovered the opportunity without researching it himself. “They don’t tell you they offer it,” he says. “You have to ask them to come and do it for you; they won’t do it without asking.”

At T.E.D, Grainger-Smith researched a few different waste companies before settling on one that guarantees none of his waste will go into landfill. “You don’t always have to go with the one the local government recommends—there are private companies now doing a great job.”

9. Train your staff to be passionate about the cause

We asked Page what have been the biggest challenges in evolving his operations to be more sustainable, and without hesitation he responded: “staff training.” Even if you believe in your mission, it’s not always easy to get the rest of your team on board. If a chef has been doing something one way for 15 years, he won’t necessarily change his habits overnight—he really has to buy into it.

Page stresses that you need that one person within your organization who really believes in the cause, and you need to be able to educate your staff to make it work. He takes the team out four times a year to local farms and vineyards so they can learn about the products they’re working with.

And remember that the best way to get information to guests is through your staff, especially the front of house. O’Connor also conducts staff training about the ingredients they use—animals, seafood, produce—so they can repeat those stories to customers. If a guest asks why there’s no squid on the menu today, your staff can explain how you plan your menu around seasonality and sustainability first.

10. Extend your mission to the community

Malik and Page see charitable work as a core component of being a responsible business. This year, they sponsored the nonprofit Ambitious About Autism, which raises money and awareness for the condition. They held a special event with a dedicated menu meant to demonstrate what it’s like to have autism; since many autistic children tend to separate food according to shape and color, they presented different courses with items focused on shape and color, meant to be eaten individually. Proceeds from the dinner will be used to buy chocolate-making equipment for students in the Ambitious About Autism college, so they can begin making chocolates to sell.

“We’re giving these kids skills that are transferable so they can manufacture, market and sell these products themselves,” says Page. “It’s actually learning a lot about the process of doing business in the food industry. It’s utilizing all the components we’re talking about—sourcing, society, environment—and putting it back.”

11. Plan for the long haul

Is it more expensive to buy environmentally friendly equipment than the standard stuff? In a word, yes—but you have to think long term to see the full value.

“If you buy a cheap item, you’ll be replacing it very quickly, so you look at your depreciation over a three-year period,” says Page. “If it’s a better product, it’s better made and has a better warranty on it. You may pay an extra 30% on that item, but it will depreciate over five or six years.”

Grainger-Smith estimates that he spends 10-12% more up front on equipment, but he says it’s easy to recoup those losses in other areas, such as buying salvaged pieces for furnishings. Plus, you’ll save money on energy costs. Grainger-Smith bought an energy-efficient coffee machine and eco-friendly refrigerators, and he’s confident that he will actually make money on those purchases in the next few years.

12. Prioritize customer satisfaction above everything else

While it’s important for your staff to be able to communicate your restaurant’s mission and vision, your first priority as a restaurateur should always be delivering an exceptional guest experience. Offer enough information through staff education, your website, or even your menu, so guests can ask for more details about sourcing and sustainability if they want them, but don’t shove the message down their throats.

“I want it to be a great restaurant,” Grainger-Smith says of T.E.D. “This experience is not an excuse. Customers walk in there and all they see is a great-looking restaurant with good service and good food. You want people to go, that was great because it’s a great restaurant, and all this lovely stuff is very close behind.”

When fresh produce isn’t available locally, Heap and his team buy organic products from California, writing their menus based on what’s the best value.

He also uses the filter of the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15: the former being ingredients that are very important to buy organic, as they have higher concentrations of pesticides, and the latter being ones that are relatively safe to buy conventional.

“Don’t give up,” he advises. “Even if you can’t do it perfectly, whatever effort you put in is a beautiful act of love for Mother Nature. I try not to be too hard on myself. When I’m 60 I want to look at the guy in the mirror and say I did my best—did things that helped the environment and helped people consider their choices around food.”