Years after the first push for sustainability hit the foodservice and hospitality industry, operators are seeing a real return on their initial investments and some maturing philosophies about what it means to be green.
We caught up with some of those early leaders in different segments to hear about some of the most important lessons they learned after taking the sustainability plunge.
Pizza Fusion has recycled and composted, opted for sustainable packaging, offered gluten-free and vegan-friendly pizza, sent its cooking oil off for conversion into biodiesel and looked more closely at energy, water and waste. While the chain's philosophy continues to mature, the cost savings are clear as day.Many consider this emerging Florida-based pizza chain one of the first restaurant operators to adopt sustainable, environmental and health initiatives. Since 2006,
"Back when we kicked off our initiatives, we knew we were in a very wasteful industry, and in 2006, sustainability was all about saving the earth and doing the right thing," says Vaughan Lazar, CEO and founder. "That's fine and good, but as a restaurant operator you have to start looking at everything from a financial standpoint and ask yourself, 'Am I saving money?'"
Not everything has to be about money, of course, but the lesson learned is that a potential cost-saving analysis should be an integral part of a decision to adopt more sustainable practices. From there, it's about staying committed and transparent. "You have to walk the walk, so to speak," says Lazar. "People see right through anything else."
A typical cost analysis for Pizza Fusion includes looking at the life cycle of equipment as well as energy-, water- and waste-saving potential. Innovation in manufacturing and design opens up many more opportunities in this regard, says Lazar. While waterless urinals might have been "alien creatures" years ago, combined with simple things like low-flow sinks, aerators and sprayers, they enable Pizza Fusion to realize at least a 40 percent cost saving.
While monitoring utility savings through monthly bills is easy enough, many companies now offer energy, water and even waste audits. While it may not make sense to purchase all-new energy-efficient equipment at once, operators going forward should consider these pieces when replacing old items, Lazar adds. One LED lightbulb might not make a
difference, but an entire grid certainly will.
The chain also took a closer look at the word "local," realizing that it doesn't always mean better, but noting the shipping cost savings of buying from vendors traveling less than 500 or even 100 miles. When it comes to packaging, switching to 100 percent recyclable cardboard boxes for pizzas, compostable to-go containers for salads and sandwiches, and corn-based utensils might not have saved money up front, but it fit in line with the sustainable brand. And removing garbage cans and weighing the food and scraps that are thrown away has helped create a strong awareness about waste over the years.
"It's not necessarily a smart financial decision to adopt a sustainability plan," says Lazar. Restaurants don't need to change everything today, but looking at sustainability over the short and long term — with clear goals — will reap the most rewards, philosophically and financially, he adds.
A lot has changed since Dennis Pierce attended a small conference focused on colleges with their own gardens at Yale University 15 years ago. That was before the word "sustainability" became a standard part of the foodservice lexicon, says Pierce, director of dining services at the University of Connecticut (UConn). Now UConn is a leader not only in residential dining — serving more than 180,000 meals a week through 8 facilities — but also in environmental and utility management awareness and practice. In fact, the college recently earned certification from the Green Restaurant Association as well as LEED Gold certification for its McMahon dining facility.
Pierce notes a few key changes over the years: switching from a scatter system with prepared food to a more upscale, interactive dining approach and reducing the plate size from standard nine-inch versions to smaller ones, quickly preventing food waste (an improvement that began with the abandonment of trays years before).
Though the students have unlimited access to the dining halls at all times of day, "we gave it more of a restaurant approach with the smaller portions of better-quality food, and we found the students throw less food away than they did in the past," says Pierce. In terms of the waste stream, paper products get composted, while food waste gets pulped and dehydrated in on-site composting machines.
Pierce shares some important lessons: "If you are a large university, it's much more of a challenge from the procurement side," he says. "You can't have a farmer come up to the back dock and deliver food." Still, by working with a state representative, Pierce was able to modify Connecticut law and raise the budget for food purchases by state institutions from $10,000 to $50,000 in order to pay for more local and sustainably raised food.
"Even though you have challenges or infrastructure problems that might prevent you from being more sustainable, there are a lot of people interested in making important changes," says Pierce. "You just have to look for them."
Since shifting to a completely scratch-cooking kitchen operation and weighing waste last year, Nardin Academy has seen its costs go down even after some initial upfront investments. "We don't overproduce, and use every scrap we can," says Leslie Johnson, vice president of finance and operations for the academy.
Other cost-cutting, sustainable initiatives that the school embraces include removing garbage cans and introducing compost bins and scales to monitor and cut down on waste, using more permanentware and switching to more environmentally friendly packaging and disposables where necessary. The school has even invested the time and energy to clean yogurt containers and juice boxes to send off to a manufacturer that will make pencil cases, folders and even backpacks with the recyclables, which Nardin Academy can then purchase back. As a result, Nardin Academy has diverted an estimated 82 percent of its waste from landfills.
These initiatives are all part of the pre-K-8 Montessori school's community-wide program, Sustainable Nardin, which began five years ago, Johnson explains. Through the program, parents, families and alums not only learn more about what the school does, they also help out through fundraisers and volunteer efforts.
One of the most important lessons learned, particularly from going to a scratch kitchen, Johnson says, is the need for proper equipment and smallwares. "We had to buy pots and pans and create more storage for fresh food. We also bought a braiser, a tilt skillet and extra refrigeration."
Training represents an important part of going green. "You need to teach staff to shut down the dishwasher when not in use and not leave it in a rinse cycle," she says. "It's important to train staff to use the new equipment properly. It's important for people to understand why you're making the changes you're making." And while the switch from "lunch ladies" to real chefs and sous chefs hasn't led to an increase in hired staff, it has necessitated a new staff with different culinary skill sets.
Reaching out to the community also helps with a push for sustainability. "We have discovered our population has a heavy buy-in," says Johnson. "Many of our parents have adopted these sustainable practices at home and are thrilled to see their school doing it. Those not aware have asked a lot of questions and have even volunteered to assist." The school also leverages its website, newsletter and school events to communicate with parents. Communication with the principal and access to curriculum are huge for schools looking to become more sustainable, Johnson adds.
For Nardin, a hidden gem behind going green turned out to be the school's switch to solar energy. Investing in solar panels has saved the school about $2,500 a year. And automatic flushers and hand sinks — simple changes —have significantly cut down on water bills. The school also dumped its drinking fountains and installed reusable water bottle filling stations for the students, which ultimately saves more water and is healthier for the kids.
The value of this type of measurement and regular analysis is another important lesson learned, says Johnson. And collaboration between departments remains perhaps most important.
"You have to have all of your kitchen and nonkitchen departments on board," she says. "If you want to measure your program and keep things running efficiently, you have to partner with facilities. Our chef and sous chef have even brought an understanding of the kitchen practices to the students by inviting math classes to come in and do research on our waste logs and tracking system."