Sustainability is one of my favorite foodservice related topics. 

It’s one of those subjects that is specific enough so everyone knows what you are talking about and yet it’s broad enough that anyone can come up with their own definition of sustainability when it comes to foodservice. What’s more, foodservice operators and their supply chain partners can approach sustainability from any number of directions, which allows for a tremendous amount of customization and creativity.

I was reminded of all this and more during the National Restaurant Association’s annual trade show, which took place May 18-21 in Chicago’s McCormick Place. Specifically, on Sunday, May 19, I had the privilege of moderating a panel discussion that featured four giants in the area of foodservice sustainability: Greg Christian, Beyond Green – Sustainable Food Partners; Melanie Smythe, Candacity; Tony Spata, Hyatt Hotels; and David Zabrowski, Food Service Technology Center. During the hour-long presentation this quartet of foodservice pros shared their experiences, fielded questions from the standing room only crowd and more as they helped shape the foodservice industry’s sustainability conversation for years to come.

What drove this point home for me was when I asked each of them to provide one ingredient or attribute that every sustainable foodservice operation must have. The logical answers would be sourcing locally produced, organic ingredients or using Energy Star-rated equipment. While both good ideas, the point our panel made loud and clear was that any successful sustainability program has to be holistic, meaning it can’t be solely about where the broccoli comes from or what kind of dishwasher is used. Rather, it has to touch every aspect of the foodservice operation. If a foodservice operation is not headed in that direction, they are merely checking off boxes and will not reach their full potential.

With that in mind, here are the seven ingredients every sustainable foodservice operation must have:

  1. Have a plan and stick to it: The concept of sustainability is rather broad and has lots of different elements. It is important to develop a plan of action and stick to it to ensure that progress is made and that team members don’t get distracted.
  2. Measure and benchmark: It is important to understand where the operation starts from in in terms of its sustainable efforts. This will allow the operation to measure progress and evaluate its success.
  3. Critical thinking and reliable information: When it comes to sustainability, no sacred cows exist. It is important to evaluate what an operation does and why and ask whether there is a better approach that will make the operation more sustainable. And, naturally, reliable information is a necessary component.
  4. Holistic approach: It’s too easy for an operation to cite the fact that they source organic produce or use compostable service items and claim they are sustainability oriented. Simply put, a sustainable philosophy should permeate every aspect of a foodservice operation from procurement to production to service and all points in between.
  5. Maintenance plan: Specifying the latest, most energy-efficient foodservice equipment is great but without proper maintenance that equipment will not live up to its promise. So it’s important to develop and stick to a planned maintenance program and properly train employees on how to properly use the equipment.
  6. Return on Investment: If done correctly sustainable foodservice initiatives should provide a return on investment. And calculating ROI is one way to make sure that a sustainable initiative is heading down the right path.
  7. Stretch yourself to do one more thing: Sustainability is a direction, not a destination. That means no operation can ever afford to rest on their laurels. Always look for one more way to enhance the sustainable nature of a foodservice operation. One way to engender this kind of thinking is to let employees know what the foodservice operation is trying to accomplish and why. Doing so empowers the employees to think critically and unlocks their