To hear Field Failing tell it, building a sustainable restaurant is more about the journey than it is about the destination.
Over the years, he’s implemented scores of changes at his Fields Good Chicken stores in New York City to try to reduce the brand’s impact on the planet. The three restaurants compost waste in the kitchen to divert it from landfills. They source mostly local ingredients to cut down on carbon use, purchase renewable energy tax credits, serve food in biodegradable and recyclable packaging, and donate 1 percent of proceeds from certain items to environmental causes.
“We didn’t look at the wall one day and say, ‘We need to make this sustainable.’ As you’re picking every detail in the restaurant, you peel back the layers,” Failing says. “To be sustainable is a very, very difficult thing. It’s almost unachievable to be actually sustainable by the definition of the word."
It requires constant effort. He often has to harp on employees to follow restaurant-composting procedures. His pains to design energy-efficient restaurants are somewhat offset by the old, drafty buildings they inhabit in New York. And many supplier markets are still catching up to the wider change toward sustainable practices, Failing says.
He’s successfully found earth-friendly products like spalted maple wood, which comes from the decaying maple trees already fallen on the forest floor. But other items, like basic kitchen appliances, have yet to evolve much beyond what the general consumer can buy in a big-box store, Failing says.
“I went to a kitchen designer and said, ‘Give me everything energy-efficient you can find.’ But there’s not that much out there,” he says. “It’s not very straightforward, and I feel like I’m still wrapping my head around it. One thing I’ve learned with sustainability is it’s super complicated.”
Restaurant sustainability efforts have been hyped for years. But now, nearly a dozen years after former Vice President Al Gore released his “An Inconvenient Truth” documentary, operators like Failing find themselves quietly making changes behind the scenes as they perfect the art and science of “going green.” Many operators have moved beyond basics like recycling bins to tackle more systemic issues like food waste and food-supply systems. Along the way, many have learned that sustainability efforts are a lot like any other in a complicated restaurant business: hard work that requires daily execution.
“It’s still an important topic, but it doesn’t have the buzz that it maybe did a few years ago,” Failing says. “And maybe that’s because a lot of restaurants have started to do their part in terms of sustainability, or at least started to talk about it.”
In the 27-year history of the Green Restaurant Association, restaurants have only doubled down on their sustainability efforts, says the group’s president, Michael Oshman. Over the years, as technology has improved, the price of environmentally friendly toilets, appliances, and even solar panels has plummeted, he says. At the same time, suppliers have expanded their options for compostable, recyclable, and biodegradable products like bags and forks for everyday restaurant use.
“What is really different now is that almost everybody in the marketplace now knows what direction they need to go,” Oshman says. “They know it’s not a fad.”
He says restaurants often kick off their environmental improvements with common-sense moves that actually save money. LED lighting and low-flow plumbing devices can help keep utility costs down. And diverting waste from dumpsters to recycling or composting streams can often cut trash-collection costs, Oshman says.
The Green Restaurant Association certifies restaurants for their sustainability efforts, as well as for their commonly used restaurant supplies—including everything from hand dryers to coffee beans. While many restaurants are refining their strategies, Oshman acknowledges there’s still plenty of work yet to be done to decrease the impact restaurants inflict on the environment.
“This is a long game,” he says. “It took us a long time to create a business that was unsustainable, and it’s a long, steady road to move us in the right direction. And we’re going in the right direction.”
As some of the largest purchasers of seafood in the Pacific Northwest, leaders of the Sustainable Restaurant Group hope to set an example for other restaurants and purveyors on how to be a green operation.
“We have lots of influence with suppliers,” says Cory Schisler, creative director for the restaurant group. “It makes it easier for other restaurants to hop on.”
The group’s full-service Bamboo Sushi concept and the fast-casual QuickFish Poké Bar restaurants avoid seafood items that the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program warns are harvested in an environmentally destructive manner. The company’s online carbon footprint calculator measures the impact of each individual menu item—a tool that has sparked changes like paring down meat dishes because of their high carbon toll.
Schisler likens consumer interest in sustainability to the popularity of farm-to-table dining and the craft movement, which celebrate not only where items come from, but also who makes them and how.
“I see it really not as a fad or a trend. It’s really a movement toward people asking more questions,” he says. “People are more aware than ever before.”
Still, not all customers care about such endeavors, Schisler says. Many come to QuickFish simply for its tasty poké bowls. For those customers, restaurant leaders hope communications like video messages and notes on emailed receipts help impart the importance of sustainably sourcing everything from fish to building materials.
“The name of the game is exposing more people to our story and getting a little bit of education woven into that experience,” he says.
As restaurants increasingly tackle the basics, like recycling and energy-efficient appliances, many are shifting their focus to food waste, a persistent problem in nearly every foodservice operation. The American Food Waste Alliance estimates that 25–40 percent of the food prepared in the U.S. is never consumed. Aside from wasting money, labor, and fuel, food waste burdens landfills, where it creates the greenhouse gas methane.
“There’s been a certain amount of waste that’s been viewed as acceptable in these operations. And I think that’s changing,” says Andrew Shakman, cofounder and CEO of foodservice technology company LeanPath. “I think people realize food waste is a moral outrage and a big problem.”
The EPA’s food recovery hierarchy identifies source reduction as the best tool to combat food waste. And Shakman says it’s far easier to avoid waste in the first place than it is to funnel leftovers to hungry people, animal feed, or compost.
“The irony is the most impactful thing they can do is avoid waste in the first place,” he says. “And food-waste prevention is where they’re going to save the most money.”
LeanPath leverages smart bins, digital scales, and cameras to measure food waste and identify its main culprits. Shakman says the largest driver of pre-consumer food waste comes from overpreparation. “We’re big believers that this is an area that gets overlooked,” he says. “It’s just amazing when you look at how much money is going in the garbage.”
Still, Shakman is optimistic that operators are tuning into the issue more. Even those that thought they had a solution like food donations or composting are rethinking their approach.
“It’s still pretty early days,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for 14 years, and I’ve watched the evolution of the industry move from doing nothing about waste, then doing compost, then talking food donations. Now we’re at the advent of prevention.”
In full-service restaurants, chefs can combat food waste by pushing specials that feature ingredients that are over-supplied. Soups and stews, for instance, can help clean out walk-ins of leftover meats and vegetables. But such options are often off the table for highly regimented quick-service and fast-casual concepts.
“Our product is super consistent. People want it to be the same,” says John Pepper, cofounder of Boston-based burrito chain Boloco. “They want it prepared the same day, if not within the same hour.”
With little flexibility on the menu, Boloco has partnered with Food for All, an app that offers hungry diners discounted meals from local restaurants that would otherwise go to waste. Essentially, diners browse the app at the end of the day to see what items are available.
Pepper, who recently repurchased a majority stake in the burrito concept, has made sustainability a key priority of the business. But food waste is particularly tough for him to swallow. He noted that farmers and processors actually make enough food to feed the globe’s 7.4 billion people. But hundreds of millions of people go hungry each year.
Pepper is self-motivated to decrease the footprint of his nine-unit chain “because most restaurants are pretty harmful to the environment.” But even if he was uninterested, he says, city and state regulations—think bans against Styrofoam cups and plastic bags—would still force him to act.
“If we don’t take steps forward, regulations and the government are pushing from the back end anyway. Even if restaurants choose not to care, there is increasing regulation at all times,” he says. “I think it matters, because if you aren’t accustomed to making those changes, it gets hard to execute on those things. That’s when it challenges the economics—when you’re just waiting until the last second and you begrudgingly go along with what you’re forced to do.”
Shake Shack is another concept that pursues sustainability efforts; the green operations are something that fit into the burger chain’s promise to “Stand For Something Good.”
Shake Shack recycles all bottles and plastics, sources meats from sustainable farms like Niman Ranch, and meticulously searches for the lowest-impact building materials. Booths feature lumber certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council. Reclaimed barn wood lines the walls, and reclaimed bowling-alley lanes come back to life as tabletops.
“Each Shack is constructed thoughtfully and purposefully to fit its unique environment,” says Andrew McCaughan, vice president of development, “using a creative design approach that creates places and experiences like nowhere else.”
The New York–based company also leverages an automated oil filtration system from Restaurant Technologies, which helps it cut back on oil waste and prevents oil from unnecessarily filling landfills. A Restaurant Technologies case study on Shake Shack’s use of the system found that the burger chain avoided the disposal of 24,384 pounds of trash—about 124 dumpsters worth of garbage—by using the oil management system in 2015. The company has worked with Shake Shack since 2008.
As restaurateurs take a deeper dive into the garbage to get their hands around food-waste problems, they must look beyond mere fruits, vegetables, and proteins, says Tina Swanson, vice president of customer experience at Restaurant Technologies. While frying oil is often among the highest food spends in a quick-service restaurant, she says it doesn’t receive the same scrutiny as other perishable items.
“I think they are overlooking it because, for the most part, the industry itself looks at oil as sort of a means to an end,” she says. “It’s not a condiment. It’s not necessarily an edible food item in and of itself. It tends to not be top of mind in thinking about it in terms of spoilage and overpreparation.”
Restaurant Technologies offers a system that automates the filling, draining, and cleaning of fryer oil. By installing large tanks, the system automatically measures oil quality, monitors filtering, and prevents workers from moving heavy, sometimes hot, containers of oil around the kitchen.
Most of the oil is recycled into biodiesel, and Swanson says the automated system puts an end to the residual waste left inside the oil jugs commonly used in the industry. Restaurants also use less oil, because the system uses quality measures rather than a predetermined schedule to choose when to replace the oil. By delivering oil directly to large tanks, the company’s process keeps those cardboard-wrapped plastic jugs from going to the landfill.
One of the company’s clients, a large KFC franchisee, avoided 300,000 pounds of waste in 2016, keeping 200,000 jugs of oil out of landfills and saving more than 4 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions in the process, Swanson says. Restaurants love to tout such efforts with their customers, she adds, but most are still buying for convenience and cost savings—not solely for the environment. “In terms of a sales tactic from us, it is an added benefit,” she says, “but not typically one they will buy off of.”