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Nancy Kruse and Bret Thorn discuss the rising tide of environmental initiatives.

The sustainability question: How much do customers care, and what should restaurants do about it?

Nancy Kruse and Bret Thorn discuss the rising tide of environmental initiatives

Senior food and beverage editor Bret Thorn and food trend expert Nancy Kruse discuss the latest cultural trends in this column.

Nancy Kruse begins:

My inbox has been on the brink of collapse under the weight of press releases and media reports on the subject of restaurateurs’ burgeoning environmental initiatives, Bret. On May 3, to cite one recent example, The New York Times announced that the city’s vaunted Eleven Madison Park’s new, post-pandemic menu would be meatless, albeit at the old, pre-pandemic price of $335 per person including tip. At the same time and at the other end of the operating spectrum, Burger King revealed that it had begun testing new green packaging in 51 stores in the Miami area.

nancy_kruse_0_1_0_0_1_0_0_0.pngAnd it’s not just restaurants. Influential cooking website Epicurious had declared just a week earlier that it would publish no new beef recipes because of cattle’s impact on the environment, thereby generating torrents of publicity and heated opinions both pro and con.

What was a trickle has become a flood of activity as food industry participants of all stripes step up to the (recyclable) plate. Yum Brands pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 46% by 2030 and achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, as its Taco Bell subsidiary launched a recycling program for its hot sauce packets. Dunkin’ committed to a raft of actions, including composting and end-of-day food donations, while Chick-fil-A began testing semi-autonomous, robotic delivery vehicles in select Southern California markets. These little rovers are cheaper alternatives to third-party delivery services, and they use no gasoline. In what is perhaps the ultimate example of putting your money where your commitment is, going forward Chipotle will tie executive compensation partly to sustainability goals.

Predictably, some of these announcements were met with skepticism, if not more strenuous pushback. Some critics of Epicurious suggested the move was a wishy-washy half step that amounted to empty virtue signaling. Others hurled charges of greenwashing, since the site will retain all its prior recipes that use beef. The editors stuck to their guns, however, citing positive reception from many of its users. Meanwhile, while the foodie elite heaped praise, other New Yorkers shrugged at the announcement from Eleven Madison Park, blogging that they can’t afford a meal there with or without meat.

All of this will lead to some difficult balancing acts as restaurants seek to juggle operational and profit imperatives with environmental responsibility and patron attitudes. Of course, there is nothing new about this interplay between customer values and restaurant response. In fact, the social and cultural changes that led women to flock to the workforce in the middle of the last century led to the rise of the contemporary restaurant business as we know it.

But if social pressure on operators is nothing new, what I think is different this time around is the unique confluence of factors, notably massive generational change coupled with the ubiquity of social media and the growing realization that our environmental resources are not limitless.

Calibrating the appropriate response won’t be a slam dunk for operators. There are food-cost implications, as many plant-based proteins are more expensive than their real meat counterparts. On the other side of the coin, Daniel Humm, chef at Eleven Madison Park, noted that while his food cost will go down, labor costs will rise substantially, since vegan cuisine at his level of execution is more labor intensive and time consuming.

Then there are the mixed signals sent by patrons. You’ll recall that a few years back, they pushed operators like McDonalds and Shoney’s to pledge allegiance to cage-free eggs, a costly long-term commitment that chains are still striving to fulfill, even as these same consumers opted for less expensive conventional eggs in the supermarket case. What’s more, we ate lots and lots of meat last year: Epicurious notwithstanding, the USDA reported a distinct uptick in beef consumption in 2020 to a forecasted 58 pounds per capita.

Most of us agree that consumer concern over the environment and related sustainability issues is real; there’s plenty of research to back this up. The critical question to me is whether they’ll open their wallets to the same extent that they’ve opened their minds and shifted their attitudes to support sustainability efforts.

So what’s an operator to do, Bret? And while you’re pondering that question, I’ll just put it out there that I’m more than open to an invitation to be your guest at the freshly reopened Eleven Madison Park. I’ll pick up the tip.

Bret_Thorn_0_1_0_0_1_0_0_0.pngBret Thorn responds:

Nice try, Nancy, but the tip is included in the price at Eleven Madison Park. The restaurant’s publicist did point out to me that EMP has more than 400 wines priced at less than $100, so if we drink judiciously and skip coffee, with tax we might be able to slip out of there for less $900.

That’s a lot of money for dinner, but it’s a microscopic drop in the warming, rising ocean compared to estimates of the cost global warming could have in the coming decades if we don’t do something about it. The National Resources Defense Council reports a projected decrease in gross domestic product in the United States alone of $1.9 trillion a year, in current dollars, by 2100 resulting from four factors alone: hurricane damage, real estate losses, energy costs and water costs. It’s sort of the NRDC’s job to be a bit alarmist about such things, but that number falls within estimates by the Brookings Institution.

Closer to our own timeframe, the devastating wildfires in California in 2020 cost an estimated $10 billion in property damage, not to mention the lives lost or the psychological damage of knowing that fire tornados are a thing now. It’s not clear that global warming was the main cause of the wildfires, but California’s dryer, warmer climate certainly didn’t help.

Add to that the destruction of natural habitats that will lead to the extinction of species and decreased biodiversity on the planet, which weakens the entire global ecosystem, and the non-monetary costs dwarf the monetary ones.

But do you know what else costs a lot? Compostable packaging and those horrible paper straws that don’t work nearly as well as their plastic counterparts that clog our waterways and go up sea turtles’ noses.

Single-use plastics from restaurants are actually a major polluter: The conservationist group ReThink Disposable conducted a litter survey of the San Francisco Bay area between 2012 and 2015 and found that 67% of waste in storm drains and catch basins was restaurant takeout items. With the increase in takeout and delivery during the pandemic, that number has likely increased.

You mentioned greenwashing, and there’s plenty of that. Just because packaging is compostable or recyclable in theory doesn’t mean that it won’t end up in a landfill, anyway; it depends on local jurisdictions’ ability to handle the waste. Also, the demand for recycled plastics is much lower than the supply, which means that theoretically recyclable plastics often are disposed of through burning, which releases toxins, and more carbon, into the atmosphere.

At any rate, making the calculations of the actual carbon or waste impact of a product is definitely beyond my expertise and probably beyond that of most restaurants. The math is hard, the variables are complex and there are bills to pay.

But global warming is real, as is the poisoning of our air and waterways. As you indicated, these issues seem to be particularly concerning to younger people who might make their spending decisions accordingly once they have more disposable income. So might older people, given the soul-searching that the pandemic has forced on many of us.

I had lunch with a friend a couple of weeks ago, now that we’re both vaccinated, and he said that last summer he had become what he called a “polite vegetarian.” If he’s in Arkansas, he’ll eat ribs; if there are some pork dumplings that he’ll regret not trying, he’ll try them; if he’s a guest somewhere where not eating meat would be rude, he’ll eat it. But it’s now easy to eat meatless meals if you want to and, as a mutual vegan friend of ours explained his lifestyle choice, it’s “better for me, better for you, better for the animals and better for the planet.” So, why not?

Well, there are a few reasons, like that ignoring sustainable fisheries while trying to feed everyone on the planet puts up unnecessary obstacles, and it’s possible that well managed cattle pastures could actually be carbon-negative under proper conditions. But the fact remains that some people of all generations are being more thoughtful about what they eat and drink and operators should listen to what their customers say they want.

But they also should think about what they want for themselves. Restaurants need good labor models and adequate capital and solid cost controls, but they also need to be operated by people who love them, or at least enjoy them a lot. There are much easier ways to make money, but running restaurants is supposed to be fulfilling and, ideally fun. If restaurateurs care about one or all of the pressing sustainability issues, then they should commit to them: Partner with local conservation groups or other organizations in their community, discuss their priorities with their vendors and tell their customers what they’re doing.

But they should remember that their customers are probably watching, and social media watchdogs can be unkind to say the least. They shouldn’t make promises that they can’t keep. 

Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News.
Contact her at [email protected]

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] 

Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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