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Q-and-A: NRA Conserve director talks restaurant sustainability

5 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Restaurants with a sustainability plan have an advantage over the competition in several ways. Making an effort to protect the environment and prevent food waste helps restaurants make a connection with customers by showing that they care. Taking steps toward a sustainable operation is also good for the bottom line — energy-saving appliances, composting and on-site gardens can all help restaurants save money. With so many benefits, implementing a sustainability plan might seem like a no-brainer, but it can be a daunting task for busy restaurant owners who don’t know where to start.

To help restaurants get on the path to sustainability, the National Restaurant Association started the Conserve program, which aims to help restaurants become more efficient and engage with customers about the topics they care about. SmartBrief interviewed Conserve Program Director Jeff Clark about how the program has evolved and why restaurants shouldn’t wait to move forward with a sustainable business strategy.

Conserve was founded in 2008. How does the program today differ from when it was first established — what has the industry achieved and what challenges still remain?

The program has grown significantly and we’ve really focused on helping restaurateurs, chefs, and managers understand why environmental sustainability is important and can save them money, how to internalize their sustainability story into their own business habits, and how to communicate and share this story with their staff and customers.

In addition, the program is now free and an open resource for the entire restaurant industry!

Finally, Conserve is now different because we are partnering with other organizations to develop toolkits and educational materials, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program and the  Food Waste Reduction Alliance and their food waste toolkit. The Conserve program is really focusing on food waste in the coming year, since it is an enormous environmental problem as well as a way to help alleviate hunger in local communities in the United States.

There are still many challenges for the industry, such as the lack of recycling and composting infrastructure, meaning restaurateurs that want to recycle and compost have no place to do it. The energy and water use intensity in restaurants is also a big challenge but is often viewed as just a cost of doing business. For example, the average restaurant uses five times as much energy as other commercial buildings. In addition, the water used by one restaurant appliance (e.g., dishwasher) can dwarf the water use of an entire residential household. Restaurateurs don’t often realize how many resources they are actually using and, in drought locations like Southern California and Northern Texas, this can have a big effect on water tables (as well as get very expensive).

Why is it important for restaurants to embrace the concept of sustainability?

First and foremost, it will save them money. Yes, it takes a little time and some effort, but sustainability is about efficient use of resources. Businesses that squeeze the most out of everything they use, be it electricity, water, or oranges, are cost-effective and able to compete in today’s highly competitive marketplace.

Second, sustainability is extremely important to the millennial generation and will help attract customers and retain staff.

For example, we interviewed Clarice Turner, SVP of U.S. retail for Starbucks, and she talks about how the company’s environmental sustainability efforts are very important to millennials and really helps with employee satisfaction. She also states that their recycling efforts have saved the company thousands of dollars in waste hauling fees.

Dan Simons, of the Farmers Restaurant Group, serves as another example.  His company runs three local restaurants in the greater D.C. area, two Founding Farmers restaurants and one called Farmers Fishers Bakers. As outlined in a two-part interview (part 1 and part 2), Founding Farmers has a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified restaurant and are literally owned, in part, by 42,000 family farmers of the North Dakota Farmers Union.  The restaurant receives deliveries of the produce, meat, and flour from their farmer-owners (as well as from other locations) and then sends profits back to the farmers themselves. The Farmers Restaurant Group has internalized sustainability into its core business and it has paid off: Founding Farmers is one of the top reserved restaurants in the country on OpenTable.

What’s the biggest sustainability challenge facing restaurants today?

Time. Owners, managers, and chefs often do not have a lot of time to devote to sustainability projects because they are running complex businesses. Therefore, we try to make the Conserve program as easy as possible for them to quickly learn the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of sustainability efforts.

What’s your advice for operators who want to improve sustainability at their restaurant and are looking for a simple or affordable first step?

To really start, restaurateurs should first figure out what type of business they are and what they can actually achieve while remaining profitable. For example, renewable energy is great but many restaurateurs can’t afford to put solar panels on their roof. Restaurateur should really think about their sustainability story as part of their business mission and how they can relay this story to themselves, their employees and their customers in a truly genuine way.

Next, they should start with simple things. Fix leaky pipes. Close the walk-in the refrigerator doors when not in use. Turn off lights when they are not needed. Shut down their computers, TVs and point-of-sale systems at night.

Once these easy efforts are ingrained into the business, then they should work on more complex issues like start-up, shut-down schedules or Energy Star qualified cooking equipment.

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