Regardless of the concept – or number of locations – even simple steps in sustainability can easily be implemented
By Nancy Wood
When the topic is sustainability in the restaurant industry, first thoughts immediately turn to sourcing local food and using energy-efficient equipment. But in today’s environment, more and more owners and operators are looking for – and finding – a broad array of strategies and tactics they can implement to reduce waste, lower their carbon footprint and minimize their impact on the environment.
The truth is, consumers are increasingly choosing restaurants that have sustainable practices in place. The famed Michelin Guide – a recent arrival to the Atlanta area – even has a category that awards a green star to restaurants that institute highly sustainable practices like working with local farmers, growers and fishers; utilizing seasonal ingredients; avoiding waste; reducing or removing entirely single-use plastics; and generally working to have a lower environmental impact. Among the 11 in the U.S. with this special designation are names known far and wide, including Chez Panisse and The French Laundry.
In Georgia, more and more chefs and restaurateurs are taking steps to adopt sustainability strategies and letting their customers know about their efforts. For concepts with missions built around broader practices that affect our environment, their efforts not only make a difference, but also set the tone for attracting guests who want to support those efforts.
According to Oracle’s Restaurant Scene 2022 global survey, restaurants that make efforts to lower food waste had an influence on 54% of customer’s buying decision, while 49% of the respondents said having biodegradable or recyclable food packaging influenced their purchasing decision. The survey also found that 70% of respondents were interested in healthy menu choices and 42% of respondents were influenced by takeout delivery services with low or zero emissions.
Across the industry, sustainability efforts generally begin with local sourcing for everything from produce and dairy products to poultry and meat. Steven Satterfield, the James Beard Foundation Award-winning chef and co-owner of Atlanta’s Miller Union, has long been known for his seasonal menus using grass-fed beef, pastured poultry and pork, local produce, grains and dairy products. And while local and regional sourcing play a key role in his restaurant, good farming practices are just as important.
“Sustainability changes all the time the more we learn,” says Satterfield. “It’s constantly evolving.” For Satterfield, having conversations with farmers and ranchers about their practices and how they operate is important, and one hot topic is regenerative agriculture. “It’s essentially more about the soil and ways in which you can raise food and is sometimes used for raising animals.”
One local grain producer he uses, for example, grows some cover crops that they sell as produce, but those cover crops also put nitrogen back into the soil. Plus he only purchases pasture-raised poultry and pigs and grass-fed beef.
While sourcing locally is most important to Satterfield, especially for fruits and vegetables, good practices are just as important. “We have made a lot of relationships over the years and continue to find growers we can work with,” he says.
Although it may be easier to source locally with an ever-changing fine dining menu, even casual service restaurants with multiple locations, like Farm Burger, are making every effort to incorporate locally sourced items into their menus as part of their sustainability efforts. With 11 locations in four states and a kiosk in Mercedes-Benz stadium, co-founder and president George Frangos –with co-founder (and farmer) Jason Mann – based their concept on connecting the soil, animal, plant, rancher, butcher, chef and customer. The menu features 100% grass-fed beef and grass-fed pigs, as well as locally sourced produce and dairy products whenever possible.
For Frangos, local sourcing in a new location starts with visiting farmer’s markets and building relationships. “Maybe where you were 10% local sourcing in the beginning,” he says, “within a year we might be at 30% to 35% because you get into that network.” While sourcing local produce and dairy products has to be balanced according to what’s available and in season, their pasture-fed proteins are not negotiable.
“Outside of our proteins, we never say we’re 100% organic or 100% seasonal. We just really balance it throughout the year and make sure that wherever we can, a large amount of our dollars are spent on local produce and the local economy and the farmers.” As the concept has grown, Frangos says this part of operating a sustainable restaurant “always feels like an evolution.”
Like Satterfield, Frangos agrees that the biggest new trend in sustainability is regenerative farming. “It’s an important part of a cattle farmer or organic farmer taking care of the soil,” he says. “When you’re talking about regenerative farming practices, there are more ways farmers can test their soil, learn about the environment and how they can farm different products, or use their cattle or chickens to put more nutrients back and take better care of the soil and their carbon footprint. It definitely plays a role in our partnerships and our buying.”
Frangos even takes his employees on field trips to visit farms as part of their training.
“We’ll close the restaurant for the day and take our staff out to one of our cattle producers or one of our produce farmers or a local goat cheese maker. “The staff really gets the full story,” he says, “and they feel much more connected to the place they work and why they work there.”
Where There’s Food, There’s Waste
There are a number of steps every restaurant can take to become more sustainable, but one of the most critical is reducing food waste. A 2021 report from ReFED, a nonprofit organization focused on food waste reduction, found that restaurants in the United States generate about 11.4 million tons of food waste annually, or $25.1 billion in costs. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 30% to 40% of the food supply is never eaten, and food waste and packaging account for almost 45% of the materials sent to U.S. landfills.
Taking steps to mitigate the impact food waste has on the resources used to produce the food and the impact it has on the environment is one key area where restaurateurs can make a real difference. In fact, there are several restaurants around the world that are going a step further by operating with zero waste – which means they don’t send any trash or food waste to a landfill. Rhodora, a natural wine bar and restaurant in Brooklyn, doesn’t even have a trash bin, according to a New York Times article. Among their methods? A cardboard shredder that turns wine boxes into composting material and using beeswax wrap instead of plastic wrap.
Going zero waste may be a pipe dream for most eco-conscious restaurateurs, but there are a number of ways to make a difference – particularly with waste. “I think we all know that restaurants can be a big contributor to waste or greenhouse gases,” says Satterfield. “Restaurants are a hub for a lot of materials and resources, and I really wanted to create a restaurant that addressed that and try to lower our carbon footprint significantly.”
At Miller Union, Satterfield has instituted methods to not only reduce food waste but to significantly reduce the operation’s carbon footprint by composting, recycling and finding creative ways to use every part of the produce he purchases. (See Food Waste and Sustainability Tips here)
“One of the main things that we do is we compost,” he says. Referring to himself as ‘the compost police,’ Satterfield makes sure everyone in the restaurant knows exactly what to do when it comes to reducing waste. “When people start work at the restaurant, the first stop is where we separate the waste, so we explain that in detail. And,” he adds, “there are posters so that employees can see how to separate when they go to throw something away.”
Smaller composting bins are stationed in the kitchen for organic material, which is placed in a larger container supplied by Compost Now, the company he currently uses for a three-times-a-week pick-up. “We generate a lot of organic waste material, and that can include any kind of food scraps like corn husks or shrimp shells – even bones from fish and meats as well as any post-consumer dining scraps that are not consumed.” Satterfield also saves oyster and clam shells for Shell to Shore, a nonprofit that collects spent shells to help develop new oyster reefs on the Georgia coast.
Additionally, any kind of compostable paper product, like paper hand towels in the kitchen or that the customer uses can go in that same stream. “It greatly reduces the size of your dumpster,” he adds, “because when you start isolating all the organic materials that can break down in a compost system, you have a lot less waste.”
For standalone concepts, efforts at diverting waste from the landfill can be more manageable, but even at multi-location sites, small steps can be made to achieve good results. At Farm Burger locations, “we’ve always tried to compost and compost when we can,” Frangos says. “Sometimes it’s hard to find a local compost company, but if we have a local company or a local farmer who gives us compost bins, we put them out back and they pick them up.”
At his casual service locations, most of the paper products used are recyclable or compostable in terms of to-go ware like forks, knives and paper bags. “Those are always a big piece of it,” he says. “As the demand for sustainability and green products has ramped up over the last decade, the major restaurant paper suppliers all have a line of products that are green.”
In ongoing efforts to reduce waste and divert items from landfills, both Satterfield and Frangos recycle glass. “We’re able to put wine, glass cook bottles and spray bottles, and any kind of other glass container in there, like olive jars,” says Satterfield. And he also recycles menu paper by cutting them into smaller squares and using those as underliners to hold hot dishes on room-temperature plates for serving. “Anything we can do to save a little money or save something from going into the landfill waste stream, we’re going to try it.”
But some items can’t be diverted like plastic film, trash bags, twist ties, aluminum foil and latex gloves. And Satterfield is admittedly not a fan of single-use plastics. “I would love to get plastics out of the restaurant, but at the volume that we produce, it would be very tricky to convert,” he says, “but it’s certainly something that’s on my mind.”
Other methods that play a role in operating a sustainable restaurant include using energy-efficient equipment, installing LED lighting and even recycling cooking oil by installing a closed-loop system. Frangos and Satterfield both employ this method and work with companies that remove the dirty oil once its siphoned off and use it as biodiesel or in other green applications. “That’s a big thing as well,” says Frangos.
There’s no doubt that a lot of the measures restaurateurs can take to implement sustainable practices come at a price, but both Satterfield and Frangos agree that building it into your business plan is critical to operate and be profitable.
“The more you learn about what happens to trash after it goes into a landfill, how it affects the environment and just the sheer waste of food in our country, it has to be something that you just care about,” Satterfield says. “If everybody could do a little bit more to circumvent that, we would potentially have an improvement in the climate, but that has to be a group effort – it can’t just be one or two people. And if you are a conscientious person, care about the planet and the legacy that you’re going to leave behind – then I think that’s the way to look at it.”
Read more about making the most of your unused food and ideas to up your sustainability status from Satterfield and other chefs here.