Greening the Restaurant Industry

Note: Scroll to the bottom to find out about the new Green Kitchen Certification offered by
Food Service Warehouse

Dear Readers,

Some of you have inquired about how I’ve been spending my time since wrapping up production (and living) on the Sust Enable project at the end of July.  As I wrote in my post “Voyage to the Center of the United States,” my August was spent travelling the country, experiencing its still awe-inspiring natural beauty.

Since mid-September, I have taken work waitressing nearly full time at a restaurant.  And no, that isn’t sustainable.

Sust Enable, my three month foray of 100% sustainable living, taught me a lot of things.  The first thing I noticed after the project concluded is that I was hopelessly broke.  Trying to innovate a radical new eco-conscious way of living doesn’t pay… rather, it sapped money, as I watched my planned resources for feeding and housing myself in a “100% sustainable” way fall through.

Partly, I am okay that the Sust Enable project didn’t pay me at all–it was an educational experience to me about how money works from an outsider’s perspective.  On the other hand, I was teetering near the brink of not being able to provide for myself–literally!  As much as I loathe the fact, nearly all systems for providing for one’s basic needs exist within the money-exchange system.  The ones outside of such a system and potentially sustainable, as I learned, are either insufficient, unavailable, or sabotaged at every possible opportunity by the capitalist system–by business owners, managers, policies, laws.

So, come September, I decided I really would like a place to myself.  I really would like to be warmed in freezing weather.  I really would like to have food readily accessible to me.  Basic ideas, no?  Certainly, each of these systems in their current states are unsustainable in terms of the environment.  But at the very least, I now have a perspective on how that might be different in the future, and can hopefully work to create a society that doesn’t have to trade the health of our air or water for our immediate stability and livelihood.

Working as a server in a restaurant has been a difficult situation for me.  I know I need the money… but holding that thought aloft every day above a sea of swirling, conflicting passions has been challenging.  I watch perfectly good food go uneaten and thrown out–but paid for–because of the sentiments that day of the purchaser.  I see inordinate amounts of cruel and unsustainably-harvested meat–from steak to seafood–served with enhancing garnishes on plates to carefree consumers, who will never feel or see the horrors of a meatpacking factory.  Money accounts for all.  I see servers, some of the hardest working people I have ever met, go untipped (our main source of income) by a table of cheerful business people.  But most of all, I see a continuous flow of garbage–paper, plastic, glass, and food–into the trash bins.

I understand why the food industry is unconcerned with making environmentally sustainable choices, at least for right now.  They are concerned with efficiency.  What quality of food will be happily exchanged for which price?  How much can we get from our employees for the rate we pay them?  In any business model, examining efficiency as a top priority is important, but especially in the fast paced world of a upscale restaurant, where the presence of a stray mouse or a single, influential unhappy customer can turn the company’s future on a dime.  But I wonder…

How much longer will the dangers of such decisions remain external to the company, and not actually internal to the company’s success?

“Externalities” is a word for when problems or risks–such as the environmental harm of massive amounts of waste–are removed from the sphere of the restaurant who produces them.  The restaurant benefits directly from their system of exchanging food for money (and waste), but the waste itself can be purged from the system entirely.  The environmental costs of the waste–to waterways, land, and air–become external now, and are shared by everyone and everything equally.  However, I can envision a few ways in which externalities might soon come back around and affect the company creating them.

One way is with consumer attitude.  Countless studies are showing that consumers are shifting their priorities when purchasing to aim for products that are more environmentally responsible, or at the very least, are purported to have directly healthful aspects for the consumer.  This means opting for unprocessed, natural grains over bread produced with partially-hydrogenated oils and corn starches.  If one is informed about the environmental costs of producing meat, one begins to purchase vegetarian whenever possible as well.  This awareness of the environmental implications of all our actions–which, once ignored as externalities, are now posing significant physical threats to all of us through global warming, etc.–will continue to trickle through the global zeitgeist into more and more decisions made on the consumer level.  Restaurants like the one I work for, with a menu comprised of main dishes that are 90% meat, may feel the pressure of consumer desires and beliefs in form of declining sales.

Another way that restaurants may feel the pressure of their own externalities is through increasing prices for goods, paired with increasing legal control.  Perhaps the government will begin penalizing companies that contribute to global warming–this would mean the cost of meat, especially, as well as other high-scale food products like seafood, will rise.

I’d like to comment that another way externalities may affect restaurants is directly–that the quality of food and air and water will make it economically unsustainable to continue business in the current form… but I sadly know that such a statement cannot truthfully be made.  Industry of all kinds, restaurants included, have shown that they will forever care nothing for the quality of life or the environment… at least until they are made to pay for it in a tangible way.  For too long, all of our major governmental decisions that evaluated cost and benefit were based solely on the human-created economy.  What about the context in which humans live… the very air we breathe and water we drink and food we eat?  I feel that unless we reverse the trend of dangerous free-for-all capitalism, and put our mutual wellbeing in mind, we will soon see such natural birthrights as fresh air and uncontaminated foods become commodities… for sale to the highest bidder.

Who will be the first to step up and say “restaurants ought to be sustainable.  Mine will be”?  Somehow, I doubt that no one will… until it becomes profitable–first in attracting consumers, then in receiving government subsidies–for the restaurant industry to do so.  There are an increasing number of resources, including Food Service Warehouse, who now offers a “Green Commercial Kitchen” certification modeled after the LEED standards for building construction, and including educational resources and rewards.  As a server (and as an eater!), the thought of environmentally-conscious decisions being made on the level of my food is an appetizing one, indeed.

If you are a restaurant proprietor, owner or manager, Enter Food Service Warehouse Going Green’s Commercial Kitchen Sweepstakes! to become a pioneer on the path to a healthier food service industry.

photo credits: “Seafood Samples” by Amadscientist, published under a GNU Free Documentation License; other photos, public domain

  1. Dean Rodgedrs

    Consumers can put pressure on any/all restaurants to make simple changes. For example, letting them know that you’d like to see them switch from polystyrene or plastic to-go containers. My client, StalkMarket, references a study on its Website that highlights the fact that 83% of consumers say that environmentally takeout packaging is important and most of those consumers are even willing to help offset the cost. You can read about this in more detail here http://www.stalkmarketproducts.com/wholesale.htm. You can also put pressure on state and local governments to ban the use of eco unfriendly things like Styrofoam containers, etc. Finally, just let restaurants that are behaving in an environmentally responsible way know you notice and appreciate what they are doing and that it is importatn. You’d be surprised how many restaurants apreciate the feedback.

  2. Nancy Norton

    Every purchase we make in a restaurant or grocery store gives us an opportunity to show what we want from the food system. I let servers (and chefs when possible) know what I want – that I’d like to eat local food, pasture-raised meat and dairy, that I brought my own left-over containers . . . etc. It can limit what you eat, but choosing the restaurant and the dish can make for a much more sustainable dinner.

  3. Isabel

    Fantastic post. Fascinating and alarming to consider what we’ve given up in pursuit of efficiency. Education is key, and it’s heartening to see people making positive changes and more thoughtful decisions about the food they consume and the markets and restaurants they frequent. Fortunately, I see signs that more restauranteurs are sourcing locally and incorporating sustainable practices. Since local food is almost always more flavorful, making these decisions may be a wise business move as well. Keep in mind that design details remain key. Menu covers, lighting, seating, and quality fixtures all add to the experience and help shape patrons’ important first impressions. Here’s hoping for positive changes all around.

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