Sustainability is having its moment. The restaurant industry is no exception.

From the farm to table movement to banning plastic straws, many industry leaders are shifting to more sustainable practices in their restaurants.

As the “Era of the Sustainable Restaurant” is dawning, restaurant owners are asking the question: Is focusing on sustainability, well…sustainable?

With so many restaurant owners on board with the environmental benefits of sustainable practices, they wonder if this big shift will help or hurt their bottom line. The answer might surprise you.

How Sustainability Efforts Can Improve Your Restaurant’s Bottom Line

The key to making sustainability work is focusing on the right efforts. According to Paul Kuck of Food News Feed, zeroing in on specific sustainability efforts can decrease costs considerably.

Take Arby’s for example. The fast food chain known for its roast beef sandwiches saw a 20% reduction in energy usage by investing in demand control kitchen ventilation and a high-efficiency cooking system that reduced the energy needed to prepare their roast beef by 67%.

Reducing energy usage is good for the environment and it helps to cut operating costs. With most restaurants running on razor-thin profit margins, these savings can add up quickly.

Here are a few other sustainability benefits to consider:

Lower Waste = Higher ROI

Investing in sustainable practices can be a hard sell to stakeholders. A new study on the business case for reducing waste is proving the benefits of sustainable practices.

Researchers looked at 1,200 business sites across 700 companies that implemented food loss and waste reduction programs and found that 99% of those businesses saw a positive return on investment.

Sustainability Can Lower Restaurant Costs by 30%

Restaurants are already spending $10 billion annually on energy costs, the bulk of that going to inefficiencies in how they manage cooking and food storage.

By reducing waste and eliminating cooking and storage inefficiencies, restaurants can lower their total operating costs by as much as 30%. Those savings can be used to invest in more cost-saving and eco-friendly changes.

Programs Can Reduce Employee Turnover

Sustainability can also have a significant impact on employees by helping the business recruit top talent, increase employee engagement, and increase retention.

Reducing turnover and increasing the engagement and productivity of employees can lead to substantial cost savings and efficiency gains for restaurants.

Guests Are Willing To Pay More

In addition to reducing costs, sustainability also loosens guests’ purse strings. A recent study found that 65% of consumers are happy to pay up to 10% more to dine at a sustainable restaurant versus a restaurant that simply serves organic food.  

6 Changes to Make Your Restaurant More Sustainable

It’s clear there are financial benefits to operating sustainably. But what do sustainable restaurant practices look like in reality? Here are a few ways to start reducing your restaurant’s carbon footprint and increase your profits.

1. Cook What’s In Season

Consider creating new menus for each season, which will allow you to use products when they are plentiful–and cheaper. For example, fresh green salads in the summer and hearty stews with root vegetables in the winter.

With this approach, you’ll immediately see your bottom line improve as you spend less on produce by sourcing more affordable, local ingredients.

2. Grow Your Own Food (or at least some of it!)

Growing food onsite can reduce food cost and inventory issues. How often have you run out of a critical item in the middle of a busy Saturday night?

Start slowly by growing herbs or greens that don’t require much maintenance or space, then add items such as tomatoes, cucumbers, or greens.

Think you don’t have room to grow your own food?

Uncommon Ground, in Chicago, uses their rooftop farm to grow a selection of tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, and peas.

Fresh City Farms and Bae Greens have similar urban farming programs in Toronto where restaurants can get fresh and home grown supplies at their source! 

3. Buy Locally Sourced & In Bulk When Possible

Knowing where you ingredients come from (and how much its costing you) is one of the keys to reducing yours costs and making your restaurant more sustainable.

There are considerable benefits to using local suppliers. Buying locally-sourced products reduces transportation costs and helps support businesses in your community. It also gives you access to fresher and potentially cheaper ingredients.

Bulk purchasing has several sustainability benefits as well. It reduces delivery fees associated with purchases and the cost per unit while lowering the carbon footprint of your restaurant as a whole.  

4. Manage All Your Waste

Reducing food waste is one of the simplest ways to reduce your operating costs. This can be done by staying on top of inventory and focusing on using food in advance of expiration. You can also use scraps for other dishes, for example, use veggie scraps to make vegetable stock.

Sarah Stegner, the chef and owner at Prairie Grass Café in Northbrook, Illinois, implements sustainability practices to minimize waste in seafood by purchasing fish in-season and using scraps to create other dishes.

Consider redesigning your menu to make the most of food items. For example, use chicken bones to make a tasty stock for chicken noodle soup or use overcooked hamburgers to create hearty chili.

Don’t forget other waste reduction opportunities. For example, swap paper towels for electric hand dryers and install automatic taps to reduce waste in the bathrooms. Opt in for washable napkins and tablecloths.

Together, these small changes can massively reduce the amount of waste your restaurant generates.

5. Think Beyond Food

Sourcing sustainably produced food and reducing waste is important, but look beyond food choices for other eco-friendly opportunities to increase sustainability at your restaurant.

For example, reconsider packaging materials for takeout orders. Switch to cardboard or compostable materials if possible. Serve salad dressing on the salad instead of in a disposable compote cup (or use a glass cup instead!), unless requested otherwise. Ask customers if they need all single-use items, such as straws, napkins, and disposable cutlery.

Look for ways to reduce those electrical bills by installing energy efficient LED light bulbs, using automatic turn off switches in the bathrooms, and purchasing energy efficient fridges and freezers.

6. Focus On The Long Term

Shifting to sustainable practices should not be about paying lip service to the newest trend to impress guests. Focus on the long term, and implement practices that are sustainable for your business as well as the environment.

Above all, listen to your guests and prioritize their suggestions on sustainability (when/if they fit in with what works for your business). Ask for input and consider the broader implications of your changes. For example, banning plastic straws entirely may create problems for persons with disabilities. Swapping to compostable take out containers may cause food to leak. Be willing to listen and look for changes that satisfy your guests and reduce your restaurant’s impact on the environment.

Your Restaurant Can Win on Profit and Sustainability Simultaneously! 

Implementing changes can be a challenge, particularly when multiple stakeholders are in play.

Start small by making incremental changes over time. Look for changes with the lowest barrier to entry and the highest ROI.

For example, when your current paper towel dispensers break, use that opportunity to replace them with electric hand dryers. If you need a new seafood vendor, look for a local supplier that focuses on sustainable practices.

Remember, sustainability practices are not just good for the environment–they are good for business too!