Learn how to promote supply chain sustainability in your restaurant

Published July 8, 2022

Sustainability is a top priority across all industries right now. You hear “ESG” or “sustainable farming practices” or “reduce your carbon footprint” every day as part of the cultural zeitgeist. But what does that mean specifically for restaurants?

The restaurant industry is an integral part of our society’s overall food supply chain. Therefore, it’s critically important that restaurant owners and managers are considering ways to make their restaurant food supply chain more sustainable. There are many points along the food supply chain to improve your restaurant’s sustainability strategies and ways that sustainable practices can have a positive impact on your business overall. 

Food sourcing

Let’s start at the beginning of the restaurant supply chain: sourcing. Where your restaurant is sourcing its food and supplies is equally if not more important than what you do with the food once you have it. When evaluating the overall effect of the sustainable practices at your restaurant, first think about your suppliers themselves. Are you prioritizing farms and food manufacturers focused on sustainability efforts? What is the environmental impact of their efforts? Farmers are implementing water conservation, utilizing renewables and even vertical farming to maintain sustainability. It’s not enough for you to reduce, reuse and recycle in your restaurant; sustainability starts with the ingredients you’re sourcing for your menu.

Another important tactic to keep in mind is sourcing locally. By finding a local supplier in your community from which to source your major ingredients and/or supplies, you’re decreasing your restaurant’s carbon footprint while simultaneously creating increased demand and supporting the local community. Because your supplier would be geographically close to your restaurant, the trucks don’t have to travel as far, decreasing fuel usage and subsequent carbon emissions. Not to mention, you’re bound to get fresher ingredients.

Finally, it’s worth thinking about the transportation methods that your suppliers use. For example, has your food supplier made investments in more fuel efficient trucks? The key to improving the sustainability of your restaurant’s supply chain is making small, incremental changes along the way. These seemingly minor tweaks will have an exponential impact as restaurant’s scale their businesses.

Related: How restaurants coped with food and labor shortages

Food storage and usage

Moving on from the food supply chain, let’s look at what your restaurant can do for sustainability after you have the supplies on site. When thinking about food storage, heating, cooling and lighting large quantities of food in your restaurant’s warehouse or supply room can be very expensive, making energy expenditure a top focus for restaurants implementing sustainable practices. Ways to make this possible include transitioning to LED lighting, implementing motion sensors to minimize light used and improving the insulation of your store room can decrease energy costs, particularly during the winter. Beyond food storage you can also work with your chefs to curate a menu that is centered around what’s in season. If you’re sourcing produce that’s ripe in a given season, you’re putting less strain on the farmers to use less than sustainable farming practices. Ultimately, a shift to more sustainable practices in your restaurant should give rise to many small changes you can make in managing your food storage and usage. 

Reduce waste

Finally, and this likely seems the most obvious when we think about sustainability, it’s important to think about ways to reduce waste and environmental impact from your restaurant.

First up, food waste. A great, easy way to reduce your food waste is to contribute to a community compost center. Not only will you sustainably be getting rid of your food scraps, but you’ll be contributing to local farming. Another more involved way to reduce your food waste is to invest in a just in time (JIT)  inventory system, integrated with your POS. This software will track your inventory levels on a real-time basis and place orders with your suppliers accordingly so that you’re not ordering extraneous food that will go to waste.

Upgrading your POS to track customer sales data on the cloud can also reduce food waste because you can access historical order volume data to inform your forecasts, making them more accurate, i.e. less risk of waste.

In addition to thinking about ways to recycle your restaurant’s food usage, you’ll also want to consider opportunities to reduce or reuse things like utensils, plates, etc. You can start first by converting these items over from paper or purchase supplies made from recycled materials. Next, you can reduce the packaging in which you serve your food or the number of trays/plates that are used. This will cut down on paper or plastic usage as well as the water needed for cleaning.

If you’re operating a fast casual restaurant, offer recycling bins with clear signage as to what should be put in them to encourage your customers to use them. If you're starting a new restaurant, think carefully about where you're building and/or buying and the environmental impact to any location you choose. Ultimately, there are countless ways to reduce, reuse and recycle your restaurant’s materials to strengthen your sustainability position.

Related: Leveraging technology to tackle food waste

What a more sustainable restaurant supply chain can do for you

Sustainable restaurant practices aren’t just good for the planet: they can benefit your restaurant at the same time. For example, studies show that more sustainable restaurant supply chain management increases your bottom line because you’re forced to be more efficient with your resources (costs). You’ll also be meeting the requirements of major food suppliers as many of them are now requiring restaurants to utilize sustainable practices to comply with FDA standards. All of these benefits are great for you, not to mention the positive impact sustainable changes can have on your customer base. Now more than ever consumers are making purchasing decisions based on ESG concerns, so it’s important that your restaurant be seen as a supporter of the future, a business that’s giving back.

The need for sustainable restaurant supply chains is not going away. Starting with food sourcing from sustainable, local farms to effectively managing your restaurant’s food storage and menu well to finding ways to reduce, reuse and recycle your waste, green supply chain management is critical to success in the restaurant industry going forward. As you make the transition to more sustainable practices, you can also expect to see a positive return on your investment as your brand strengthens in the eyes of your customers.

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