Five years ago, when the legendary Chef Jean-Georges added a state-of-the-art roof garden on his new ABC Kitchen, the farm-to-table scene was already crowded.

Now, it’s almost impossible to open a new restaurant without considering sustainable dining. People expect more out of their food. They question the use of antibiotics, GMOs, and pesticides, and they willingly pay more for ingredients sourced directly from a farm. (And, it seems, even more for ingredients sourced directly from the top of the restaurant.)

Jeffrey Clark, Conserve Program Director at the National Restaurant Association, thinks sustainable dining is headed nowhere but up. With the growing numbers of food-conscious diners across the country, more and more often restaurants are faced with the challenge of becoming sustainable. Jeffrey sat down with IVY Magazine to discuss the future of sustainable dining, ways for restaurants to become more sustainable, and why the sustainability movement is so powerful and practical.

sustainable dining

Why is it important for restaurants to become more focused on sustainable dining? What is the biggest threat if they don’t?

Most people love restaurants and eating out, and they’re a huge part of our culture and economy. According to the National Restaurant Association, in 2015 restaurant sales are estimated to be $709 billion, with one million restaurant locations and a workforce of 14 million. Restaurants are highly resource-intensive businesses.

For example:

  • Restaurants are extremely energy-intensive, using about 5 to 7 times more energy per square foot than other commercial buildings, such as office buildings and retail stores. (Source: EPA ENERGY STAR)
  • A single, typical electric deep fat fryer uses more electricity than the average U.S. home in one year. (Source: EPA ENERGY STAR)
  • It takes approximately 20 gallons of water to make one pint of beer. (Source: Water Futures Partnership)
  • 25 – 40% of food grown, processed and transported in the US will never be consumed and a significant portion of that food waste takes place in restaurants. (Source: Food Waste Reduction Alliance)

Feeding a hungry nation is no small task. With these statistics and one million restaurant locations nationwide, taking steps to improve environmental impact is paramount.

Competition is one of the biggest threats to restaurateurs that don’t take steps to become more resource efficient. They will be outpaced by restaurateurs that focus on squeezing the most out of each gallon of water, whole chicken, or kilowatt-hour of energy to protect their bottom-line.

There is also competition for customers, with millennials—a demographic of 77 million people spending $600 billion annually—demonstrating a strong preference for environmentally and socially-minded businesses. Engaging this audience is key. Restaurateurs that don’t embrace environmental ideas are missing out on a long-lasting trend, not a fad. For the second year in a row, “environmental sustainability” was the third highest menu trend according to What’s Hot Culinary Forecast food trends of more than 1,000 chefs.

What are the best 3 tips for restaurateurs to become more sustainable?

1) Start small — fix leaky faucets, change light bulbs in the back of the house, recycle cardboard. Restaurants are complex businesses and trying to take on too much too soon will lead to frustration. Small steps can lead to big things. Learn specifics on the Conserve website’s Learn section.

2) Engage your employees — empower them. Get them excited about where the food comes from, recycling resources, and other engaging topics like sustainable beer. That helps them offer an honest, personalized narrative to restaurant customers that is genuinely contagious and helps boost business. A great example is a local Washington, DC small restaurant chain called Farmers Restaurant Group (see part 1 and part 2 videos).

3) Reach out to the larger community and ask for assistance — find out what is going on locally and see if you can get help. Find out if there are rebates or low-interest loans for energy- and water-efficient equipment from your utilities or non-profit organizations. Learn which sustainability projects your local universities are undertaking as well. Restaurateurs might learn a few things and drum up some new business in the process.

sustainable dining(c) Jeff Clark 2015

Tell us more about the work you’re doing with Conserve.

I work on Conserve: the National Restaurant Association’s environmental sustainability program. Conserve is for everyone who loves restaurants—owners, operators, chefs, employees, and their guests. It’s a resource to explore and learn about environmental sustainability in the restaurant business. Conserve’s best practices and training tools can help turn a restaurateur’s passion for sustainability into running his or her restaurant more efficiently and saving money.

Restaurants as businesses are always influenced by local ordinances, culture, and operation costs. For example, the environmental, business, and cultural issues a restaurateur faces in New York City is different than in Phoenix, AZ.

To start exploring these issues and push for sustainable dining, the Conserve team re-launched the Zero Waste Zones program in Atlanta in partnership with the Georgia Restaurant Association. We took Conserve’s best practices and made them directly applicable to the Atlanta market. So instead of saying, “Buy Energy Star-qualified ovens and check with your utility for a rebate,” in our Zero Waste Zones program we say, “Buy Energy Star-qualified ovens and call Georgia-Power at this number…” We also have a fantastic staffer in Atlanta going door-to-door, speaking to restaurateurs and beginning to change their mindset.

How can members specifically help support you?

IVY members can help in a number of main ways, including spreading the gospel about sustainability when they go out to eat. Ask your next server or manager about what they do in their business and express that it is important to you as a customer!

IVY members could also review the Conserve website and offer constructive feedback and marketing advice on how to keep improving the program and affect industry change. That would be a huge help!

We are always looking for unique partnerships with other organizations when it makes sense, so if there are any creative business IVY members out there, it would be great to connect.

Finally, find us on Twitter @ConserveNow and @ConservePro, on Facebook.com/RestaurantsConserve, or Conserve@restaurant.org to start a conversation with us!

sustainable dining

Tell me about your photography. Why did you start, and why is it important to you?

I actually really started when I began working for the Conserve program. We didn’t have the most engaging images, so I bought a low-end DSLR camera, thinking I would improve our visual appeal with my newly acquired gear!

I quickly learned that I didn’t know what I didn’t know and there was A LOT of technical and practical information I needed to absorb. After some spectacular failures, I figured out how to use the video and went for it! At the 2013 Chipotle Cultivate festival, I interviewed Richard Blais, Amanda Freitag, Nate Appleman, and a few other restaurateurs by myself: setting up the gear, doing the sound, and interviewing the guests. The lighting was too dark, the sound was scratchy, and the interview subject wasn’t always in focus on the video. It was completely exhausting.

That is when I quickly learned why people get Master’s degrees in photography, video, and sound: it is complicated, there is a lot of gear to handle, and a lot to learn! We created two Conserve Conversations videos out of it (Amanda Freitag and Nate Appelman), but I’ll definitely have help next time around (like with our professional videographer).

Since getting that first camera was about three years ago, I’ve continued more with the photography than the video. I really enjoy capturing that split second and preserving it for others to see in a creative (and hopefully) unique way. I launched my own website last year and display most of my photos there (JeffClarg.org). It is a really fun and rewarding hobby, and I want to keep honing my skills.

What is your most audacious life goal?

My most audacious life goal is certainly work-related: to shift the restaurant industry towards an environmental business model. Really, I want to change “environmentalism” from a tree-hugging, pie-in-the-sky ideal to a business-savvy, cost-saving standard practice. It will take dedication and hard work, but a small change in one million locations can offer very large overall sustainability results.

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