Sustainability and Profitability in the Independent Restaurant

To be successful, independent restaurants have many factors to consider — having adequate labor, streamlining processes in the kitchen and developing new recipes, to name a few. Maintaining a solid bottom line is, of course, essential. 

With more customers looking for sustainable food options, not only in their own homes, but also when dining out, it begs a question: How can restaurants be environmentally responsible, but also profitable? 

There are several factors that can help meet those goals. 

Source Locally

In addition to supporting the local economy, purchasing fruits, vegetables, meats and grains from local producers also helps the environment. It eliminates long-distance transportation of goods, reducing fuel consumption and emissions, and it helps preserve local farmlands. The added benefits are produce that is fresh and seasonal and requires minimal processing. Sourcing locally also reduces the need for excess packaging, which also lowers energy consumption. Some independent restaurants may look to supplement local purchases with homegrown vegetables when onsite space allows. Patios, courtyards and roof tops are excellent places to add small gardens or planters for homegrown produce at significantly less cost. 

Processing vs. Packaged

Independent restaurants can gain sustainability benefits by processing fruits and vegetables in-house, as opposed to buying pre-cut, packaged products. Not only does whole produce eliminate plastic packaging, but it also has a longer shelf life so there is less waste. For example, once a bag of lettuce has been opened, it must be used within a few days or thrown away. Compared to that, a whole head of lettuce can last a week or more when stored properly. Whole fruits and vegetables also contain higher amounts of vitamins A, C and E without requiring the added preservatives that pre-cut produce does, and they retain moisture longer, for improved flavor. 

Continuous-feed food processors can support kitchen staff as they process whole produce, offering fast and consistent cuts. This can help address labor challenges since processing is faster than manual cutting, while also providing customers with fresh ingredients in their favorite menu items. 

Balancing Plant and Meat Options 

Offering a variety of plant-based meats or vegetarian entrees on the menu is another way to support sustainability in an independent restaurant, while also supporting the bottom line. These menu items are less expensive than meats, take fewer resources to produce and cut the greenhouse gas emissions associated with meat production. Running an additional meat-free special on a set day once or twice a week may also appeal to new customers seeking that option. 

That said, unless an independent restaurant aims to be fully vegan or vegetarian, meat-based menu items are still necessary to appeal to their customer base. Again, sourcing local beef, pork and chicken is most sustainable, as is processing it in-house. Grinding and cutting local meats in-house is typically less expensive than buying them. It is also possible to use more of the meat for a variety of menu items when purchasing whole animal product, thereby eliminating food waste. 

Use All Inventory

While most independent restaurants find ways to reuse ingredients, it doesn’t hurt to provide a reminder of this important way to prevent food waste. For example, making soup from leftover meat specials is a simple step in being sustainable and to lower costs. Engaging in programs that help feed the community is another means to maximize use of inventory, while also providing meals to those who need it most. Independent restaurant owners can contact food banks or other charities to find out how to donate products or meals. 

Making a Difference

Taking steps to offer more sustainable menu items doesn’t have to be at the expense of an independent restaurant’s profitability. With careful planning, owners and chefs can have a positive impact on their customers, the environment and their business. Researching sustainable practices and engaging in conversation with staff at other restaurants can also be a beneficial part of brainstorming new ideas.