7 Ways To Be More Sustainable

Want to help your brand reach its sustainability goals? Copy these tips from industry pros.

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For some restaurant brands, sustainability might start with meeting regulations, but there are so many more benefits. “I encourage companies to not simply look at sustainability as a compliance requirement, but to look at it as an opportunity to drive value by engaging new customers and reducing costs,” says James Cascone, sustainability leader and partner at Deloitte Risk & Financial Advisory. Menu item innovation may attract new customers, for example, and food waste reduction helps the environment and the bottom line. Plus, operating more sustainably gives brands a competitive edge. We asked industry pros for tips on how operators with equipment and supplies responsibilities could help their brands meet sustainability goals. Start by tracking energy and water use, several say, then look to the following steps:

1. Maximize energy efficiency

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Chipotle debuted its all-electric design last year.

Electrifying kitchens, a step toward decarbonization, marks one of the bigger trends in sustainability. Chipotle Mexican Grill introduced an all-electric restaurant design in 2023. The design helps it reach its science-based targets, part of the Science Based Targets initiative, to reduce direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030, compared to a 2019 baseline. “We continue to assess how to increase our climate resilience and reduce our demand on fossil fuels,” says Lisa Shibata, Chipotle’s director of sustainability. “We designed and opened a number of all-electric and hybrid electric restaurants last year. Moving forward, we will monitor the impact on operations from these new restaurants while continuing to build more all-electric restaurants.” She adds that Chipotle also prioritizes the use of LED lighting, high-efficiency heating and cooling systems, energy management systems, low-flow plumbing fixtures, tankless water heaters, Energy Star-rated kitchen equipment and finishes with low VOCs. Also of note, The Cheesecake Factory shared in its most recent corporate social responsibility report that an international licensee plans to open the brand’s first restaurant with a fully electric kitchen.

“Moving forward, we will monitor the impact on operations from these new restaurants while continuing to build more all-electric restaurants.” —Lisa Shibata, Chipotle

2. Work with utility companies

“Many QSR chains are beginning to look at electrification and say, ‘It’s not a big leap for us to go all electric,’” says David Zabrowski, vice president of Frontier Energy, which runs the Food Service Technology Center. He adds that electric combis, fryers, grills and ovens are all mature categories. It’s whether the electric infrastructure can handle the load that makes things tricky. For new buildings, it’s not such an issue. But for operators looking to electrify existing stores, Zabrowski says to work with utility companies early in the process and make sure they understand the goal. “Plan ahead because you need that extra time for not only your local permitting, review and design, but also for your utility upgrades,” he says. “And the easiest way to dabble in electric is to stop trying to convert the entire kitchen. Just pick a piece of equipment that you’re comfortable with. Electric fryers work really well.” Remember, too, that certain utility companies offer instant rebates on electric equipment as well as sufficient gas equipment.

3. Get franchisees on board

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Wendy’s opened its first Global Next Gen unit in 2023, too.

“Acknowledge and celebrate franchisees and incent participation in energy efficiency initiatives through programs that generate friendly competition,” says Anna Blitz, vice president, corporate social responsibility at The Wendy’s Co. She points to the Wendy’s Energy Challenge, which invites franchisees to make energy efficiency improvements and track and report their energy consumption. Enhancements at Wendy’s in 2023 included implementing lighting retrofits, installing high-efficiency HVAC units and transitioning to lower GWP refrigerants. Stores also are leveraging automated controls to schedule on/off times, resulting in energy and emissions reductions. Wendy’s more than doubled the number of franchisees reporting through the WEC last year, with 37 franchisees reporting energy data, up from 18 in 2022. Overall, more than 2,700 franchise-operated restaurants participate. Meanwhile, Wendy’s Global Next Gen restaurant design standard, introduced in 2022, uses more efficient building elements to decrease energy use and costs by about 6% per year, Blitz says. There are some 58 units currently in operation.

4. Reduce food (and equipment) waste

Part of lowering greenhouse gas emissions, minimizing food waste has become more of a focus lately for restaurant brands, says Jeff Clark, expert exchange director at the National Restaurant Association. Related to sustainability overall, he says, investor and consumer demands might be one reason restaurant brands are looking to reduce emissions, but so are extreme weather events. “A lot of companies saw what happened with hurricanes and wildfires, and it seems like there was a shift during the pandemic of like, ‘Wow, this is a problem,’” he says. The association’s tips for reducing food waste include auditing it, cleaning and organizing walk-ins and placing food in labeled, clear containers, right-sizing menu portions, and taking advantage of alternative waste management solutions, like composting or making use of anaerobic digesters. Plus, Cascone says, companies are looking at increasing the useful life of equipment so they don’t dispose of it as often. NAFEM continues to update its Life Cycle Model tools to help operators get an idea of life expectancies, as well as total cost of ownership, for equipment and supplies.

5. Include employees in the process

They play a role in two ways; happy, healthy employees lead to a more sustainable business and, with proper training, help carry out initiatives. “One thing that’s missing in the sustainability conversation, that’s being picked up in other industries, is creating a healthier environment for employees. And that’s where I look to the impact of the pending regulation from Cal/OSHA [which demands kitchens not equal or exceed 82°F],” Zabrowski says. “Eventually there’s going to be some type of regulation. Everybody’s got to start on that. To be honest, some of the leading businesses in the industry have adopted that long ago.” And with ongoing training, Cascone says, employees are the ones to carry out policies and procedures, even simple tasks like shutting off lights (or installing sensors to do so) and making sure the refrigerators are running at the proper temperature. “Focus on what you can control within your own four walls,” he says, before trying to work with suppliers on initiatives like sustainable sourcing, which is more challenging.

6. Lean into technology

“Companies need to invest in tech to become more sustainable. They need to digitize their kitchens and increase automation,” Cascone says. “The minimum wage increases in California—and other states may follow suit—impact margins yet it’s still difficult to get labor. Turnover rates are still high, so there’s a lot of investment in the back-of-house to automate kitchens.” And it’s not just about robots helping with food preparation, he says, but tech like RFID. Chipotle at one point tested RFID case labels to track ingredients, automating inventory management and helping with food safety. Zabrowski says a lot of chains are exploring alternative cooking processes to create more efficient kitchens. Replacing traditional equipment with smarter equipment—like combi ovens or high-speed ovens—is at the cornerstone of those redesigns. Even newer blast chillers can do more, with some models now thawing, proofing, reheating, hot holding, dehydrating, pasteurizing and cooking. Looking ahead, Zabrowski says, some of the bigger chains are experimenting with big data analytics associated with POS systems that can predict the amount of food product to prepare for rushes.

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Brands may want to size up smart, compact equipment options like high-speed ovens. Courtesy of Merrychef.

Combi Oven Chef Gregg Cookies Bake

Like high-speed ovens, combis can replace traditional equipment and drive efficiencies. Courtesy of Henny Penny.

7. Know that access determines recyclability

Certain brands look to source recyclable or compostable packaging to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills. But communities must have the infrastructure in place to recycle, says Natha Dempsey, president of the Foodservice Packaging Institute, in a presentation at FER’s Multiunit Foodservice Equipment Symposium in January. “I hear all the time, ‘My packaging is recyclable.’ Is it? Because what has to happen is, consumers have to have access to recycling,” Dempsey says. It also must be accepted by material recovery facilities and flow to the appropriate bale. Then there has to be a demand for the material by end-markets; if there isn’t, it could end up in a landfill after all. The FPI works with communities to take foodservice packaging items in their residential recycling space. Blitz adds that Wendy’s works with a group called NextGen Consortium who in November posted a report on the path forward for paper cup recycling in the U.S.

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