May 11, 2020

As international and even domestic trade gets restricted in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the world is realizing more than ever: local sourcing isn’t just great marketing, it may be required.

The trend towards more sustainable practices and locally-sourced ingredients has been happening for years. But the disruptions resulting from the world’s hyper-connectedness in the wake of COVID-19 are going to linger in our collective psyche for decades to come.

The good news for those who are willing to invest in their culinary education: when restaurants reopen, they’ll need people who can see the big picture, think strategically, and implement programs that speak to consumer wants. As you’ll see, sustainable best practices, including local sourcing, are extremely important to consumers. And taking advantage of those trends can be profitable and rewarding.

This article describes how you can shift your restaurant’s operations to follow more environmentally-conscious practices, and we introduce you to Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts’ unique Farm To Table® Experience. But first: why is sustainability such a great idea?

Because The Customer Is Always Right

You only have to look at the exploding popularity of plant-based “meat” to understand how consumer appetites are shifting. While roughly 5% of diners in the United States identify as vegetarians, fast food, family and fine-dining restaurants are rapidly adding meat alternatives to their menu. Why?

Because customers believe it’s better for the environment. A 2015 study found that over 80% of consumers are dedicated to making choices that reduce their own impact on the environment, and 51% of them were willing to pay more for products that satisfied their new consumer ethics.

If you want to appeal to the broadest possible customer base, leaning into this shift in environmental awareness just makes sense. Will a diner avoid your restaurant because you serve a range of locally-sourced dishes? Of course not.

But will a group of six diners skip your restaurant on a Tuesday night if one of their friends has committed to environmentally-conscious choices, and you don’t have any? It’s clearly possible.

By becoming more sustainable as a restaurant, you have nothing to lose…and customers to gain.

Multicolored fresh vegetables on a wooden table

How Do You Make The Change Towards Sustainable Practices?

There are a few steps you can take in order to create a dining experience that fulfills your customers’ expectations for environmental responsibility.

It’s true: locally-sourced products are generally more expensive than the ones you can get from any major wholesale supplier. But consumers are also willing to pay more for dishes with locally-sourced ingredients and without the use of pesticides.

Farmer Lee Jones, part of the founding family of The Chef’s Garden and a member of Escoffier’s Advisory Board, recently participated in a live call with students to discuss sustainable farming practices. In one example, he explained how they use a system called Integrated Pest Management where they purchase insects that feed on the pest insects, creating a natural pest management system without pesticides.

Escoffier has a learning block dedicated to sourcing locally as part of our six-week Farm to Table® Experience. In describing the program, Chef Instructor Steven Nalls says, “It’s about understanding what local sustainable food really does to the food system itself. It binds together local ingredients and people. And for us as cooks, the flavor. It’s really impossible to beat getting good, local, sustainable food.

You’ll still likely be purchasing from your normal food distributors because it doesn’t have to be “all or nothing” in sourcing food inventory.

Three Things You Can Do To Foster Sustainability

  1. Reach Out to Local Suppliers
  2. There’s a reason big chain restaurants use national suppliers: it’s a one-stop shop. Go online, place an order, and with the click of a button it’s on its way.

    Working with local suppliers takes a little more time…so before you revamp your restaurant, invest some time in building good relationships. Local suppliers will become partners in your business. Find out what products they have to offer, how they deliver, how you can mutually support one another.

    Restaurants that successfully tap into a locally-based supply chain will probably have seasonal menus. Your restaurant might not have fresh tomatoes or spot prawns on the menu in February, but for the fastest-growing segment of diners – Millennials – a varied menu will be a huge draw. They’re constantly seeking unique experiences…and they want to support their community.

  3. Think About the Four R’s
  4. Find ways to reduce waste, reuse hard goods, recycle, and rethink uses for goods you already have. Implementing these factors creates opportunities for you to save money. And, you’ll look good doing it.

    • Seek out suppliers who use a minimum of packaging, or have made an effort to package their products in completely recyclable containers.
    • Think twice about replacing chairs or tables that look too worn out…get a local carpenter to give them a facelift.
    • Have recycling bins – both back-of-house and for your patrons. Every community will be a little different, so find out what your options might be in your city.
    • Rethink your approach to cutting fuel and food costs. For example, using local suppliers reduces emissions and creates cost savings they can pass on to you.

  5. Educate Yourself So You Can Educate Your Diners
  6. Customers might need to learn about why local and sustainable menus are a good idea. So make sure you educate yourself first. At Escoffier, our Culinary Arts curriculum includes the experiential Farm To Table® Experience to help students understand the supply chain, literally from the ground up!

    Be sure to ask your suppliers questions and visit their farms and facilities. Talk to peers who have already shifted their business model, so you learn from their mistakes and successes.

It will take some time shifting your kitchen culture to match the demands of tomorrow’s customers. This is an excellent opportunity to educate yourself, engage your team, and find ways to reimagine what a future, sustainable restaurant looks like.

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This article was originally published on March 29, 2016 but has since been updated.