The Argument for Sustainability

In many ways, the traditional restaurant business model is under attack from all sides. Overall industry revenues have decreased by billions of dollars since 2008, and yet there are many thousands of new restaurants opening up around the country each year. Parallel industries like convenience markets and fast food chains are offering more meal-oriented foods, forcing operators to explore low-cost, high-volume proteins. At the same time, consumers are growing more sophisticated about demanding high-quality, fresh ingredients at low prices.

This adds up to an environment in which it has never been harder to establish product differentiation. There are simply too many restaurants that look like other restaurants. This is forcing some operators to think outside the box to give sophisticated diners what they want.

Sustainable restaurants are a response to these trends. Sustainability is an increasingly high priority to consumers in many industries, and hospitality is no exception. Operators who can consistently deliver conscientious, local, fresh, and environmentally friendly products have found a pathway to standing out from the crowd, and this might be an important strategy for new operators entering the field.

The most important question should be how. How does an operator go about building a sustainable restaurant?

Make it Profitable

The only way that sustainability efforts can last in this business is if they are cost-effective. This industry is hard enough without implementing an inefficient philosophy with no financial reward. The only established path to cost-effective sustainability is through publicizing the effort to guests in advertisements, websites, social media, and all marketing platforms.

Guests have to see strong social performance to be motivated to enter the building. This is much more than a token gesture or some recycling cans out back. Sustainable programs have to infiltrate the entire business model to really galvanize a market.

That said, it is okay to start small. A good place to start is with vendor relationships that yield featured organic entrees. These should be tasty, affordable options that are locally grown and carefully costed out. They should be highlighted in an insert, on the menu, and by servers greeting their tables.


Buying fresh, local, organic ingredients is a great way to build sustainability that impacts customers. Local ingredients limit transportation costs and the carbon footprint, while build connections with the surrounding community. Guests who are familiar with local growers are more likely to be motivated by alliances between local restaurants and vendors.

Ordering managers have to be willing to ask tough questions of the vendor representatives they work with. This includes asking where meats and seafoods come from, how they are packaged, and whether they’re farm-raised or wild-caught. They should work to purchase low-cost, organically grown ingredients when possible and pass this information along to guests. They should also be willing to shop around and avoid being married to single, large-scale vendors.


Green packaging is no longer difficult to find or expensive to purchase. Recycled materials for take-out orders perpetuate the message of sustainability while providing convenient packaging for guests. They also encourage guests to order take-out when they’re attractive and effective at keeping food fresh.

Managers can also check with vendors to make sure food packaging is both limited and effective, and that recycled materials are being used when possible. This is all part of an effective sustainable program that can galvanize the environmentally-minded guest.


More restaurant-ready products than ever are recyclable, but few managers have adopted recycling programs. However, it is not difficult to set up recycling bins and encourage employees to use them. Prolonged recycling is a product of a culture that values sustainability, and this starts with managers.

Recyclable products include all containers and packages. However, building supplies, paints, cleaning supplies and even toilet paper all come in recyclable/reusable varieties now, making it easier and more efficient to implement lasting sustainability.

From the Ground Up

For the operator opening a new restaurant, creating the building with sustainability in mind can make a lasting impression on the business. Contractors can be environmentally conscious by using recycled wood and energy-efficient heating/cooling equipment. Operators can buy recycled tables and chairs and reusable kitchen equipment. In this way, the new operator can implement a low-cost, completely integrated sustainable program that grabs the attention of the local market.

In an industry that is increasingly lacking ways to differentiate the product, it makes more sense than ever to explore these strategies.