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Archive | Going Green

Going green is a huge buzzword these days, but the great thing about it is, going green can also save you money. Learn how here.

Greener and Cheaper: Restaurants Grow Their Own Food

Grow Your Own FoodYou’ve heard about organic ingredients.  You’ve also heard about food miles and skyrocketing food costs.  Anybody in the restaurant business can tell you these issues have affected their customer’s tastes and their bottom line.  Stir in increasingly frugal customers and you’ve got a recipe for trouble in any restaurant.  That devilish combination of customers expecting better quality and also expecting to spend less is enough to make any restaurateur tear their hair out.

More and more chefs are turning to a simple solution that addresses both the quality and the cost on this two-headed monster.  Chefs are growing their own ingredients.  Of course, this is hardly a new concept, but as the demand for organic rises along with the prices on top quality greens and vegetables, the number of chefs turning to gardening during the day what they plan to cook that night has risen sharply.

Abandoned lots, small terraces, and modest urban gardens from San Francisco to Cincinnati are being converted into tiny organic farms by chefs passionate about finding the best ingredients possible without having to pay through the nose.  Many have discovered that being able to control the process, from seed to harvest to the walk-in, affords them a pride and a certainty in the quality of their ingredients.

Restaurants that source their food so locally (often in their own backyard) is also a great green practice, saving the thousands of miles ingredients typically travel through the traditional food supply network.  Those saved miles not only means less transportation emissions, it means less cost to the restaurant.  And any time a restaurant can bring better ingredients to their customers at a better price, they should take it.

Are you thinking about starting a garden for your restaurant?  The first three steps you should take:

Location.  Climate, water, and soil will all affect what you can grow well and what you can’t.  Research which plants and vegetables do well in the local climate and what their water and soil requirements are.

Organic.  If you’re going to garden your own herbs and vegetables, they might as well be organic.  Research organic practices and implement them in your garden from the beginning.Vegetables Form Local Sources

Time and alternative local sources.  Organic gardening takes time and effort.  Doing it successfully requires a passion and an investment of time that not every restaurant has.  If you are looking to source local ingredients, but don’t have the space, time, or climate to do so successfully, contact local farmers and build relationships that will still save you money on food costs and allow you to make your restaurant more sustainable.  You might also settle on a combination of both methods, growing herbs like basil or cilantro that are easy to tend while sourcing locally other ingredients that require more effort and space.

No matter which way you decide to go, local food sources are becoming a popular trend in the food service industry, and not only because it sounds good to customers.  There are some real economic incentives as well, and any restaurant looking to cut costs would do well to look into the local food network for some solutions.

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Restaurants and Farmers Work Together To Reduce Waste and Improve Crop Yields

San Francisco

San Francisco’s food scrap collection program benefits farmers and restaurateurs

San Francisco restaurants are participating in a city-wide compost collection program that has collected over 105,000 tons of food scraps and yard trimmings in a single year.  All that waste used to end up in the landfill, where compostable waste makes up a full third of everything in the dump.  The all natural fertilizer created from composting all those restaurant food scraps has become so popular with nearby farmers and vintners that the program regularly sells out in the spring, when demand is highest for fertilizer.

Because the compost is so rich in organic matter, many food growers have seen significant increases in crop production and yield, which more than justifies the increased cost of using the San Francisco compost.  Even better, all natural compost is much more carbon neutral than petroleum based fertilizers, with the added benefit of relieving pressure on local landfills.

Green Compost Makes For A Green Farm

Food scraps collected from San Francisco restaurants are improving crop yields on surrounding farms

The organic crops produced as a result of the compost program are then sold back to many of the restaurants that contribute in the first place, completing a cycle of sustainability that has become a model for other cities across the country looking to institute their own programs.

The biggest hurdle for most cities is food scrap collection and education.  Separating food waste properly requires attention to detail and some training to avoid mixing contaminants into the food scraps to be composted.  San Francisco’s program has been particularly successful because the majority of people participating are educated about what can and cannot be composted.

Check with your local government to see if a composting program exists near you.  Reducing food waste can help you save on trash hauling fees, but more importantly, it helps your restaurant’s green credibility, and that makes for loyal and happy customers.

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Understanding Green Restaurant Terms: Compostable, Biodegradable, and Recyclable

Any restaurateur interested in making their restaurant more green has encountered these terms before.  The problem is, just because a product claims it is compostable, biodegradable, or recyclable doesn’t make it so.

Making the right decisions to green your restaurant in a way that makes sense for your business means you need to know the difference between these terms and the impact they can have on your buying decisions.

The most common product used in restaurants that uses all three of these terms is plastics.  More than likely your restaurant uses small wares like cups and utensils, and many products your kitchen uses are packaged using plastics like condiments and other food products.

Here are some tips to understanding your options when it comes to plastic products:

compostable cupsCompostable

Compostable plastic products have the highest green threshold to reach.  This means any product claiming to be compostable should be viewed with a certain skepticism because it really is hard to make a plastic that conforms to the definition of compostable.

Compostable products break down naturally into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass at the same rate as cellulose or paper (usually about 180 days) in an industrial or municipal composting facility.  Compostable materials do not leave a toxic residue and cannot be distinguished from the rest of the compost after full degradation.

The most important issues in this definition are where the plastic is put to compost and whether any toxic residue is left after degradation.

A municipal or industrial composting facility breaks down composting materials differently than a farm or in-house composting unit.  Plastics are given a compostable designation based on how they degrade in a larger industrial facility, which means they may not be compostable using other methods.

Since the availability of large scale composting facilities is limited, it’s important to know that a compostable plastic may degrade more slowly before deciding if it can be used in a smaller scale compost facility.

PLA and Master-Bi corn starch based plastics like corn cups are the two most common types of compostable plastics.  However, these resins are also sometimes mixed with inorganic substances to make them more heat resistant or for other purposes, meaning they do not always qualify as compostable.

Plant-based plastics have the added benefit of being “carbon neutral,” meaning that the carbon dioxide emitted to produce them is offset by the carbon dioxide absorbed by the plants used to make the plastic.

Any plastic that leaves a toxic residue after degrading is not compostable but can be designated biodegradable.

Biodegradablerecycled paper - recycling concept

Biodegradable products break down over time into smaller and smaller chunks as a result of the action of agent enzymes produced by bacteria or fungi.  This process can leave behind toxic chemicals and still be designated as biodegradable.

The problem is, no standard exists for the amount of time a product takes to biodegrade.  And no requirement exists for the addition of agents like bacteria to aid the degradation process.

This means that most products are labeled “biodegradable” as a way to promote their supposed environmentally friendly capabilities when in fact most of these products do nothing to help reduce waste or emissions.  Biodegradable sounds good to the consumer but really doesn’t help green your restaurant at all.

If you are looking to improve the green practices of your restaurant, go for compostable products over biodegradable ones whenever you can.

Recycling SymbolRecyclable

The truth is, just about anything can be recycled, and surely you have seen the little triangle with a number inside it on most plastic products claiming it’s recyclable.

The problem?  The company or local government agency that does your recycling limits what they recycle.

Check with your recycler to verify which types of plastics they accept.  Training staff and getting customers to recycle the right products can be very difficult, but many restaurants have had success with comprehensive recycling programs.

The main ingredient to success is creating a clear set of guidelines and communicating those guidelines to your staff and customers.

What Should Your Restaurant Do?

Compostable products are more expensive to buy.  But in many cases the extra expense can be at least partially recouped through reduced waste disposal.

Leftover food makes up 50% of the waste produced by a typical restaurant.  If this plus compostable plastics like cups were removed from the waste you produce and composted instead, significant savings can be realized.

Perhaps more importantly, a majority of consumers respond favorably to restaurants that engage in green practices.

Get feedback from customers before investing in more expensive compostable products.  If it looks like you can improve customer loyalty and branding by doing so, and the additional expense makes sense after accounting for marketing benefits and waste disposal savings, then there’s no reason why your business shouldn’t invest.

Chances are the products you use now are biodegradable, so there’s no real benefit in pursuing products that market this designation.  And as long as you’re reducing waste costs, implement a recycling program that saves the types of plastics local recyclers accept and gives you some real credibility when you say “green restaurant.”

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Who Wants Some Iridescent Shark?

That thing doesn't fit in my aquarium!

That thing doesn’t fit in my aquarium!

Sustainable seafood has become an increasingly important issue for restaurateurs as the green restaurant movement gains ground.  This is coupled with increasing evidence that the world’s wild caught seafood supply is in serious decline.

The result has been a renewed search for fish species that have the quality and taste characteristics worthy of center-of-plate presentation but can be farm raised in a sustainable manner.

Striped Pangasius, or Iridescent Shark,  is a type of catfish native to the tropical waters of Vietnam and Thailand.  Its hardy nature and delicious, flaky white meat has made it a favored source of food in Asia, Canada, and Europe.

The shark name originates from aquarium enthusiasts who keep young Pangasius in household tanks.  The young have an iridescent color that is lost as Pangasius grows older.  Full grown Pangasius in the wild can weigh as much as 97 pounds and grow to 4 feet in length.

Pangasius can tolerate low oxygen levels and high school concentrations.  They are very easy to farm (compared to tilapia or bangus) and disease resistant.  These characteristics also make it cheaper to buy than Tilapia, Cod, or Sole, yet the filets are of comparable quality.

Fishery Products International (FPI) recently announced they would begin to import Pangasius from Southeast Asia for sale in the U.S.  The fish is farm raised in Vietnam using sustainable practices overseen by the Vietnamese Ministry of Fisheries and a separate quality assurance group run by FPI.

Farm raised fish do have an environmental impact, especially concerning water usage and contamination, but in general that impact is far less than the further depletion of  wild fish populations through overfishing.

For years catfish farms in the U.S. resisted the importation of Pangasius because it competes directly with them in supplying the food industry.  In 2002, an Arkansas senator even sponsored legislation restricting the catfish name to fish grown in the United States.

No matter what you call it, Pangasius’ attractiveness comes from cheaper prices for a virtually identical product, and the volume in which it can be produced far exceeds the capabilities of the American catfish industry.

Chefs across the country have responded positively to Pangasius, especially after price comparisons show it is a great product for the price.  Look for the tropical catfish to start showing up on menus near you very soon.

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Hot Chef Trends for 2009

Despite the economic downturn you’re sick of hearing about (unless you’ve been under a rock), two trends remain hot for the food service industry in 2009: food nutrition and sustainability.

Even as consumers tighten belts and close wallets, they’re looking for healthy foods brought to them in an environmentally sustainable way, and if they think they can afford it, they’ll go for the product with the “green” label every time.

An older trend that’s still going strong is healthy and nutritious foods.

Most customers have started to blend green or organic food with healthy food, which makes it easy for you to blend the two into your menu for 2009.

Here are some tips to help you keep up with the times:

Customers want healthy choices, not demands. In other words, they appreciate healthy options on a menu but don’t want to be forced to eat them.  Menu diversity is nothing new, but it would surprise you how many restaurants have made the mistake of getting a little overzealous with healthy menu options.

Sometimes customers just want a burger and fries.

Advertise your sustainability. In recent years, your business has more than likely adopted cost cutting measures like recycling, energy conservation, and buying local products.

Let your customer know!

These are things they can connect with that make them feel good about consuming your product and bringing them back for more.

Back your claims up with green certification. Claiming to be green is one thing.  Getting certified is an entirely different matter.

The Green Restaurant Association has been promoting sustainable restaurant practices since 1990.

Getting your restaurant certified green will not only help you cut costs, it will give you and your product legitimacy in the eyes of the customer, enhancing their loyalty and increasing person-to-person buzz about your business.

Oh, and you’re helping the environment!

A healthy kids menu equals happy customers. Gone are the days of giving little Jimmy a burger and fries off the kid’s menu while Mom and Dad enjoy their entrees.

Today’s parents want nutritious offerings for their kids that will be eaten with all the enthusiasm of a Happy Meal.

Coming up with creative menu items for kids that are both healthy and satisfying can be a challenge, but the chef who pulls it off can count on happy customers coming back with the entire family.

Buy local (thinking global optional). As energy costs rose in the past few years, buying produce, ingredients, and meats locally became a red hot trend in the food service industry.

Not only does buying locally cut costs, it affords chefs and restaurant managers more purchasing flexibility.

Add in customer appreciation because your business is saving energy and investing locally, and you’ve got a winning combination.

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