The hiatus before reopening is the perfect time to introduce environmental efficiencies: green cleaning methods that also protect against transmission; shorter menus and supply chains that also save costs; or the veg box scheme that's here to stay. Katherine Price looks at some sustainable solutions
On the one hand, the forced closure of hospitality across the UK has given business owners the gift of time to consider their business models and how they can be more sustainable. On the other, three months without revenue could mean these good intentions are pushed to the bottom of the list.
However, a post-lockdown survey by the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) found that 98% of operators are willing and able to focus on environmental and social sustainability when they reopen, and Kobus Maree of the Langham London hotel says current events are "not an excuse" to ignore the environmental impact of your business.
"I cannot see why we cannot continue to be a sustainable company," says Maree, who works as director of health, safety, security and environment at the five-red-AA-star, 380-bedroom property, the first luxury hotel in Europe to achieve EarthCheck's platinum certification.
He says that while some initiatives and investment will have to be delayed for financial reasons, the hotel is "still progressing with our sustainable agenda".
Rethinking and rebuilding
During lockdown, businesses have been forced to do things differently, from conducting meetings virtually, pivoting to delivery or click-and-collect offerings, or focusing their efforts on serving the community, whether that's meals for the NHS and vulnerable individuals, turning their spaces into shops or delivering vegetable boxes. Of the SRA's survey respondents, 25% have moved to delivery during lockdown and intend to continue after reopening.
"The question is, what happens when things come back?" asks Paul Newnham, director of the SDG2 Advocacy Hub, which is working towards the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 of food security, improving nutrition, ending hunger, and promoting sustainable agriculture. He is also founder of the Chefs' Manifesto, which works with chefs towards these aims.
It's easy to break something and find another way to put it together, he points out, but it's very hard to take it back to what it was once it's been rebuilt another way.
The sudden move to virtual communication has been an eye-opener for Maree. He says home working and virtual meetings will probably continue even when the hotel re- opens, particularly for sales and marketing.
"We used to have people going to these international tourism hospitality showcases," he says. "But is it really necessary to send somebody many thousands of miles on a plane, or can you do the same type of marketing using good technology?"
No winners in the race to the bottom
This gift of time for company owners, and the shock and disruption of Covid-19, have seen some operators completely rethink their business models. "I think the traditional model of a restaurant where you get the best location you can and then you try and jam in as many covers through the door as long as possible is done, for the short-term. The question is, what replaces that?" asks Newnham. He anticipates businesses will become more diversified.
Andrew Stephen, chief executive of the SRA, points out that no operator sets out to say ‘let's buy the cheapest food and pay staff as little as we can' – but so many have ended up there in a ‘race to the bottom'.
He continues: "At the very least, we hope that those who survive this will have used the period of reflection to create a different model that allows them to do a bit better than that. There is an opportunity right now for businesses to make significant improvement in their climate impact via interventions on the menu and supply chain. If they do that, they can be confident that, despite other things being difficult or going backwards a bit, overall they're definitely moving in the right direction."
He says that, for most foodservice businesses, 70% of their carbon footprint will be in the food they buy, "so while we also say it's a good idea to be energy efficient and not waste food, a shift in procurement is by far the most meaningful thing you can do".
Meanwhile, Mike Reid, culinary director of M Restaurants and Gaucho, suggests the introduction of deposits by diners could create some much-needed security for restaurants against no-shows and last-minute cancellations, as well as reducing food waste. The chef is still determined that Gaucho Charlotte Street in London will be carbon neutral by the end of the year and is working to reduce methane and CO2 emissions produced by its farming methods.
Reid has used the closure time to conduct audits of the businesses' supply chains, but he points out that with margins set to be even more squeezed, "the right practices and methods often don't come cheap". He wants there to be greater emphasis on and rewards for those businesses that are "truly sustainable".
Sue Williams, general manager of the five-red-AA-star, 23-bedroom Whatley Manor near Malmesbury in Wiltshire, says some of her suppliers have also taken the opportunity to move forward with their green credentials during this period. For instance, the hotel's coffee supplier will now collect and recycle its coffee pods. She says the environmental impact of businesses has "only grown in relevance and importance through this time" and "simply isn't optional any more".
Reid also insists that reducing waste will become an economic necessity: "Controlling waste was a daily challenge before the pandemic, so now restaurants will have to look even closer at internal procedures to manage it better."
Cleaning, chemicals and cups
Maree acknowledges that concessions had to be made at the Langham when it comes to chemical-free cleaning to ensure surfaces are coronavirus-free.
"We are working with our global cleaning products supplier to make sure that we are getting as many cleaning products as possible eco-labelled and environmentally friendly, although some will not be available," he says. He is also looking into electrostatic disinfectant.
There are also real concerns that wins around single-use plastic and packaging in recent years could be reversed in reaction to guest perceptions that packaging equals ‘safer'.
"We've now got what's likely to be a heightened demand for safety and hygiene, which I don't think we should fight," says Stephen, who sees it as an inevitability that food will have more packaging after coronavirus, as is already the case in other parts of the world, such as Japan.
However, hotels such as Dukes London, the Langham and the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park have all reiterated their commitment to eradicating single-use plastic in their properties.
Sonya Devi, owner of packaging and plastic-free, Bristol-based catering business the Vegetable Diva is also sticking to her guns. Apart from the meals she has been providing to the NHS during lockdown, hers has remained a packaging-free business.
"It hasn't been difficult – what has been difficult is the fact that nobody else is doing what I'm doing," she says. "I felt like I was getting somewhere, and I feel now like I'm fighting a perceived notion of hygiene and danger, and I don't really know how to get round that."
She argues that government legislation is needed to make meaningful, long-lasting change to the food industry's waste problem.
"If the government really wants to get rid of packaging, they're just going to have to say no takeaway cups any more – if you want to take away, it's your responsibility to bring something to take it away in – the onus falls on the customer," she says. "I really fail to see what the problem is. Some people will fuss, but if it's not available, that's the end of it. If you really want it to happen, you can make it happen."
If the government really wants to get rid of packaging, they're just going to have to say no takeaway cups any more
Lobbying for change
With the hospitality sector more on the government's radar than ever before and several industry leaders using the lockdown to lobby for change to ensure the industry's survival, Newnham suggests there is an opportunity for chefs to "bring their voice to that table, speaking to government, as things reopen, as investments are made, to make sure we are building back better". This is relevant, he says, with the UK set to host the UN Climate Change Conference and the UN Food Systems Summit due to convene next year.
While the SRA is looking at how its own model stands up for the future, it is lobbying government over business rates and backing Jonathan Downey's National Time Out campaign to ensure businesses survive and can make sustainable decisions.
Stephen adds, "If you're a customer ordering a £10 burger, the beef farmer gets maybe 60p and the landlord £6. Our work is really about advocating for restaurants' ability to spend a bit more on the food, rather than pushing them to do the impossible."
He also hopes the positive economic impact of businesses serving healthy, sustainable food from transparent, sustainable supply chains will be recognised in discussions around the public benefit of hospitality businesses, on top of job creation and tax.
However, those very small profit margins that gave businesses ‘some wiggle room' to make sustainable decisions have gone for now, Stephen concludes: "This is not a time for generic advice. This is a time for considered analysis that each business needs to do on its own."
Case study: the Wheatsheaf, Chilton Foliat, Wiltshire
For Ollie Hunter, owner of the Wheatsheaf pub in Wiltshire, sustainability post-Covid-19 means an overhaul of the concept.
The pub, already winner of the SRA's Food Made Good Business of the Year 2019, will only operate three days a week when it reopens, with physical distancing guidelines suggesting the usually 50-cover restaurant will be down to 20.
Hunter wants to focus on giving his team a better work-life balance by opening on the days he knows the pub will be busy, rather than "chucking money away staying open on a rainy Wednesday when no one comes in".
"I think there's a really great opportunity for the industry to regain control again and give what we want to give," says Hunter.
"If I can only fit 20 covers in my restaurant now because of Covid-19 restrictions, I know there are going to be 20 covers for lunch and 20 covers for dinner, because I'm only opening three days… From there you can do the numbers. So how many people do I need to employ? How much food do I actually need to buy? And I can work out profit from there.
"I can get my absolute minimum expenditure right down to how much it takes to actually run the business and get rid of everything else. Then I can build a great business based on fact and foundation, rather than potentiality."
On reopening, the menu will be centred around the pub's wood-fired oven – pizzas, fish, meat, vegetables, souffles – which Hunter says is more efficient both in terms of labour and electricity use. He also plans to cut down his 50-bin wine list to around 10.
"When you actually gets to the nuts and bolts of who buys wines and what wine they buy, most people go for the ‘top three': the house wine, the one below and the one below that. Why have the rest? It's pure ego," he says. For Hunter, it's all about ‘less but better'.
Featured photo: Shutterstock
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