If a client doesn't see the business benefit of environmental initiatives, it can be a difficult task for a caterer to convince them of their merit. Emily Manson investigates how to balance fully stocked hot plates with sustainability
Most businesses these days recognise the need to incorporate corporate social responsibility (CSR) into their operations, but getting a policy to work within individual business frameworks takes considerable time and effort. Contract caterers face even greater logistical challenges as the specific nature of their business makes that fine line even harder to find: namely they're working on someone else's turf, to someone else's rules.
So they have to work with their clients to create achievable CSR targets, while still pushing the sustainability agenda.
Seen to be green Consultant Chris Stern says: "Clients want to be seen as having CSR credentials and many caterers actually have better sustainability credentials than clients. If caterers can bring that to a client, they often breathe a sigh of relief as they don't have to put any effort in but can take some of the glory for themselves."
Stephen Minall, director of Moving Food consultancy, points out that just five years ago CSR demands in tender documents and contracts were in small print and not that important. "It was a zero sum game not long ago," he admits. "Now it's moved up the pecking order considerably and is driven by boards and shareholders' expectations for companies to be responsible and reduce their carbon footprint."
Contracts now generally have to have a sustainability policy and in B&I, the heavier the industry, the more insistent they are to offset their carbon footprint elsewhere. "So companies like Shell and Jaguar want to see a lot of CSR boxes ticked in their hospitality contracts," says Minall.
Challenges But the challenge comes, advises Stern, where what the customer or client wants and what they think they want differ, as those two agendas are not always the same or sustainable.
"Full shelves and fully stocked hot plates until the end of service, or strawberries in December, all need to be considered. Caterers are good at recognising that they have to find the line, as there's a balance which needs to be struck. The bottom line is that commerciality is even more important than sustainability."
Price is still key This is because the pressure on bottom line is as great as it ever was. "It's not the recession so much as I can't remember when there wasn't financial pressure on catering." says Stern.
So, price remains the key driver. "Even though people say they're willing to pay more, they're generally not," Minall admits, citing plastic cutlery as a prime example. "If you swap to biodegradable products, the price almost triples, so very few places can afford to use them."
Growing demand However, it's not all doom and gloom, says Minall. "In reality, sustainable products have already dropped in price by about 15% to 20% because, as the demand has grown, so economies of scale have emerged, and this trend will inevitably see prices come down even further."
At the "hard end of business", Minall adds that it is now significantly easier for contract caterers to source environmentally sound products. "From toilet rolls to sanitation and cleaning products, as well as packaging options, there are many more affordably priced biodegradable and sustainable options on the market now."
But there is one other key factor which should not be overlooked, advises Stern, which is to make the sustainable option a fashionable lifestyle choice. "Artisan coffee, Laverstoke Park meat and Secretts fruit and vegetable suppliers have hit the holy grail of finding a fashion-sustainability combo. Their products are seen as luxury and quality, so premium prices can be charged for their products. It then makes commercial sense," he explains.
Work with clients to review kitchen opening hours and wastage
"Key performance indicators and service level agreements often insist we keep full stock until just before we close and keep the kitchen open for long hours," says Caroline Fry, chief executive of CH&Co's business and industry arm. She tries to review these with clients to allow stock to be condensed or shorter opening times.
"It's about getting clients to understand the ramifications and the rationale behind the suggestions: a) to save energy; b) to reduce food waste; and c) reduce labour costs. It's hard if customers come down and say you look empty and it does depend on each client's remit, but there's definitely more appetite for that now than there used to be."
She has found that if the client liaison is also in charge of CSR then they'll work closely to look at wastage schemes and other suggestions, but if they're not it can be hard to pinpoint the right person and changes can be harder to push through.
"Even though we're signed up to IMF1401 the government's environmental accreditation] it gets to a point where you can't do some things on your own," admits Fry. "But we can reduce and encourage reuse. We encourage people to reuse or bring china mugs by reducing the price of coffee for these options. Similarly, with tuna pots and soup cups, we encourage eat-in options rather than take-away, although the ‘penalise if you do' or ‘incentivise to not do' is best left to client preference."
She has also found that clients often want local and sustainable produce but these two are not necessarily the same. "You have to discuss and guide clients as to what makes practical, environmental and financial sense," she says.
Promote solutions that don't add cost to the client
Bite Catering has its own sustainability policies, while its client businesses also all have their own corporate social responsibility (CSR) contracts. "We do as much as we can and what we believe is for the good of the client company," says operations director, Simon MacFarlane.
Bite collects all its waste cooking oil and turns it into bio diesel, which is then used to power the trucks that deliver its food. "It's a zero cost policy that's good for the environment which no company can say is wrong," he says.
Buying only Red Tractor, farm-assured meat would be impractical, so MacFarlane buys as much as possible, while managing the budget for clients. He explains: "We compromise on other products like non-organic dry goods or are creative with initiatives like ‘Odds and Ends Days' with fish - where we have lesser-known fish sold cheaper than cod and haddock to encourage people to try it."
Operationally it's harder, admits MacFarlane. "We encourage businesses to monitor utilities but this can get side-tracked as it often then becomes a wider project for the whole building or company, not just the kitchen. But we see that as coming to the table with ideas to generate greater sustainability within their whole business, which can only be good."
The company also gives away used coffee granules for people's gardens. "It reduces waste, is simple, easy, doesn't cost anything and engenders good will," he says. "We have to be bespoke to what clients want, rather than imposing what we want to do. It's about give and take for the common good, alongside recognition that sustainability is important, which is good for the caterer, the client and the customer."
Save The client money by being sustainable
Mike Hanson, head of sustainability and environmental management, sees himself as a free resource which comes as part of the BaxterStorey package. He explains: "Clients are very receptive, as generally my assessments and proposals save them money through being environmentally sustainable. I've never come across a client who isn't interested, because even if it doesn't save money but breaks even or doesn't cost too much, then the company can benefit in terms of PR and reputation."
He has found that clients are now interested in anything caterers can bring to the party regarding environmental responsibility. "They don't want to spend more to get it, but by the definition of most of our policies they're not spending more. Many initiatives mean they end up with less waste or less energy costs, so that there's a general overall cost saving."
Waste is a key issue for BaxterStorey. In a lot of sites the company has instigated an agreement with a waste food carrier outside of the client's main waste stream and manages that process separately. "We might charge a client for that process or build it into our model," says Hanson. "It's important to explain to clients that putting food waste into general waste is just a hidden cost and we're just highlighting that. Although it seems like they're paying for an additional waste stream, they're actually just removing it from the general waste that is either going to landfill or using water to macerate."
Energy is the other top priority and the challenge for BaxterStorey is to accurately monitor energy usage in its facilities. "We have just implemented a project with one of our large clients to measure energy from the distribution board at source - as opposed to smart metering," Hanson says. "It's a very clever piece of technology which is significantly cheaper and easier to install than a meter as there's no physical invasion of the kit. It's a win-win, as it allows us to measure usage but also minimises costs and disruption to the client."
10 ways to run a sustainable catering operation
By Sarah Daly, strategic sustainability consultant,www.mygreeneye.co.uk
1 Don't assume low cost is the top priority; customers are still prepared to pay for the "right thing". Present the full business case for all options, promote benefits, conduct customer research and do product trials.
2 Supply chains are the key; work with them to improve packaging and deliveries.
3 Create a "bite-sized" approach with targeted campaigns and task forces, rather than a coverall policy which can be overwhelming.
4 Work on relationships within your company, your clients and customers to create more dialogue and more loyalty.
5 Engage with innovation. There are always new products coming to market that save money, energy, water and waste.
6 "Paybacks" can be misleading. Prioritise water and energy-efficient equipment when advising on, or replacing, capital items.
7 Make everyone part of your story. Promote what you're doing, but don't succumb to "greenwash".
8 Sustainable practice increases profit. It's a myth that sustainable practice costs more, mostly it generates considerable return on investment.
9 Look at portion control versus price. Consider offering different portion size options.
10 Be creative with your menu. See how inventive your chefs can be in devising menus that use the least amount of energy. Reward your staff for considering energy.
Responsible hospitality resource
For more information on how to run your business responsibly, visit our online resource www.catererandhotelkeeper.com/responsible-hospitality. The Responsible Hospitality channel, supported by Accor, Gram UK and Kraft Foods, features tools and guidance that will help you reduce waste and energy usage, while offering examples and information on increasing recycling, ethical food sourcing and social responsibility.
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