Sometimes big changes come in small packages. It might not seem like a big deal when Sterno cleans up the fuel that has warmed a million buffet pans. Or when a diner can consult their smartphone to find the source of the fish on their plate.
But take these small changes together, and a trend emerges: Sustainable dining is becoming self-sustaining. Instead of hot new technologies, what observers see for the coming year is the unspectacular but steady growth of an infrastructure to support green dining. It’s getting easier and easier to find the products and the know-how, and to communicate it all to your customers.
“The biggest trend is that this thing is not a trend,” says Michael Oshman, CEO of the Boston-based Green Restaurant Association, which certifies 470 green restaurants nationwide. “It’s here to stay.” Here are some key pieces of the emerging sustainability infrastructure:
Starting in 2003, the national distributor Sysco has offered locally grown and organic meat and produce through 58 of its local operating companies. It’s encouraged farms to reduce pesticides and developed a seafood program with the World Wildlife Federation.
A $37 billion corporation like Sysco has a ripple effect throughout foodservice, says Melissa Kogut, executive director of the culinary network Chef’s Collaborative in Boston. “When the large-scale distribution companies and foodservice providers start making sustainability a priority, that’s when we start to see a change in the overall availability of sustainable products and an impact on cost.”
When Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp. wanted to become the nation’s largest green restaurant chain, it approached the GRA. Over two years, the association helped certify all 120 of its Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes salad buffets.
Its vegetarian offerings got it off to a good start, but the company took 18 other chain-wide steps to earn points, ranging from energy-saving equipment to recycling and recycled materials.
“Now the public knows that it’s doable for a chain in the hundreds of units,” says Oshman. “It’s like a big moving ship. It’s slower to turn around, but when it turns around, it has a much bigger impact.”
The GRA consults with manufacturers, as well. Last year, it helped Sterno create Sterno Green. It reformulated a century-old recipe, replacing a toxic chemical with one that’s safe to breathe in the dining room.
Sustainable menu information
“More and more customers are asking about the source of their food,” says Kogut. “Now we’re seeing more technology to help consumers understand where their food comes from.”
She points to the Providence, Rhode Island, program Trace and Trust. At 20 New England restaurants, customers can find a fish ID number on their menu. By entering or scanning it into a mobile phone, a customer is taken to a website detailing when and where their meal was caught.