The topic of sustainability has been an elusive one for restaurant operators, who have been inundated in recent years with foodservice buzzwords such as organic, fresh and all-natural.
Navigating the world of sustainability and how it applies to the menu has become more like untangling a hard-tied knot.
"Sustainability is an almost foolishly broad topic. There are so many definitions and that is one of the dangers of sustainability. We're not attempting to define sustainability here; we're here to expose you to sustainability in foodservice at the agricultural and processing levels," said Truitt Bros. CEO Peter Truitt at the company's fourth annual Northwest Sustainability Discovery Tour today.
This year, the event's purpose is to highlight sustainability on the menu and how it's practiced in the foodservice industry.
Held in Portland, Ore., home to nearly 40,000 farms, the event includes both speaking sessions and tours of a green bean farm and processing facility.
"Sustainability is an ethic that a consumer interacts with because they see personal value for them as an individual," Truitt said. That ethic, and how it's marketed at the foodservice level, is tied into the evolution of sustainability at the level of health and wellness.
Few restaurants have been able to capture sustainability on the menu well, but there are chefs (mainly at the local level) leading the way.
Cory Schreiber, a professor at the Art Institute of Portland's International Culinary School, said the topic of sustainability has partially grown from the trend of chefs having access to market goods that they have then passed on to consumers.
America wants to know the food story, he said. And instead of asking chefs 'how did they cook that?' consumers are now asking 'where did you get that?'
As tied to the issue of health and wellness as it relates to sustainability and younger generations – especially as the baby boomers grow older – Schreiber said it should point back to the culture and parental instruction about where food comes from and how it is sourced.
"Some type of parental instruction and template does seem to sway the sensibility of sourcing, selectivity and knowing," he said. "I think that households need to take control of that. It needs to really start young. It needs to start from day one."
Schreiber's presentation was followed by an operator panel featuring Richard Satnick, founder of Laughing Planet Café, Dick's Kitchen and Missing Link; Dickie Brennan, owner of New Orleans restaurants Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse, Palace Café and Bourbon House; and Steven Hiatt, food and nutrition department director at Oregon Health Science University. The panel was moderated by Alison Dennis, executive director of Portland State University's Center for Global Leadership in Sustainability.
Each of the panelists has done an exceptional job in applying the theory of responsible sourcing to their menu, Truitt said.
For example, the placemats at Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse are maps of the Louisiana locations from which ingredients have been sourced. Meanwhile, Satnick works with Oregon farmer Tom Grebb on sustainability sourced no-till black beans he uses in his restaurants.
Hiatt said in the hospital space there is a big push to make money in cafes and restaurants. A former restaurant operator, Hiatt said his goal is to bring that chef- and ethic-inspired mentality to the institutional space.
"We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to set up a farmers market," he said, which is designed to help the hospital promote health and wellness throughout the community. Additionally, through those connections, the hospital now sells lamb and goes through roughly 250-pounds per week. It also serves better-tasting, higher-quality foods, which has translated into higher café sales.
Satnick said for his Dick's Kitchen restaurant chain, the emphasis on serving sustainable foods "is both an attempt to cook for customers and experiment with the idea of taking sustainability to a more direct nutritional outcome. It's not necessarily tied to my bottom line, but really they're related."
Satnick's change in view was prompted by several surgeries to relieve his arthritis, motivating him to change his diet and the way he viewed sustainability and nutrition. He now promotes the Paleo Diet, which places an emphasis on lean meats, seafood, vegetables, fruits and nuts.
"How we eat is really going to be what bankrupts our country," Satnick said in relation to an increase in long-term healthcare costs.
Environmental catastrophes also need to be taken into consideration.
Brennan said demand for Louisiana seafood has tremendously dropped even though the state is still the largest provider of wild naturally-caught seafood in the world.
"Our seafood is more tested than it's ever been tested," he said. "And locally, we've been fine. I've gotten over the fear of 'Oh my God,' what's going to happen to our seafood."
For restaurant operators who use sustainable or locally sourced products, communicating the message continues to be a challenge.
Hiatt said the hospital is still faced with the challenge of effectively executing that message, but it tries through in-store signage and the famers market. Satnick agreed about the challenge of effective communication.
"That's one of the toughest things of what we do," Satnick said. "In our restaurant, we list all of the sources of where our food comes from. We're also running a website that's going to be not just about Dick's Kitchen, but what the paleo thing is about. It's led to a very information conversation with our customers."
Brennan believes customers want to be educated, which his restaurants do through the placemats and photos of friends on tractors at local farms.
"We just continue to do more and more of that (education) through social media and other things and it's been very successful," he said.
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As the founder of P-O-P Content & Communications, Valerie Killifer brings her passion for creative thinking and relationship development to the forefront of her business. She spent 15 years as a professional journalist and continues to write about the brands, people and trends impacting the restaurant industry.