Today’s young restaurant customers say they value efforts to produce meals in ways that are good for the environment and for the people serving them.
Restaurant owners eager to capture the interest of that younger customer base ― and to do their part by using sustainable practices ― can take a wide range of steps to become more environmentally friendly, from reducing food waste to buying local.
Restaurants of the future will offer fewer, “cleaner” options using fresh ingredients sourced locally and will serve increasingly environmentally aware customers with sophisticated palates, according to the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Industry 2030 report
, released in 2019.
But putting sustainable ideals into practice takes time, money, and people ― and restaurant owners may find themselves in short supply of all three, says Jose Aste, owner of Tantay
, a startup Peruvian restaurant in Lansing now operating out of a business incubator and a food truck. On the cusp of moving into his own space early next year, Aste hopes to build a business that incorporates sustainable practices, treats employees right, and keeps good food affordable.
Long-established restaurants also are shifting toward those priorities, Aste says, and will have to work around the extra time, expense, and complications of running sustainable kitchens to keep customers coming back.
“All of it is connected,” he says. “Your sourcing. Your systems. Your menu innovation. The wages. All of it matters.”
Less waste, more local
Environmental friendliness falls behind other factors driving the purchase of food, such as cost, according to a 2023 survey
by the International Food Information Council.
Still, a third of adults in their late 20s to early 40s are willing to pay more for sustainability, and half of the next, younger generation, say they would pay at least 20% more for a meal made using environmentally conscious methods, according to an analysis
by global consultancy firm Simon-Kucher.
Customers in their 60s and 70s were less likely to put such value on sustainable meals, but some agreed they would pay a little more at a “green” restaurant.
Restaurant owners eager to tap into that market have multiple hurdles to clear first, says Paul Green, development director of Make Food Not Waste
, a Detroit nonprofit that works with restaurants and organizations to keep food out of landfills.
Customers expect to encounter, say, the prettiest part of the carrot on their plate, Green explains. Trimming food to meet that expectation creates waste, from the top of the carrot to potato peels and onion skins to the edges of a piece of meat.
Surplus food from restaurants accounts for 9 million tons of waste costing $104 billion each year, according to ReFED
, a national nonprofit trying to reduce the reported one-third of all U.S. food that goes to waste each year.
Restaurants determined to reduce food waste have to come up with something else to do with that excess food. That can mean steps such as adding menu items, buying more supplies and training staff. All of that takes time and money a busy restaurant may not have to spare, Green says.
Make Food Not Waste is a Detroit nonprofit that works with restaurants and organizations to keep food out of landfills.
Buying from local farmers also helps the environment, leaving a smaller carbon footprint when food is not shipped from all over the world. Food that travels less is also fresher and more nutritious when it reaches the plate, and supporting local farmers keeps dollars local, benefiting the community as a whole, Green says.
But buying local also comes at a cost, often driving prices higher and leaving restaurateurs dependent on the smaller range of food available locally, maybe even running out of a menu item and having to refuse a customer’s order.
“That’s not a good look for restaurants” and can cost them in dollars and time lost, Green says.
Chefs fear blowback from staff if they enforce changes to reduce waste and buy local, but most workers like it, Green says. Not earning exorbitant salaries themselves, they don’t like to see food thrown away and welcome systems that reduce the waste of not only food but also the carbon, water, and other energy forms it takes to grow, ship, and prepare that food.
Caring for workers
Worker buy-in can be as crucial as pleasing customers in an industry struggling with staffing shortages.
Despite steady employment gains in 2021 and 2022, the restaurant industry is still 3.6% below its pre-pandemic staffing level ― the largest employment deficit among all U.S. industries, according to the National Restaurant Association
Young workers care deeply about diversity, equity, inclusion, and sustainable practices. They prioritize their families and personal lives and want to do work that feels meaningful. Business owners, including those in the restaurant industry, must acknowledge and bend to that mindset if they want to hire and retain the best workers, says Aste, at Tantay of Lansing.
Jose Aste plans a permanent location for Tantay in Lansing in early 2024.
He makes sure the small team at his startup receives higher pay than at other restaurants and that they work reasonable hours. He pays their health care and offers flex time.
Such practices are easier said than done, especially as restaurants try to keep prices down while simultaneously adding eco-friendly practices that increase costs.
Restaurants have a long and notorious history of mistreatment of employees, says Tony Vu, executive chef at The Good Bowl Eatery
in Traverse City.
“If you’ve been in the industry long enough, you have a story about getting a frying pan thrown at your head,” says Vu, who joined the industry a decade ago and discovered it was drenched in toxicity and an expectation of mistreatment of employees.
The “use and abuse, rinse and repeat” mindset in many restaurants led to high employee turnover as workers jumped from restaurant to restaurant, never earning a fair wage and exploited by hard-driving and angry bosses who themselves often put in 70-hour work weeks.
That culture had to change, Vu says. Happy employees, after all, make for a happy guest experience.
Striking a balance
Not every restaurant can afford to pay workers more, or to buy local or fully upgrade their kitchen sustainability practices, Vu says. But restaurants can take small steps toward making healthy, affordable food in a fair and generous work environment.
“So much of humanity revolves around the dining table,” he says. As purveyors of that intimate, essential human experience of eating together, restaurants can’t be “soulless money makers” but, rather, can and should be intentional about striking a balance with sustainable and equitable business practices ― even if that means explaining to customers why they are paying a little more for a meal, Vu says.
Tony Vu is the executive chef at The Good Bowl Eatery in Traverse City.
In addition to his Traverse City restaurant, Vu also heads The Flint Social Club
, a nonprofit organization that mentors startup food entrepreneurs and helps scale their businesses. (In this 2022 interview
, he shares how 100K Ideas
helped the Flint nonprofit grow in the community.)
As the industry is enlivened by new faces with new ideas, customers will encounter a stronger, more equitable restaurant landscape, Vu says. Not only will the change provide a better experience for diners, but, he says, “The survival of the industry depends on it.”
The industry’s problems won’t be solved using the same tools and outlooks that caused the problems in the first place, Vu says.
“Better treatment of employees and increasingly sustainable practices is not about fixing what exists,” the chef says. “It’s about tearing it down and building something that’s more fair, just, and dignified.”
Julie J. Riddle is a freelance journalist based in Jackson, MI, who, when she is not working on a story, can probably be found prowling the local courthouse, researching crime stats, or talking to her cats. She writes about humans, life, God, and occasionally turtles at withmarshmallows.blogspot.com.
Photos by Shandra Martinez, Make Food Not Waste and Flint Social Club
This story is part of a series that explores access, equity, and sustainability through Good Food in Michigan’s thriving food economy. This work is made possible by Michigan Good Food and is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.