The making of a zero-waste restaurant

What does it mean to be a genuinely sustainable foodservice business? It’s about much more than merely renouncing single-use plastics, Andrea Tolu discovers

The environmental impact of food production and consumption is drawing more attention from consumers, including diners. Data from the US National Restaurant Association’s 2022 State of the Restaurant Industry report shows that one third of restaurant customers (especially Gen Z and Millennials) are more likely to choose establishments that source ingredients grown locally and organically, and are happy to pay more for sustainable packaging.

Restaurants are responding by adopting sustainable practices: more of them work with local providers, manage food waste better, recycle more, and reduce the use of single-use plastics. Recycling alone, however, is not enough to minimize a restaurant’s carbon footprint. Indeed, in the waste management hierarchy universally adopted, recycling comes third after ‘avoid’ and ‘reuse’. Commercial kitchens that want to be truly sustainable will have to focus on preventing waste in the first place, rethinking many of their present practices.

Front and back of house

A good example of a waste reduction strategy concerns food contact materials and containers. While it’s true that the front of house generates much plastic waste, a lot of avoidable non-biodegradable materials can be found in the typical back of house, too. Nolla, a restaurant in Helsinki, Finland, has addressed this by applying a non-negotiable term with its suppliers. “One of the first things we tell them is that we won’t accept any ingredient in single-use packaging, only reusable crates,” says Albert Franch Sunyer, Nolla’s co-founder and chef. “That applies not only to vegetables, but also to fish, meat, dairy, liquors, and any food that is delivered to us.”

Nolla, which means ‘zero’ in Finnish, is part of a small group of restaurants pioneering a zero-waste approach to all areas of their business. As Franch Sunyer explains, avoiding non-biodegradable waste from suppliers is one of the pillars of the restaurant’s philosophy, and one of its most complicated achievements. “Today, the concepts of zero waste and sustainability are much more widespread, but when we started back in 2016, it wasn’t easy to make people understand that we don’t want milk to come in Tetra Paks or meat in vacuum bags, or that we won’t accept 10-liter canisters of rapeseed oil, but a 1,000-liter canister that can be reused,” he says.

Led by agriculture

The other pillar of a zero-waste restaurant is food management. Nolla doesn’t just source its ingredients locally and seasonally – a challenging thing to do in a country like Finland, where not a lot grows above ground during the winter – but also supports regenerative practices that restore soils and increase biodiversity.

“Sourcing locally is important because you reduce food mileage, but it’s not enough,” says Franch Sunyer. “Local producers can still use a lot of pesticides or grow monoculture crops. A better practice is to work with farmers you trust. The producers in our network are biodynamic certified. We know how they work and that they share our values.”

In the kitchen, Nolla’s staff use all parts of fruits and vegetables and keep track of food waste, which ends up in a digester. They then close the loop by giving the pre-compost back to farmers. The restaurant also upcycles ingredients from food manufacture, such as bread crusts to make miso soups and ice cream, and spent grain from brewing as an ingredient for bread and sauces.

“If you want to be a zero-waste restaurant, it’s important to be extremely organized with your inventory, but you also need to relearn how to preserve and ferment, how to use all those parts that are meant to be thrown away, and be ready to replace one ingredient with another every time you have too much or too little of something,” says Franch Sunyer.

In an era that has put the personality of chefs front and center, he advocates for a quite different view: “It’s crucial to understand that it’s not chefs who decide what goes on menus; it’s nature and farmers who do. We are not the ones growing the food. A lot of times chefs are so disconnected from agriculture and producers that they forget that there are no strawberries or tomatoes available in January.”

Beyond food and plastic waste

While the focus of sustainable practices in foodservice is on food and plastic waste, a restaurant is also made up of kitchen equipment, tables, chairs, crockery, and many other things. In the décor area, the key word of a zero-waste approach is ‘reuse’. We produce waste directly, every time we throw away something that could be reused or buy something that was designed for single use. But we also produce it indirectly, when we buy something new when we could have repurposed an existing object instead.

Franch Sunyer offers many examples of how this principle can be applied to anything you will find in a restaurant: Nolla’s glasses are from a designer who makes them using wine or soda bottles; cutlery is all second-hand; towels and napkins are made from reused fabric, and candleholders from the bottoms of wine bottles; flowerpots and coffee cups are from a Finnish ceramist who gives Nolla articles with small defects, which would otherwise remain unsold; staff work clothes are made from old hospital linen.

“The key questions in this case are: do I need it? And if I do, can I reuse it from somewhere else?” says Julia Holiday, global certification lead at the Sustainable Restaurant Association, a UK organization that provides consultancy and a certification program to foodservice businesses that want to improve their sustainability score. “If you’re building a restaurant from scratch, you should try and get the high-quality equipment that will last for many years and has the lowest energy consumption,” she says.

Despite growing awareness of environmental issues, Holiday adds, a zero-waste philosophy in foodservice is far from mainstream. “An entire approach towards reducing and reusing is still not quite there yet,” she says. “Much of the time, reducing waste is not rocket science, and there’s a lot of information out there. The main problem is lack of resources: restaurants nowadays are short-staffed and overworked, and struggle to find the time and money to invest in these initiatives. The best way to start is to measure your waste to understand what the biggest sources are, set out your targets, get people involved, and take steps to reduce it, possibly building a formal process around it.”

Andrea Tolu

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