In order to reduce their environmental impact, two businesses tell how they have focused on creating an eco-friendly dining experience—and selling this as their point of difference to customers, writes Susanna Nelson.
SUSTAINABILITY HAS become such a broad term that it can be difficult to know how to apply it meaningfully in business terms. It can relate to a range of activities, including water and energy efficiency, ethical trade and using environmentally sustainable produce.
Red Lantern, Sydney
“It’s a complex web,” says Mark Jensen, owner of Red Lantern in Sydney. “It’s virtually impossible to run a successful business and take everything into account—so you have to concentrate on one thing or another, and for us it was food provenance.”
Red Lantern, which serves modern Vietnamese, is known for its fresh, free-range fare and a focus on promoting local producers. While Jensen has implemented initiatives ranging from waterless wok systems to low-energy lighting and energy offsets—which have all resulted in considerable cost savings for his business—he is particularly interested in sourcing quality, ethical produce.
Most of the vegetables served at Red Lantern come from the Sydney basin, within 45 minutes to an hour from the restaurant, and when it comes to protein, the focus is on quality over quantity. “We’ve always endeavoured to let the produce shine,” he says. “There’s a perception of Vietnamese food that it’s cheap and cheerful, and it can be if you disregard many things, including the quality and provenance of the produce—but we wanted to elevate the cuisine.
“We started to reach out and talk to our suppliers so we could form relationships and use free-range and organic produce where we could. It was a natural journey where we were trying to provide a point of difference for ourselves.”
The challenge for Jensen was trying to get people to understand what they were paying for. “When you have a dish in one restaurant and it’s $16 and you come to my restaurant and it’s $32, there’s always the question of why it costs more,” he says. “And that comes down to doing things properly.”
Jensen says the transformation of his approach to business occurred over a 16-year period, during which he wrote a book on the subject—The Urban Cook: Cooking and Eating for a Sustainable Future.
“That was when I really started to look at where our produce is grown and where it comes from, encouraging people to go to farmers’ markets and to consider the food that they eat and how it’s produced. I wasn’t trying to lecture people—I was trying to start a discussion.”
Having children was part of the impetus. “Thinking about the next generation and where the food is going to come from and what sort of legacy you’re going to leave them with, it makes you consider what you’re doing now,” says Jensen.
He sees an opportunity to influence diverse food communities, starting with his in-laws, who have run traditional Vietnamese restaurants in Cabramatta. “They really love the direction we’ve taken it in and it’s been a bit of a journey for them too. At first, they couldn’t understand why you’d spend so much extra, especially on the protein, but they get it now.
“There’s an opportunity to influence that community. The younger generation are definitely changing things too.”
Running an environmentally sustainable restaurant is about being creative and thinking on your feet, according to Rob Wilkie, bar manager of Gingerboy in Melbourne. Wilkie recently overhauled the bar menu to reduce waste and increase the ethical quotient of the delicious cocktails he serves up to restaurant customers.
“It’s a complex web. It’s virtually impossible to run a successful business and take everything into account—so you have to concentrate on one thing or another, and for us it was food provenance.”—Mark Jensen, owner, Red Lantern
Wilkie uses soy infusions, chickpea brine and vegan egg whites to create the creaminess of dairy without the footprint. Another issue he has identified is food waste. It dismays him that after whole citrus fruit are juiced, the rest of the fruit is thrown away; similarly, that the stalks from mint, basil and parsley are discarded before they’ve achieved their full use.
“We try to employ the idea that everything has multiple uses and the bin is the very last place where something should go,” Wilkie says. “It’s efficient and it’s good for the planet.
“When I came on board, a lot of drinks were muddled fresh, which gives a great flavour but also creates a lot of mess and waste,” he adds. The workaround has been to develop a house lime cordial out of leftover citrus and other items used in the kitchen. “It’s always really fun when you find these little tweaks that are better than the way you’ve been doing things and much more sustainable.”
One initiative that will save money in the long run is the use of gas-charged water taps to provide high-quality still or sparkling water. “Before this happened, we had to consider the staffing costs of lugging imported Italian water up and down the stairs,” says Wilkie. Not to mention the carbon footprint clocked up by sending bottled water halfway around the world.
Interaction between the various departments of the restaurant has helped to reduce waste. “The bar downstairs is right next to the dessert section,” says Wilkie. “I try to encourage some overlap—the kitchen can always use our leftover citrus for acidity in cooking.”
Similarly, when the kitchen staff were about to throw away a poached pear reduction, Wilkie found a way of using the poaching liquid in a cocktail. “It’s a way of pushing that product that little bit further,” he says.
Wilkie is also tackling plastic waste, one straw at a time. “The big thing in restaurants and bars is straws,” he says. “It takes a bit of behaviour change among the clientele, but there are great alternatives such as bamboo and steel. The single use economy is not going to work in the long run.”
As always, it’s about getting customers on board. “We don’t give people a straw unless they ask for them. Most people don’t care but you do get the occasional person who will ask for one,” says Wilkie. “We’re providing an experience; we’re not trying to lecture people. We’re trying to provide a luxury experience, while assuring customers it is possible to indulge without being wasteful.”
For all the innovation and creativity that Red Lantern and Gingerboy are demonstrating with their ethical initiatives, the big gains are still found in simple and straightforward practices such as composting, water management and energy usage. These are the ‘low-hanging fruit’—the things that save businesses money while also reducing waste.
It takes a bit of vision, but it’s good to have something to aim for,” says Wilkie. “How can I both make money for my boss and preserve the environment too? They’re not mutually exclusive aims. Indeed, to justify an initiative, there should be immediate efficiency benefits as well. And there usually are.”
The Restaurant & Catering Association’s Green Table Accreditation program is an education and certification program that recognises restaurants, cafes and catering businesses that do their bit to reduce their impact on the environment through environmentally sustainable products and practices. The Green Table symbol builds recognition among consumers of your restaurant’s environmentally friendly practices.
For further information on the Green Table Accreditation program, contact the Restaurant & Catering Association on 1300 722 878 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org