Why Sustainability in the Restaurant Industry is Going Beyond What’s on the Plate
Three chefs discuss the future of foodMorgan Carter
April 13, 2021
Since March 2020, we've been hosting webinars as part of our Industry Support learning series. Topics have covered all facets of the current crisis, from operating safely to the importance of the supply chain and supporting the vulnerable.
Last year we collaborated with Deloitte's US Restaurant and Food Service Leader Jean Chick and three innovative chefs—multiple-time James Beard Award nominee Amy Brandwein, Joel Gamoran of the cookbook Cooking Scrappy, and James Beard Award winner Chris Shepherd—to discuss what was on the horizon for sustainability in the food industry. One year and one pandemic later, we brought these collaborators back together to reflect on the struggles and triumphs of the past year and discussed how the industry can rebuild with sustainability taking the lead.
According to Jean Chick, pre-pandemic, sustainability had become an industry standard for not only chefs and restaurateurs but also for the guests who frequent their restaurants. “In broad masses, people are thinking about climate change and their carbon footprint. But when thinking about food and the future of food, food sustainability impacts every single one of us on a daily basis,” she says.
But as the pandemic hit the country in March of last year, the restaurant industry’s priority shifted to survival. Restaurant owners quickly had to navigate complicated government funding, research safety best practices, and turn to delivery and takeout to keep their heads above water. Yet the topic of sustainability in the industry wasn’t completely forgotten. Instead, the scope of the concept grew, as supporting industry workers became key to a sustainable business model.
“Environmental awareness has been top of mind, but how is the industry sustainable?” asks Amy Brandwein. “How do we make this industry work for the people who are working in it?”
Even before the pandemic, Chris Shepherd had been well aware of the lack of safety net for industry workers. Established in 2015, his nonprofit Southern Smoke provided funds for food and beverage industry employees battling unforeseen hardship in the Texas area. In 2019, the organization provided grants to around 130 individuals. In 2020, the foundation expanded its reach through the creation of the Southern Smoke Emergency Relief Fund, which supported industry workers in all 50 states. To date, the fund has provided over $5.7 million in relief to over 3,000 people in need.
As more vulnerabilities—from the weaknesses in the supply chain to long-standing inequitable practices—were being exposed, creating a more sustainable model for workers quickly became a topic of interest for the industry. And as food service workers received essential status, they finally received the visibility they needed to push for change.
“Something changed when chefs became essential workers,” says Joel Gamoran. “[Previously] chefs were rockstars, but it didn’t necessarily mean they had the respect of the consumer. Post-pandemic, [people] are saying ‘you‘re a rockstar, you’re essential, you’re important, and you keep the economy alive.’ Chefs are finally getting the respect they deserve.”
As devastating as it has been, for Brandwein, the pandemic brought all facets of the industry together to finally recognize and address its issues. “Chefs and restaurants are used to going to events and socializing and competing, but for once we all had the same problems and realized that there wasn’t enough support to get out of this. This is the moment we needed,” she said.
And while chefs and restaurant owners turned to advocacy by contacting their local representatives and calling for support, they still had to work to keep their businesses open. As a result, restaurateurs and other industry leaders began to diversify their offerings beyond the four walls of their restaurants.
Shepherd and his team turned part of his restaurant into a studio and created Zoom cook-alongs for his guests complete with at-home grocery delivery. Brandwein expanded her delivery reach outside of the D.C. area, an expansion she plans to keep after the pandemic. With the overall shift from dining-in to delivery and takeout, Chick envisions that sustainable packaging laws in the U.S. will need to change to meet demands.
“Like any business, restaurants need to diversify [rather] than just putting food in front of diners,” says Gamoran. “This has forced the hand of restaurateurs to think creatively. How can you experience me as a chef and me as a brand outside of just the plate?”
And although the pandemic “forced people to cook for themselves,” Gamoran reckons that this period provided an opportunity for chefs to engage and educate a new crop of home cooks and diners.
“You’re not just chefs feeding people now. All these new home cooks will be looking to their new local heroes for knowledge,” he says.
Check out what's on-deck for our webinar series and find past recordings here.
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