Can a Green Culinary Arts Business Make Greenbacks?
By Olivia DeWolfe
Running a profitable culinary arts business isn't easy. Having consistently great food and service in an appealing environment requires creativity, strong leadership, skilled staff, and smart business and marketing skills. Many enterprises fail because they just can't make it all work while improving profits.
Consumers are now adding another challenge for food businesses by demanding sustainable food in regard to ingredients, packaging, waste disposal, and energy use. In a survey conducted by the James Beard Foundation, 62 percent of chefs were concerned about profitability when it comes to sustainability. Can owners keep up being green without going into the red?
One Owner's Recipe for Sustainability
Richard French II, an entrepreneur who created Bagel Works, a 23-year old bakery cafe chain in New England, shares those concerns. Not a chef nor even a foodie, French is a businessman who has been in the food service industry since he "could reach the dishwasher standing on a dish crate." His success hasn't come easy, but through a series of trials and errors over his 37 years in the business, he has made a name for himself.
French's eleventh store opened this summer in southern Vermont. A beautiful space full of reclaimed wood, lighting fixtures, and chairs made from old tractor seats, it's obvious from the constant stream of customers that his latest cafe is doing very well.
For French, a successful business means keeping people gainfully employed and, ultimately, making money. By relying on standardized recipes, keeping track of food costs, using checklists, and hiring great managers, Bagel Works is doing well enough to put French's sustainability vision to the test: how green can it be and still make a decent profit?
"Sustainability is a process," he says. "You can never be there fully, with zero waste. Even if you could, most customers couldn't afford the cost." Right now Bagel Works has bins for separating compost, recyclables, and trash, as well as bathrooms equipped with recycled toilet paper and low flush toilets. All of the bakery items are made on site and the coffee is organic and local. Sourcing sustainable ingredients can be a time consuming task, however, and not all business owners can afford it.
One Cooking Ingredient at a Time
It took French a year to find more sustainable meats. He finally found ham that's humanely raised on a family farm with no nitrates, antibiotics, or hormones (at a 64 percent increase in cost). He wishes it were also local, organic, and grass-fed, but the cost would be exorbitant.
Getting liquid free-range eggs was another dilemma French solved by working with a company that had no market for their small and medium eggs. After finding a separate facility to crack and pasteurize the eggs, he had to convince his purveyor to make the deliveries, an impossible burden for a smaller business. He's also working on replacing products that contain high fructose corn syrup and finding better options for take-out containers. His "customers are always pushing for more" when it comes to sustainability.
Though it's challenging and doesn't happen over night, it looks like it is possible for chefs and restaurant owners to make sustainability a part of their vision and still keep their doors open.
About the Author
Olivia DeWolfe is a freelance chef and writer specializing in all things culinary. She's been cooking professionally for 18 years, and currently runs a personal chef business called The Olive Tree.