Sustainability has become quite the buzzword in the restaurant industry, yet many companies have been hesitant and slow-going on the march toward implementing sustainable business practices. The concept can be intimidating, and many restaurants may fear they might not get the buy-in from customers and shareholders needed to help the business succeed. However, Jamie Moore is here to prove those fears wrong.
Moore is currently the Director of Sustainability and Sourcing at Eat’n Park Hospitality Group. In his tenure, he has developed a program called FarmSource to drive local food sourcing from nearby communities for all Eat’n Park restaurants. In this interview, Sustridge CEO and founder Josh Prigge talks with Moore about implementing sustainability in the foodservice industry, advice for leaders and more.
Josh Prigge: Tell us a little bit about the history of sustainability at Eat’n Park. Any notable achievements? What are you working on today?
Jamie Moore: Eat’n Park’s focus on sustainability was not much when I joined the company in 2000. But, it became something as we started to evolve and started to really understand what we were purchasing and knowing the sources of where our food was originating from our distributors. We found that there was a potential to highlight and elevate our local commitment.
As my role in sourcing sustainability has evolved over the years, I’ve become more of a consultant working with schools or universities on sustainability projects that might touch food service. That can stem from a farm on a college campus or a university raising rainbow trout in an aquaponics environment; in those cases, we find and bring that product back into our kitchens. It’s pretty vast. There are a lot of different projects that we dive into. So farms, aquaponic systems and dealing with food waste are probably the three initiatives that I’m most active with.
JP: One of strongest areas in sustainability that you’ve focused on is local sourcing. You have your farm source program. Eat’n Park has 70+ restaurants and have had the contracts for over 80 colleges and corporate dining locations. How does your company source and provide so much local food, and still keep the costs down for the customers? What advice would you give other chain restaurants around the country for providing more local food in their restaurants?
JM: Going for the low hanging fruit is the way that I approached it, specifically tackling our family dining restaurants first. I looked at what was growing in the area. I worked very closely with our farming community on giving them a forecast of what I was expecting for the coming year. We started that off back in 2006, which is when the Eat’n Park restaurants started to focus on local food. That’s when we started to build the relationship with our local growers. The relationship that we have built over the course of the last 12 years has been what separates us and what allows us to do what we’re doing. If we’re able to give a fair price to our farmers, then we will ultimately have them back year after year. What I’ve developed is a process where we lock in one flat price for the growing season with our growers to allow them to have consistent money coming in for the products that they’re growing for us.
For example, we realized that zucchini in early July or late June is going to be a relatively expensive crop here in Western Pennsylvania. However, in August or late July, there is so much zucchini on the marketplace that if growers are able to get $8 for a case of zucchini, they’re lucky. I usually lock in my price at around $13, which is a very fair price for the products that we’re receiving. Therefore, my advice is to start with what’s growing in your region and then slowly build upon it as needed or as it becomes more important to the brand.
JP: What business benefits has Eat’n Park been able to realize from its sustainability initiatives, from sourcing locally and addressing things like waste, energy and water?
JM: We certainly see it as an opportunity to market. One of the comments that I usually receive is that our guests don’t care about local or about sustainability. My response is, what about the guests we don’t have? Maybe we need to find a way to attract a different guest that we’ve never had before.
Sustainable products include items that are antibiotic free, hormone free, fair trade and USDA organic, including gestation crate-free pork and cage-free eggs. So, we are really starting to not only look at what we’re buying locally but what are we doing sustainably. One of the things that we could capitalize on is starting to market to a guest that maybe we’ve never had in our restaurant, but we try to reach them through a radio advertisement or television commercial or even just on social media.
I now use a measurement to allow us to look at what sustainable products we’re buying first, what that percentage is over our total dollar spend. And, if you can believe it, Eat’n Park Restaurants is sitting at around 9 percent of sustainable purchases and 19 percent in reference to local dollars staying within the community. It’s a great number. I was very impressed the first time I ran it for our restaurant division this year. I ran it this year specifically for them because I felt that there could be something we could market that we’re currently not doing. We’ll see if that conversation sinks in and if they’ll ultimately market what we’re saying. I do think we could attract a totally different customer. That’s the reason why we really have focused on sustainability within our company.
JP: Where do you think the biggest opportunities are right now in the restaurant industry?
JM: Beer is hot. Local breweries are just insane. I look at the local brewery mentality and the way they go to market. I have not found many breweries out there that are buying just commodity items. They focus on local. They’ve already got that in their DNA. It’s already part of who they are and what they’re about. They’re making a craft product, and thus they support the local community.
I see that as being something that will help us develop the local food system. I say breweries because it just goes hand-in-hand with what they already do. In some regions, it has exploded like unbelievably, while in other regions, it’s just getting started. As I’m starting to see what’s happening out there in the landscape of local, I’m seeing that the breweries are the ones that are bringing a little bit of a different twist. When I’m going out to eat and I’m looking for a place to go eat, I’m looking at those breweries first because I know that they’re already committed to local products.
JP: Many large chain restaurants are thinking about sustainability but don’t know where to start or if the investment is going to pay off. As somebody who’s been leading sustainability successfully in a large restaurant and food service company, what do you want these restaurants to know about sustainability?
JM: The first step is to start with things that you know you can control, and that might include a brand change. For example, maybe you’re using conventional poultry and if you made the switch to antibiotic-free, would you gain additional customers? Obviously, your cost of goods just went up 20 percent. But does that 20 percent increase come with additional customers that you never had before? You need to look at your business from the perspective of, what are our guests looking for? Are those guests that we currently have the ones that we want to continue to attract, or do we want to have a different customer base? A change of sustainability within your restaurant also could mean a potential change of a customer.
You may not want to do it if you know that there’s not a customer base that is in your geography that’s automatically going to flock to your restaurant just because you made a change to antibiotic-free chicken. You have to understand who you’re feeding and what type of segment you’re in. Every one of our businesses has somewhat of a different type of demographic. They also have a different customer base.
In our Eat’n Park Restaurants, our audience is parents that have young kids and the senior population. I’m trying to hit the millennial population. How do we get them into our restaurant to have a cup of coffee and maybe a chicken sandwich? In our Hello Bistro restaurants, where we’re doing salads and burgers, we are hitting that millennial population. It’s a fun and vibrant type of atmosphere. At The Porch, we’re hitting families, but we’re also hitting the younger crowd as well. Every one of them is a little bit different.
With that difference, you can only change what you’re doing in some of them because most likely not all customers will necessarily care. You likely have the opportunity if you’ve got a certain demographic, and I’m going to target millennials specifically because the millennial population wants to know where their food is sourced from. They want to understand, and being a restaurant company, specifically in our Hello Bistro brand, we have to be transparent about where our food is sourced because that is what our customer cares about. That’s what they’re looking for. So, understanding your customer is really vital to advancing sustainability.
JP: What are some of your favorite resources or tools that help you in the work that you do?
JM: A new organization that I just joined is the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT). It is an international organization that focuses on food scientists. I went to a local group here in Pittsburgh and I was blown away and these were people that are in the same space. Food safety is a big part of that equation. One of the things that I noticed of the people that were in attendance to this meeting or some of the same little small makers that I’ve run into the I’ve certified or inspected over the course of my time here doing what I do. I was very taken back that they were in that room. They were active. They were trying to understand the science behind food, which was really cool. The IFT is what I would recommend.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to the podcast and read the full interview here. Also, be sure to listen to other podcasts from Sustridge featuring sustainability experts from across the country.
Josh Prigge is founder and CEO at Sustridge, a consulting firm helping organizations become leaders in sustainability. Services include sustainability strategy development, zero waste planning, GHG emissions calculating and planning, energy/water management, employee engagement and guidance in B Corp, True Zero Waste and carbon neutral certification.