Better social awareness
The Me Too movement. Black Lives Matter. The rapid degradation of our planet. Restaurant staff working excessive hours. Four issues that are now of significant public interest and have highlighted systemic problems in the industry to boot. And now the Coronavirus has thrown things into even sharper focus, highlighting both the consequences of humankind’s actions on the planet and also social injustice, with those that are worse off or marginalised disproportionately affected by the crisis. “The events of 2020 highlighted just how connected the world is, our actions have an impact on others, and we can make a difference. Diners are keen to know not just where the ingredients are from but how it has been sourced and produced, the impact on the environment and the community,” says Aji Akokomi, who founded African restaurant Akoko in Fitzrovia last year. Thanks to the work of individuals and a number of relatively new organisations things are starting to change for the better. Restaurants are starting to take their responsibilities to their people and the environment more seriously and work is being done to tackle the lack of representation for ethnic minorities in kitchens (above the rank of kitchen porter, at least). Crucially, these issues are now being openly discussed and businesses are starting to put policies in place to improve. But there’s plenty more work to do in 2021 and beyond.
Thinking more local
Like it or not, Brexit has finally happened. While major disruption has been avoided in most areas thanks to a last-minute deal, the procurement landscape has changed noticeable. Import and export of perishable produce has been disrupted forcing some buyers to switch to more reliable and potentially less expensive home-grown and home-reared alternatives. This is largely a positive, highlighting the quality of our own produce, reducing food miles and in many cases supporting the UK-based suppliers that have had their access to the European market curtailed by Brexit, not least the shellfish industry. While restaurants have become much more conscientious about local sourcing over the past decade or so, there are still many categories of product that are invariably imported. A truly modern and intelligent sourcing model to aspire to is that of Kol, a high-end Mexican restaurant that opened towards the end of last year. Chef-patron Santiago Lastra’s fresh produce is exclusively from the British Isles. Just three categories of product come from Mexico: dried chillies, chocolate and mezcal. All three have long shelf lives so can be transported by boat, which has a minimal impact on the environment. Lastra makes clever use of British ingredients to develop alternatives to Mexican staples, with sea buckthorn providing the acidity that would normally come from limes. Restaurants that really can’t do without a certain ingredient should take a leaf out of Pizza Pilgrims’ book. The 12-strong casual dining chain was importing 4.5 tonnes of basil from Europe but it’s now getting it grown in east London. It tastes better, lasts longer, uses 95% less water and has knocked 240,000 air miles out of its supply chain. The cost? Exactly the same as importing it. “Provenance and quality of ingredients will be bigger than ever, particularly with the current issues Brexit has brought and the threat of certain imports not being readily available,” says Moor Hall chef-patron Mark Birchall. “You’re going to see a focus on what’s seasonal, grown locally, and sustainable.”
Carbon footprint reduction
2020 was all set to be the year that the UK got serious about the climate crisis with restaurants poised to be in the vanguard. The UK Government set a Net Zero target and major restaurant groups including Nando’s and Pizza Hut Restaurants followed suit. But then a certain global event came along and turned everything upside down. Unfortunately, but also understandably, some plans were shelved. Despite this, the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) predicts that 2021 will see restaurants large and small look to tackle the climate crisis head on. “With food production responsible for about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, consumers are keener than ever before to find tasty solutions to climate change and the template is now there to follow,” says SRA acting managing director Juliane Caillouette-Noble. “We predict that 2021 will see a wholesale adoption of positive action. The beauty about these trends is that they are not only good for the planet, but also for people, and perhaps most fundamentally as we recover from Covid-19, for the bottom line.” Organic farm, restaurant and lifestyle business Daylesford has embarked on a major audit of its carbon emissions which includes understanding to what extent its organic farmland and soils can absorb carbon from the atmosphere. “This absorption not only helps improve soil health, it balances out our carbon output,” says head of sustainability Tim Field. “This initial carbon footprinting stage will lead to a product lifecycle analysis of selected items in our farm shops and restaurants so we can be completely transparent with our customers.” As the industry returns to some sort of normality over the coming months, business owners should be looking at easy wins that are either cost neutral or actually save cash. These include reducing food waste (see 4); sourcing local; ensuring kitchen equipment is energy efficient and signing up to an electricity supplier that use zero-carbon sources.
Zero tolerance of food waste
The first ever Food Waste Action Week, being run by WRAP, coming up on 1 March, could well kickstart a bigger push to keep food on the plate and out of the bin this year. According to the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), restaurants are throwing away 18% of the food they buy, at a cumulative cost of £3.2bn. Three quarters of that 1.1 million tonnes of food thrown away is entirely avoidable, so if cash-strapped restaurants are looking at ways to improve margins in 2021 this is a good place to start. And with food waste accounting for 8% of greenhouse gas emission, the potential for environmental savings is also massive. The SRA predicts shorter and set menus, more pre-ordering and an increase in dishes designed to use the whole ingredient. “We anticipate restaurants placing a strong emphasis on smart, inventive ways of serving up more local, less carbon heavy dishes designed to produce minimal waste, higher returns and satisfaction to customers looking for ways to fulfill their appetite for meals that taste great and don’t cost the earth,” says the SRA’s Caillouette-Noble.
This year saw the debut of green stars in the Michelin Guide for Great Britain & Ireland. Twenty-three venues were recipients of the green clover icon, which directs diners to venues ‘preserving resources and embracing biodiversity, reducing food waste and reducing the consumption of non-renewable energy’. Combined with 2021’s focus on staycations, these new accolades are a significant boost to the UK’s growing eco-tourism sector. Palé Hall, a luxury hotel near Snowdonia, was a shoo-in for one given its commitment to sustainability across the business (initiatives include - but are certainly not limited to - a hydro-electric power system, a strict local sourcing policy and the protection of the natural habitats that surround it). Head chef Gareth Stevenson is pleased to have it on the hotel’s metaphorical mantelpiece. “A lot of people were congratulating us for getting a Michelin star rather than a green star, so I think there’s a little way to go in terms of people understanding what it means. But soon people will get it and understand the extra effort and care that has gone into what’s offered. It will be a big asset for us then.” Palé Hall is also one of a growing number of businesses to offer free electric vehicle charging points. Tempted by a new generation of vehicles that offer fast charging and much larger ranges, 2021 looks set to be the year that many make the switch to fully electrical cars, making fast charging points an essential and relatively inexpensive investment for destination restaurants, pubs and hotels.