Thoughts on ecology in the hospitality industry and the urge of shifting to resilient business models for good.
Chef & entrepreneur at Cassava organic bakery & restaurant, Reunion Island (France)
30th of April, 2020
The current COVID-19 health crisis has quickly hit the world’s economy and the restaurant industry in France has been shut down overnight. This is an unprecedented, chaotic situation. Many restaurants and chefs around the world cannot do their job anymore. Many people are left without any security income. Small-scale, family-run restaurants are known to make thin profit margins, therefore they handle small cash flows and are not able to cope with long-lasting crises. On the other hand, the agro-industry and fast-food chains like McDonalds were the first to re-open with their drive-in service. Small-scale, good quality restaurants don’t necessarily have this capacity to switch from a service on-site to a delivery one. Also, farmers markets have been banned, whereas supermarkets kept their doors open. Finding good quality, fresh food has been a marathon for most people. At the beginning of the lockdown I admit I felt anger, revolt and pessimism. But on the other hand, the current context is making it urgent to build sustainable food systems in which chefs and restaurateurs play a crucial role.
The issue now is: What do we do now? As young chefs and entrepreneurs, how do we shape our business models so to be more resilient? How are our present projects going to shape the future in a relevant way, so we can sustainably feed our community?
Indeed, very quickly, many restaurants and chefs tried new ways of functioning. Forced to close their restaurants, they turned them into local organic markets for their neighbourhood, various online platforms to sell small-scale local farmers products came to life, many of them started free online cooking classes to help and inspire home cooks to feed their family well, others started cooking and delivering food to hospitals’ workers … Also, the farming sector has been coping with the situation and is finding new ways to be more resilient.
In Reunion Island, the Farmers’ Association faced the urge to bring back basic cultures that have been abandoned because of the globalized food market (onions, garlic…). They realized the emergency to go forward on bio diverse cultures and build a local market for seeds conservation…
For me, this is hope. There is always space for creativity, and maybe even more during calamities. I believe we can – as individuals and societies – shift to a more resilient way of growing, distributing, cooking and consuming food. And we are already doing it.
Two months ago, I wouldn’t imagine my vision about sustainability in the restaurant industry would be put into practice so quickly. It just became obvious. There is no turning back. I’ve started building a food project with my husband – who is also a chef and a baker – around organic food and sourdough bread. We decided to go back to Reunion Island where I was born and raised to settle and bring to life our little business dream. We started this February and the lockdown in March stopped our endeavours. We first felt disoriented but we decided to take the most of this time to reflect upon our first ideas, adapting them to the new reality and improve every aspect of our business model so it would be aligned with sustainable practices. We have identified several critical points in the industry that we can act upon at our level. These are the same as before the health crisis and will remain the same after; thousands of food businesses are already implementing it. What changes is with this crisis the urge to make it happen on a larger scale.
- Organic waste: food companies create food waste; in France, this represents 1,6 millions of metric tones every year that is not recycled by restaurants.
In bakeries, it’s 10,6% of the production that is wasted!
We decided to engage a zero waste policy in our business, putting into place a recycling process method for every single waste we produce (dealing with providers so they do not deliver us produce through non-recyclable materials, putting in place a composting bin in our bin storage and small garden, using every part of fruit and vegetable as much as possible creating by-products like jams, vinegar, kombuchas…) This also means offering a small varieties of baked goods and designing a very small menu with a few items to guarantee a sold-out at the end of the day. This requires a tight and strict stock management and sales forecast.
- Making everything from scratch: sourdough starter, drinks, preserves, vinegars, cheese, yogurt, butter, coconut milk, coconut oil, dried mixed spices… we are going to make most of our produces from scratch. This is an easy way to stop buying industrial, processed items that we can easily do ourselves. It will taste better, there will be no waste because we won’t overproduce and we will reduce our dependence on outputs.
- Packaging and zero plastic policy: every take away packaging for drinks and baked goods will be recyclable. We won’t use any plastic packaging (included no plastic water bottle/ instead a filter-water system). We will also encourage customers to bring their own containers and coffee cups. This is a simple move but so eco-efficient!
- Imports: drastically reduce the amount of things produced outside we buy to function and find substitutions locally
- Water/Energy management: select the machines according to their level of energy consumption (ovens, fridges, washing machine…) and use them efficiently, not all day (by designing our production schedules to minimize our consumption)
- Local agriculture: co-create a market for a 100% bio diverse organic agriculture locally on the Island. Our menu will be based on what farmers produce, day-by-day, season by season, nothing else, nothing more.
- Zero industrial products: every raw material we use has to come from artisans. Local artisans who recycle materials locally will build the furniture of the bakery and restaurant.
The future is now. In my opinion, we can wait for the others to make the right decisions (governments, states, local politicians…) but when are we going to make it happen for ourselves? We are able to lead the change by changing ourselves first. We get inspired everyday by many chefs and entrepreneurs who are already making all these changes around the world.
It’s time for a change, let it become a positive one. People will always need good food, comforting and nourishing for the body and the mind. This is our responsibility as restaurateurs to provide for them.
Next post from the series: Come Forage with Me | Madhuri Vijaykumar