Closed-Loop “Circular” System
The good news is that there are many phenomenal restaurants in various corners of the world doing amazing things with this concept. This is not a new idea. I hope that it spreads across our industry so that one day it becomes the norm. Almost as synonymous with a restaurant as having chefs or even tables and chairs, although these are also now disappearing thanks to the world of deliveries and ghost kitchens.
These are not new principles or methods of operation. In fact, these are “ancient” ideas. We are lucky that today, we can couple these ideas with cutting edge technology.
Your aim is to have a concept of “Farm to Table” and “Back to Farm”. Consider that one industry’s waste is another’s resource. I saw a quote once from Chef Doug McMaster from Silo who said “waste is a lack of imagination”.
Below are a few examples, and there are many more out there, of initiatives our industry is taking which fall under this umbrella of Closed-Loop Systems. I have split those into activities pertaining to Menu and Space.
- Menu planning to execution (percentage of plant-based items, ingredient sourcing, amount, sources and cuts of meat etc)
- Nose to tail menus
- Ugly veggies menu selection
- Vegetable offal recipes
- Stale bread to make beer
- Coffee grounds to make bread
- From food waste to other food items such as (rubs, doughs, dehydrated powders etc.)
- From food waste to products such as (soap, coffee cups, takeaway packaging, etc)
- Cooking oil to biofuel
- Filtered drinking water (no bottles)
- Embracing seasonality
- Milk dispensers to avoid excessive containers
- Water recapturing and recycling
- E-water systems for cleaning and sterilising without the use of detergents
- Compost machines
- Aquaponics, a symbiotic system that uses fish to grow plants
- Furniture that is upcycled, recycled, repurposed and / or made of organic recycled material
- Enforced concept of quality and longevity (maintenance and up-keeping)
- Have a “no waste bin” policy
- Choice of lighting, energy efficient
- Energy efficient kitchen equipment
- Tableware made from a closed-loop cycle materials
- Proper insulation to minimise heating and cooling requirements
- Renewable energy harvesting
- Holding “candle” only special nights
City to Table
Can urban restaurants produce their own food? Can city farms “within proximity to the restaurant” produce the food required? The answer to these questions are yes thanks to advances in agriculture technology and vertical farms. One needs to assess potential suppliers and farmers to evaluate their production methods and facilities. If used wisely, technology can help us move in the right direction.
Farm to Chair
Just as people have popularised the term “Farm to Table”, and without adding more “buzz words” for mere marketing gimmicks, I would like to explore the “Farm to Chair” concept further.
Farm to Table to Farm. This personifies, as mentioned above, the closed-loop synergies that have to be maximised and explored between agriculture and our industry. We can take this one step further by saying, Farm to Table, then the by-products of “Table” turned to “Chair”, in other words, objects. Even by-products of “Farm” can go straight to “Chair”. Meaning, consider organic waste materials from our industry (in the broad sense, agriculture and restaurants), and explore how we can transform those into materials used to design and create objects used in restaurants.
I dove into this world during my furniture design course where I was researching, testing, and getting exposed to these opportunities. Two things became very apparent. The past has many answers and a lot to teach us. The future holds many opportunities for people willing to take the right choices. Another thing I believe and am convinced can help be a small piece in this interconnected puzzle is that technology and craft can coexist. Not only coexist, this combination can provide a solution that allows us to operate in harmony with nature and produce objects which have engaging stories and aesthetics that appeal to customers while being functional and with low environmental impact.
Examples from the Past
Historically, scarcity was the driving factor in maximising the use of resources. We know that necessity is the mother of all inventions, and that necessity comes from scarcity. People in the past used to explore all what was available to them to create objects and sustain their livelihoods.
Natural glues such as: Casein glue (milk glue), tree sap glue, and animal protein glue. Using the entire tree from barks to saw dust to create usable materials. The obvious yet contentious animal byproduct, leather. Wool and all its various applications from felting to weaving, for both clothing and objects.
Examples from the Future
There are many developments and innovations happening in the world of materials sourced and manufactured from closed-loop systems. These include things such as tea waste tableware, coffee waste used in various applications, plastic whether plates made of plastic bags or ocean waste tables, to mycelium (fungus) furniture.
Maximise Interdependencies and Synergies
As mentioned in this article, a core aspect in Permaculture and its design principles are the interdependencies and synergies found in nature. The entire system explores and maximises these connections. Its aim is to reach equilibrium. The same can be true if we thought of restaurants in a similar manner.
Suppliers are partners. One person’s waste is another person’s resource. By removing the surrounding walls from a restaurant you start to view it from a whole-systems lens, as a collection of interdependent components. Once you do that, you can design the system as a whole to explore synergies and close the loop. Your cycle becomes “resource” to “production” then “consumption” and back to “resource” again rather than into waste.
This network does not need to stop at suppliers. By casting a broader net, you can collaborate and form connections with your community. As with Permaculture, location is key to a restaurant. It needs to be viewed in its broad sense to maximise opportunities and synergies.
In the Experience Economy article, I recommend you collaborate rather than compete. Look at your community and neighbourhood as a collection of parts that make up a whole, each with a role to play and benefits to reap from the system. These collaborations can be in the form of community engagement with artists and makers. You can also create a network of micro producers for small batch bread, coffee, and other staple ingredients. It can also be with other restaurants to explore common waste solutions or even share operational overhead expenses. This approach will help us view restaurants not as single entities, rather a network, a cooperative collective of some sorts. The idea of “optimum not maximum” must come into play here for this network to be beneficial and fair to all its contributors.
Driven by Design Principles
Permaculture has adopted the umbrella of “design” to assess different situations and overcome any obstacles along the way. Every location has different inputs and constraints and the principles of Permaculture act as a tool set for people to use in order to solve a design riddle.
Our industry can learn a lot from this approach. Find design solutions to everything. Design not only the space but also the Business Model and menu. In order to do that, you need to adopt a designer’s mindset. There is a lot of literature and resources on design methodologies to solve various types of questions, whether they are space or business oriented. Design Thinking is one of them, and IDEO is a firm that is on the forefront of this approach.
Put the Customer in the Centre
One cornerstone of Design Thinking and something I emphasise in my articles is the customers. In their terminology they refer to it as “human centred approach”. In my articles I talk about: “Know who you are cooking for”, “Know who you are designing for”, and “Know your customer”.
Put the customer in the centre of everything you do and visualise their entire journey when interacting with your brand. Make every component a memorable experience. Find out who they really are, what makes them tick, what they value, and deliver a tailored experience to them. This will enable you to stand on more solid ground with your Business Model and pricing strategy because of the value proposition metrics.
We know that today’s customers are placing a lot of value on sustainability and provenance. One of our roles is to design experiences around those values that today’s customers hold dear to their hearts. The key is to ensure every detail of the entire customer journey and brand story is entrenched in this approach of whole-system thinking.
A Designer’s Approach
Solving complex questions requires a designer’s mindset. You need to be ready to be as creative, inventive, persistent and stubborn as a designer. The design process is not a straight line from point A to point B. The path is not without its peaks and valleys, with success and failure being part of the equation. If you were to draw a line to illustrate the design cycle, then you are better off drawing a circle to depict the repetitive process of brainstorm, design, prototype, test, assess, redesign, amend and repeat.
Design is not done in isolation. It requires multidisciplinary teams with various backgrounds, specialisations, and skill sets. Designers know that we usually find the best solutions in the most unlikely places.
You also want to have the mind of a novice, a beginner. By that I mean to have a curious mind. Not to start the problem solving / design process thinking you know the answer. Have a blank slate and be open to surprising results.
Here are some designer’s traits that can help you on this journey:
- Adopt a problem solving attitude
- Trial, error and learning through experimentation
- Do not be afraid of failure
- Be a sponge for knowledge, learn from everywhere
- Have a multidisciplinary approach
- Listen to people from outside your industry and circle
- Dream big
- Learn how to implement ideas systematically
- Learn how to progress from the vague to the refined, from broad to narrow
- Classify, group and categorise to sort through ideas
- Ask the what if questions
- Generate and explore many ideas
- Always have your eyes open to absorb inspiration
- Create a feedback loop for ideas
- Use macro vision to see the big picture
- Be micro focused to resolve the details
- Be childlike
- Look to technology for answers where appropriate
- Think like a creative engineer
- Believe you can do things better
- Look to the past to speed up the learning process
- Always be aware of advancements (the future)
- Learn how to communicate
Informed by Ethics
As mentioned in my introduction of Permaculture and its principles, at its core, the primary driving factors comprise Care for Earth, Care for People, and Fair Share. There has been a lot of progress and positive movement in our industry by some outliers in that direction lately. One can also observe a broad scale adoption of values that pertain to operating in harmony with nature. A driving factor could be the wave of food system documentaries that exposed the flaws of the current agriculture methods, which gained popularity with a broad spectrum of audience. You will notice I use the word “sustainability” sparingly, as with other “buzz words” such as organic. Some have been quick to jump on these words as marketing gimmicks to appease their customers.
As an industry, we have an obligation. We affect many lives. The lives of our customers, our team members, and neighbours. The lives of the suppliers we work with. Lives of animals we farm and species in the ecosystems we affect. Everything is interconnected.
While I applaud the front runners who have shown us that this can be done. We can make profits and be good to the environment, our community, and the people who work with us. We need to figure out a way for a broader large-scale adoption of these principles and values.
As we work towards profits as a byproduct of delivering memorable customer experiences, we need to do so while focusing on doing the “right” things as well.
- Be good to your employees
- Profit share
- Give back to your community
- Sponsor local projects
- Start charitable projects
- Adopt people learning and development projects
- Invest in youth
- Be fair with your suppliers
Rethinking the Restaurant Business Model
If ever there was a time to rethink and redesign the entire restaurant Business Model, it is now. I will propose a series of “What if” questions to open the door for a dialogue regarding what the future can hold for our industry.
What if …?
- A restaurant is not “just a restaurant”. It is an education hub, a micro production facility, a mini farm, an art gallery, an energy producer, an entertainment destination.
- We adopt a farm to table and farm to chair model.
- City/urban restaurants could operate under a closed-loop system.
- Compost machines are a regulatory must not optional.
- All kitchen equipment were energy efficient.
- Chefs learn soil is their most important ingredient in the kitchen.
- Internships of chefs and upcoming hospitality professionals included farming experiences.
- Restaurants opened eleven months a year, not twelve, and landlords charged rent accordingly.
- Restaurants had a “no meat” day.
- The various small components of the larger picture are all profitable entities, not just cost centres.
- Energy emission per plate produced is the norm (to be placed on menus) as seen with some best practice operators.
- We rethought our entire education system to be aligned with a vision of Farm to Table and Farm to Chair model.
- There were financial incentives provided by governments to rethink the Business Model.
- We redefine the perfection and quality standards of food.
- We adopt a “collective” business model. The “us” not “I” approach.
What you can take away from this
When we speak of sustainability, we need to address, social, environmental and economic metrics. A restaurant needs to be financially sustainable while also being socially and environmentally sustainable. Is a win, win, win model achievable? The simple answer is yes. However, there are no quick paths and short cuts to achieve these objectives. With a broad long-term vision and perspective, these goals are very attainable. There are many great operators in various corners of the world who have proven this doable. The aim now is to maximise the spread of such philosophy and approach and to reimagine the Restaurant Business Model.
Permaculture presents a glimpse to principles that can help restaurants operate in more harmony with the environment and the surrounding community. Part of the solution lies in whole-systems thinking, informed by ethics and design principles. The answers are all around us, all we need to do is observe, listen, learn, design and implement.
The idea in itself is simple, while its execution can be complex and requires an integrated multi-faceted approach. Farm to table back to farm and, where possible, to chair.
Farm to Table back to Farm and Chair
- Remove the walls and look at restaurants as a collective network of interdependent entities.
- Minimise the usage of resources.
- Source resources that have the lowest environmental impact.
- Produce little to no waste.
- Try using some or all your output as input.
- Be selective with the objects you use in your space and the materials used to produce them.
By resource, I mean everything from food ingredients to energy used to run the operation.
Yes, doing something is better than not doing anything. Small initiatives, isolated as they may be, are a good starting point. The aim is for a future where this idea of whole-system thinking becomes the definition of what a restaurant is. For this to be a widespread approach requires a multi facetted and coordinated effort. Governments, education facilities, support industries, entrepreneurs, corporates, and the consumer have to work together for this vision to materialise.
The good news is today’s customers are assigning more value to this notion of harmony with nature towards everything from food to clothing and luxury items. Therefore, there is an appetite to do the right thing. Granted, it is not always the easy quick win approach, but in the long run, it is better for the environment, the community, and the bottom line. This should give us the confidence to ask, “what if?”.
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