PJ’s Puts Food for Thought on the Menu

Students learn about restaurant sustainability from farm to table

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Bruce McAdams

Restaurants have long focused on the economic aspect of sustainability: managing food costs and menu prices so that the business can make a profit. These skills have been taught for years as part of the food service courses in the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. Over the past year, though, Prof. Mike von Massow and Prof. Bruce McAdams have been working on expanding students’ understanding of all aspects of sustainability.

“We’re envisioning the restaurant of the future,” says von Massow.

McAdams explains that sustainability “has three pillars: people, planet and profits. Earlier this year, we had students look at one aspect of sustainability involving people: we had them calculate and include nutritional information for every item on the menus at PJ’s Restaurant.” At PJ’s, a student-run restaurant, student groups design and prepare their own themed menus to serve to their customers. Instructor Simon Day worked with the students as they gathered the information and determined how to present it on the menus.

Does having that nutritional information – calorie counts, percentage of fat, sodium levels, etc. – right on the menu affect customer choices? A survey currently being analyzed should provide some answers to that question. “Anecdotally, people did make different choices. We had people tell us that they came in planning to eat a particular menu item, but when they saw the nutritional information decided to order something else,” says von Massow.

Knowing how to calculate and include this information on a menu is valuable for students, points out McAdams, because current U.S. legislation is requiring some chain restaurants to provide it. An Ontario bill to make this information a requirement has recently been tabled. Although the bill is not expected to pass, McAdams suggests that similar requirements are likely to be proposed again.

“Even if it’s not required, it seems to be something customers like, and so restaurants which have the information can use it as a way to differentiate themselves,” adds von Massow.

Another aspect of sustainability that was addressed with students was the life cycle assessment of the food used on the menu. This provides a way of looking at the true environmental footprint of an item. Students looked at the environmental aspects of food production, shipping, packaging and transportation.

“It was an eye-opening experience for many students,” says von Massow. “One said it was just unbelievable what food goes through to get to us.”

Two students are also addressing the challenge faced by Ontario fans of eating local: our growing season is very short. They’ll be taking produce from the Guelph Centre for Urban Organic Farming and producing tomato sauce and salsa to sell. Proceeds will support the farm and a planned Slow Foods club.

Of course, some food that gets to a restaurant plate is never eaten. McAdams and von Massow hired a couple of students to weigh all the food on plates sent back to the kitchen and analyze which ones contributed the most to waste.

“The average among restaurants is about 12 per cent waste, and that was our percentage as well,” says von Massow. But the answer to the question “how can waste be reduced?” is not as simple as “reduce all portions by 12 per cent.”

They found, for example, that the clubhouse sandwich with fries was often sent back with either bread or fries left on the plate. “The three slices of bread and the fries apparently added up to more carbs than most people could eat,” von Massow says. The fish and chips on the menu rarely had any leftovers sent back even though this dish is higher in calories and higher in weight than the clubhouse sandwich.

In general, dishes that weighed less than 410 grams rarely had any leftovers. The larger portions were more likely to generate waste, but it wasn’t directly proportional, as some of the largest dishes usually led to clean plates. One strategy being tried to reduce waste is making the sides optional. “If a person is having a club sandwich, maybe a salad is a better side than French fries,” says von Massow.

The waste reduction potential, though, will need to be weighed against the restaurant’s profits. Von Massow explains: “You need to have a certain level of income coming in per table. The food is only a part of the costs of running a restaurant. So if people were ordering a sandwich with fries for $10, and now only order the sandwich for $7, your food costs are a little lower, but you are making less money per table. And that can be a problem.”

People can also see smaller portions as having lower value. “We’re used to having large portions in restaurants now. Even the plates are bigger,” says McAdams. “The average size of a restaurant plate has gone up 26 per cent in recent years. Putting a smaller portion on these very big plates looks cheap.”

They’ll continue experimenting with approaches to reduce the waste and enhancing their students’ education. “Companies and restaurants tell us they love hiring our students,” adds von Massow. “The knowledge and understanding they have about these issues really adds value.”

Their efforts are paying off in another way, too. On June 4, PJ’s was named as one of Canada’s Greenest Restaurants by Leaders in Environmentally Accountable Foodservice (LEAF), a third-party certification program for restaurants that adhere to strict environmental criteria. To learn more about efforts to improve sustainability at PJ’s and the research being conducted here, follow the blog: http://restaurantsustainability.wordpress.com/.