As a restaurateur, you either give your customers what they want or you could go out of business.

Where sustainability is concerned, you can leverage your customers’ opinions and attitudes to better understand what environmental efforts you should undertake, which could generate more sales.

A short case study from our neighbors to the North is helpful here.

Tips from a Canadian success story

In Canada, selling root beer and burgers is good business. With 845 locations, A&W Food Services of Canada, Inc. has a successful business model and is committed to reducing its environmental footprint. When they wondered where to begin their eco-efforts, they asked their customers.

The company crafted an environmental strategy focused on waste diversion, based on consumer market analysis and feedback.

“The majority of our sustainability initiatives are guest-led,” said Tyler Pronyk, director of distribution, equipment and packaging.

A&W quote

(Image: Recite)

“We became the first national QSR chain to exclusively serve beef raised without the use of hormones and steroids, and that was sparked by consumer demand. We listened to what guests valued, and continued with more initiatives, like antibiotic-free chicken and eggs from vegetarian-fed hens. Similarly, as we worked on our environmental strategy, we tried to view it from the guest perspective,” he said.

“What actions could we take that would make a real tangible impact and enhance the guest dining experience?”

Pronyk said the company landed on a complete overhaul of its packaging.

“A&W has always been famous for its frosty glass root beer mugs, so we continued that tradition and introduced metal baskets for fries and onion rings,” he said. “We elevated our breakfast experience by serving bacon and eggs on real china plates and with stainless steel cutlery. We’re doing what we can to reduce waste at the source, and we’re not stopping there. We’re working on changing all of our disposable packaging to compostable materials. No more foil or foam and virtually no plastic for dine-in meals.”

So, did it pay off?

Since launching these sustainability and environmental initiatives, the company has been recognized by several industry organizations. In 2015, A&W had the honor of being named the Canadian Company of the Year.

And sales have grown as well. The company exhibited 8.8% same-store sales growth for the first three quarters of 2015 and, over the same period, more than 12% sales growth across Canada, according to a news release. The company also opened 74 new locations during the last two fiscal years.

Paul Hollands, the company’s chairman and CEO stated, “These strong sales results reflect the continued positive guest response to A&W’s ingredients guarantee,” citing the hormone- and steroid- free beef, fair trade coffee and other A&W efforts.

4 tips for getting started

For anyone interested in emulating A&W’s success, here are some tips on how to start a customer-focused eco-strategy:

  • Start where you’ll have the biggest impact. Come up with five or 10 environmental efforts that will give biggest “bang for the buck.” Make sure your selections align with your business values and are feasible! If they are aesthetically pleasing, that’s all the better. Need ideas of where to start? Explore Conserve’s YouTube page for inspiration.
  • Research. Get some help with market research or survey your customers directly. For example, show them your “biggest impact list” of five to 10 efforts (from tip 1) and ask what resonates with them. Offer potential rewards for participating, such as free meals.
  • Test your implementation. Collect the results and develop your sustainability strategy. Start small and keep it simple. A&W said it gained key insight after it tested out its first waste diversion plan.

“Initially, our approach was to target zero waste and sort everything into different front-of-house bins — metals, compostable, paper, plastics, etc.,” Pronyk said.

“But all the sorting options confused our guests and they sometimes left their post-meal trash on the tables simply from exasperation. We realized we needed to see it from the guest perspective and simplify the process, which is why we’ve made changes towards compostable packaging. If everything can be composted, no sorting will be necessary.”

  • It’s a journey, not a destination. Continuous improvement is the key to success. You should expect your sustainability efforts to expand over time. Once you’ve completed your first few initiatives, consider adding more complex ones, like composting, buying Energy Star qualified equipment or cutting food waste.

One extra suggestion

Employee buy-in is just as important as customer satisfaction. Successful restaurant companies, large and small, keep employees engaged and reduce staff turnover through their sustainability efforts. National brands, like Starbucks, and local restaurants, like Founding Farmers in Washington, D.C., educate their staff about why sustainability is important and what they get out of it.

Some environmental efforts don’t require staff or customer feedback and should simply be part of a daily routine. But, if you take a little extra time and thought, and develop a customer-focused sustainability strategy, you can reap the rewards of boosted sales growth and, possibly, win an award or two.

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