Hal Hamilton founded and now is co-director of the Sustainable Food Lab in Hartland, Vt., which helps companies adopt sustainability practices, gathers data on sustainability efforts and shares that information to promote the sustainability movement. He talks with SmartBlogs about how the lab works and the future of sustainable agriculture.

How did the Sustainable Food Lab get started and what are the priorities?

The Food Lab first convened in June 2004 as a two-year leadership journey. Over the past 10 years it has expanded to include more than 60 member and partner organizations, including brand manufacturers like Unilever, Mars and Stonyfield; food service companies like Sysco, Sodexo and Aramark; retailers like Costco and Marks & Spencer; and NGOs like The Nature Conservancy, Rainforest Alliance and Oxfam.

The reason the Food Lab has grown is that businesses are integrating sustainability into their value chains and need to learn from one another about how to do this more effectively. (read more…)

The overarching theme at the National Retail Federation’s BIG Show this year was clear: Know your customer. This theme resonated throughout keynote and breakout sessions and on both levels of the EXPO Hall floor. Whether you’re a food retailer or a restaurant operator, there was something for everyone on how to get to know and engage customers using multiple channels. Here is a look at some of the retail and restaurant technology trends seen on the show floor that help connect businesses with their customers both within their establishments as well as online:

1. Online brand monitoring

Many companies showing in the EXPO Hall were there to show brands how they can help them make sense of the ever-growing social diner. New Brand Analytics is a company that does just that by harvesting social media mentions of specific brands and aggregating them into a dashboard for restaurants and other businesses.

The company takes unstructured social feedback and organizes it by more than 70 different metrics such as service, attentiveness, menu, food quality and prices, according to NBA Sales Director Adam Hack. (read more…)

Chain restaurants typically ring in the new year with press releases and splashy ad campaigns touting low-cal, healthy menus aimed at helping consumers stick to their resolutions to get healthy and get in shape, along with value-focused campaigns aimed at bringing guests in more often during a traditionally slow month. Now, restaurants and foodservice operators are implementing healthy menus all year-round in order to help consumers achieve their new year’s resolutions not just in January, but all year long.

At Applebee’s, the Weight Watchers-approved entrees and under-550-calorie meals have become part of the permanent menu and aren’t just touted in January but all year long. But while Subway is promoting its heart-healthy menu offerings, it’s the $5 JanuANY deals that have caused a social media stir.

Stressing wallets more than waistlines makes sense in light of recent research that shows what we all kind of know on some level — new year’s resolutions may work for a while, but they’re usually not the way to drive long-term change. (read more…)

Fast casual isn’t just the fastest-growing segment of the restaurant industry, it’s also out in front when it comes to adopting mobile technology for ordering and payments, tools that fast-food chains and casual concepts are only now beginning to seriously explore.

“Drive-thrus are starting to think about using self-serve and digital ordering — enormous restaurant groups with thousands of locations are saying, ‘this is really important to me,’” says Noah Glass, CEO of mobile ordering provider OLO.

On the casual side, chains including Applebee’s and Chili’s are experimenting with table-top tablets designed to speed service, boost average checks and give guests a gadget for playing games and paying the tab.

OLO, which launched in 2005 to provide restaurant chains with online and mobile ordering capabilities, counts fast-growing chains including Five Guys Burgers & Fries and MOOYAH among its clients. Mobile has been outpacing online as more consumers carry smartphones and find new ways to use the gadgets to connect with the world and simplify their lives, Glass says, a trend that makes him wonder whether restaurant patrons will turn from their personal devices to public computers when they sit down at a restaurant table. (read more…)

Project Carton logoTo make products stand out on the grocery store shelf, food- and beverage-makers are investing in sustainable packaging that consumers can feel good about purchasing, both for its lower environmental impact and for its attractive, fashion-forward designs. And as packaging becomes almost as important as the product it holds, packaging design has been elevated to an art form. In fact, the visual appeal of a product’s packaging design has been found to influence a consumer’s purchasing decision as much as original preference for a product, according to a study published in the journal Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences, which used eye-tracking technology to measure visual interaction with four products.

Enter Project Carton, the Fashion Institute of Technology‘s exhibit of gable-top cartons created by students in the school’s packaging design program for a competition sponsored by Evergreen Packaging at FIT in fall 2012. The exhibition, which is on display until Jan. (read more…)