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Q&A with a Restaurant Sustainability Expert

China Mist sat down with Kris Spector, restaurant sustainability expert and founder of Spector Sustainability Consulting. Kris helps restaurants evolve to meet market demands and to continue maximizing their profits while reducing environmental impact. Previously, he has sustainability experience with Waste Management, a luxury resort, 5-star restaurants, and commercial real estate.

CM: What pushed you towards pursuing sustainability? Was there an “aha!” moment or was it a gradual awareness?

KS: I transferred to Arizona State University during my junior year of college and entered the W.P. Carey School of Business. I learned about the Global Institute of Sustainability [ASU’s School of Sustainability] and I thought, “Wow, that’s the future. That’s a no-brainer. I’m going to go do that.”

I was about the only Republican sitting in the classes. I’ll never forget one experience. One of my first professors was in the oil industry. He asked all of us why we were there.

I said, “Green’s my favorite color. Green is the color of money, and I’m going to make money doing this.”

The professor said, “That’s the first truthful answer I’ve had. You’re going to make money by doing this,” because it’s such a new field and the world is forever changing.

That’s the world of sustainability: if you can do something smarter, faster, stronger, why not do it? And, by the way, you’re going to save money in the long run.

The world or sustainability is great if you want to be an NGO, and there’s a space for that, but for me, it’s always been about business. Money talks. People are going to follow the pocketbook.

“Green is the color of money.”

CM: What sustainable trends are you seeing in restaurants?

KS: The biggest thing in restaurants right now is local sourcing. The NRA [National Restaurant Association] is the main national publication for the restaurant industry. They just had a piece out of the top 20 trends for restaurants in 2016. Four of the top 20 had to do with sustainability and the number one trend was local sourcing.

When they say “local”, that means within 250 miles. Take lamb for instance. Most lamb is imported from New Zealand. If you can get that same item out of Texas, that’s a no-brainer. A lot of people think of sustainable restaurants as being vegetarian or vegan places, when in reality, that’s a very small percentage of the industry.

CM: What are some of the easy fixes that a restaurant can make to be more sustainable.

“Heat is lost profit.”

KS: The easy fixes are the same as with anything: your lighting, your fixtures, your appliances, chemicals that you’re using, etc. What I like to say with restaurants is that heat is lost profit. You need to keep your restaurant cool. Your AC unit is pumping 20 hours a day, and the lights are going to be on 15 hours a day. Anything that creates heat is using a lot of energy. Those are the low hanging fruit. We can save money by keeping things cool.

CM: What sustainable fix makes the biggest impact 1) environmentally, and 2) economically.

KS: Environmentally, recycling and composting for restaurants. Fifty percent of your waste is organic. What can we do to divert that from the landfill? Composting to make that waste energy again is a growing trend . Disposing of recyclable items properly is also important.

On the economic side, your biggest impact is probably going to come from lighting. If you are running LEDs throughout the restaurant, you’re keeping things very cool temperature-wise because you’re not creating heat, and also, it’s taking a fraction of the energy it would take to run conventional lighting. LED lighting will be the thing that will save you the most money, but it’s also going to cost you capital up front. That’s why I work with companies to find tax breaks and tax incentives, as well as work with their utility company to make sure they’re doing it properly. No one should have to buy those items at full price when you can get discounts.

CM: What’s the biggest thing holding restaurants back from making sustainable changes?

KS: A lot of the restaurants people go to are big corporate chains and trying to make sustainability changes is like turning an air craft carrier. It really takes leadership from the top. In restaurants, there are two things you can control to make money: your cost of goods sold and your labor. Leaders in the restaurant industry that understand sustainability know that raising prices is not the answer; instead, the right thing to do is to find ways to benefit the labor force and work with vendors to help offset the additional cost of any sustainable changes.

CM: How do you think the standard is going to change in the next 5 years?

“Climate change is an economic food tax.”

KS: Sustainability in restaurants will grow from the standard in local, forward-thinking establishments to the standard in big, national chains across the country. I think you’ll start seeing places that are large restaurant chains, like Red Lobster or Red Robin, starting to become more aware of sustainability, especially because food cost is never going to go down. Demand is always going to increase because populations are increasing. It is basic economics. Then you thrown in the variable of climate change. I always tell people that climate change is an economic food tax.

CM: What is at stake if the standard doesn’t shift?

“To sustain longevity, you have to evolve.”

KS: The biggest buyer in the United States market is the Millennials. We are more and more selective of how we purchase items. Fifty-five percent of all Americans don’t trust where their food comes from - that’s out of a 2016 study. If you take only Millennials out of that survey, you’re over 70%. If you don’t change, you die. I always tell people that to sustain longevity, you have to evolve. If you don’t evolve, then you’re going to go by the wayside.

CM: What do you find most exciting about what is happening in food sustainability?

KS: Particularly in the last five years, there’ve been so many advances. Five years ago, no one was talking about local sourcing the way they are now. Ten years ago? Yeah, right. But now, it’s becoming more and more of the norm. People are saying, “I can get this out of Arizona? This is made in Arizona? That’s awesome. Let’s sell it. Let’s do it.” It’s exciting because it brings money local. It makes the purchases local. It creates jobs locally, which is a beautiful thing. Who’d be against that?

CM: As a consumer, what signs will I see if I’m dining in a sustainably responsible restaurant?

KS: If the restaurant is smart, they’re going to advertise it and tell you the story of it.That’s what I do with my clients - help tell the story. Restaurants need to have a following, and by telling a story, it creates an image that can help bring in new customers. If the restaurant or establishment is all about sustainability and local sourcing, then it needs to make sure that every guest that walks through the door understands what they are trying to do. If the restaurant doesn’t want to be pushing the information to the customers, that is okay to me. Instead, we work with the employees and other stakeholders to make sure that they are aware of the sustainability changes.

CM: What does victory look like to you?

KS: For me, the victory is getting someone that was skeptical at first to get on board, see the success, and then live the success. You don’t need to be an environmentalist or a liberal to believe in it. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the right economic thing to do.

CM: How do you hope your role will change going forward?

KS: Currently, I am looking to go back to Corporate America. I want to be a sustainability change agent that people go to for advice and leadership. If a company like Darden or Cheesecake Factory hired me I would be able to affect so many different places with just one signature. Sustainability is the next frontier and it will take all of us working together to make sure that our grandchildren are able to live a life even better than what we have.

Learn more about Kris Spector and Spector Sustainability Consulting at spectorsustainability.com.