Restaurants Put Climate Change on the Menu

What we eat—in restaurants and at home—can have a significant influence on the environment. But eating is not something anyone’s going to give up. Instead, restaurants are starting to make changes to offer more sustainable menus that help, not harm, the equation. And it’s increasingly important to consumers.

A full 10 percent of items ordered from Just Salad’s digital menu are from the chain’s “Climatarian,” menu which offers up the New York City-based concept’s seven items with the lowest greenhouse gas emissions, including the Beyond Tex Mex Salad and the Feisty Fiesta Bowl.

“The lesson is that curating these items has increased interest in them,” says Sandra Noonan, Just Salad’s chief sustainability officer.

Just Salad launched the Climatarian menu last fall to encourage consumers to eat what’s best for the planet. It was important the menu be diverse, Noonan says, and not include just vegan items. “That was a very deliberate decision,” she says. That way, meat eaters can still enjoy animal products but enjoy the lowest-impact versions. “We want to meet the customer where they are,” Noonan adds.

Just Salad is not operating in a vacuum, either. Last fall, Panera Bread announced its “Cool Foods” label to indicate foods with a lower carbon impact. Today, 55 percent of its entrees fall under the designation.

On top of this, Just Salad added carbon labels to all of its foods around the same time to show the greenhouse gases effect, from the field to the plate. These are printed on packages next to the nutritional information, on menuboards, and also online.

Bryan Tublin opened fast casual Kitava in the Bay Area in 2017 and now has two locations.

His menu includes General Tso’s Chicken and a Cuban Bowl, but it was important the food be affordably priced. Everything Tublin does is intended to be good for the Earth as well.

“The thing I’m most proud of is that we’re able to provide approachable meals centered around real food that’s good for people and the planet—nutritious vegetables, ethically sourced meats, and healthy fats and cooking oils,” he says.

Tublin also keeps food waste in check. He composts and uses compostable packaging, and has a 100 percent food waste item on the menu: His take on broccoli cheddar soup with nutritional yeast instead of cheddar. “It’s made almost entirely with broccoli stems that we would otherwise throw out,” he says. “We were thinking of ways we could lower food costs and better utilize our products. We also try to do this with specials.”

Meat-free moves

Other restaurants are taking care of the environment by eliminating all animal products from menus. It’s estimated livestock produce about 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

PLNT Burger will have nine locations by the end of June, all but one within Whole Foods, in the Washington, D.C., metro area and Pennsylvania.

The Bethesda, Maryland-based business serves burgers, hot dogs, and fries—all plant-based. “We want to be known as the burger joint for the planet,” says CEO and co-founder Ben Kaplan, “with price points that are lower and democratic.”

Every menu item at PLNT Burger is plant-based, made either from plants or Beyond Meat products, which means they’re better for the environment than meat alternatives. The PLNT Burger Patty requires 99 percent less water, 93 percent less land, and generates 90 percent fewer emissions compared to an animal-based burger, Kaplan says.

One of the most sustainable menu items is the Chik N’ Funguy, says Jonah Goldman, director of strategic marketing and co-founder. It’s made with a cut of an oyster mushroom that otherwise would be agricultural waste. “This is a nutritious, fibrous part that’s hardly ever used but if you prep it right and dredge it and steam it, it can be a delicious and convincing substitute for chicken breast,” he says.

PLNT Burger buys the product directly from Phillips Mushroom Farms. “It’s a great way to establish a mutually beneficially relationship,” Goldman says. “Now, we’re paying [the farmers] and we’re able to nourish people and celebrate the entirety of the mushroom.”

Ran Nussbächer is the co-founder and CEO of Shouk, a Washington, D.C. fast-casual with two locations in the city and two to come in Maryland this fall. Everything Shouk does is in service of the environment and its connection to our food system and overall health.

“The public is demanding that businesses step up and the environment is an essential issue the younger generation cares deeply about,” Nussbächer says. “People don’t just buy from companies any more just because they like a product—they like companies who are exhibiting social responsibility and values consumers care about.”

Everything on Shouk’s menu is plant-based. “The biggest contributor to environmental destruction by far is our food system. So if you want to make a difference, you cut down on meat,” he says.

“We eliminated the barriers for people who are not necessarily vegan or vegetarian. We deliberately didn’t rely on imitation products. We’re not trying to hide vegetables but instead, showcase them. This way, you don’t have to choose between your health or the planet’s.”

Along with this, Nussbächer and his co-founder, chef Dennis Friedman, aim to keep waste to a minimum. They do this through careful menu planning for smart cross-utilization of products. Plus, Nussbächer adds, plant-based items have a longer shelf life than meat products, and all food is prepared to order, keeping waste low.

The cross-utilization of products affects potential new menu items. “One of the considerations is what do we have already,” Nussbächer says. But at the same time, he has to be careful not to have a repetitive menu. But it’s easy to do, with different seasonings, different cooking techniques, and different meal components, he says.

Ultimately, these brands aim to feed not just people already on a plant-based diet, but everyone, in an effort to raise awareness that you don’t have to trade off sustainability for quality or flavor.

“I think about them as conscious consumers,” Goldman says. “They think about the effect their habits have on the world and they’re looking for products they can feel good about. People want to know the impact their food is having—social and environmental.”

This spring, Yum! Brands, the parent company of KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and The Habit Burger Grill, announced it will decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 46 percent by 2030.

The Louisville, Kentucky-based company discloses its sustainability progress annually. It will focus primarily on reducing emissions at its corporate and franchised restaurant locations and throughout its supply chain. Additionally, it’s committed to switching its corporate offices to renewable energy and sustainable packaging, and to intensify action on plastic waste. Taco Bell, in one example, aims to have all packaging be recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025, globally.

Yum! also works hard to source responsibly and has “doubled down on our deforestation efforts,” says Jon Hixson, global chief sustainability officer and vice president of government affairs.

But food is also a big part of this, and offering plant-based items is important, too, Hixson says.

Taco Bell made it easier for diners to find plant-based options by displaying a V on menu boards and mobile ordering platforms. And KFC and Pizza Hut have explored options with Beyond Meat. “It’s always critical to find good partners in all of our sustainability projects,” Hixson says.

Yum! achieved its goal of sourcing 100 percent of palm oil used for cooking from responsibly managed sources, with third party certification from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in 2019.

“We have a lot of energy and challenge around our climate work and our packaging work,” Hixson says. “Those serve as nice north stars as we evolve how we fit into the world’s challenging issues.”