sustainable food service

Practising sustainable food service beyond COVID-19

By Jeff Dover

Sustainable food service has been a growing industry trend for over a decade. However, in the 2020 climate of COVID-19, many of these practices, while in some cases long-established, are not practical and in some jurisdictions not allowed.

How should food service operators respond?

Some sustainability initiatives are not practical right now

The following sustainable food service practices will likely be discontinued in the short- to medium-term:

  • Reduced or no packaging — Over the past several years, food service operators have dramatically reduced the amount of packaging used for service. Grab-and-go items have been self-serve, using tongs or serving utensils. This sustainable food service initiative has to change, as research has shown that the most important thing to consumers with respect to food service post-COVID-19 is providing a safe environment. Packaging of grab-and-go items is now required to give customers this comfort.
  • Bulk condiments and self-service — Related to reduced packaging, many food service operations have moved to using bulk condiments. However, unless they are served by food service staff, which itself has an implication on labour cost, bulk condiments are not practical during the pandemic. Individual condiments are required in all instances where consumers are garnishing or seasoning their own meal or beverage. To mitigate this, some operators have implemented touchless technology for bulk condiments (e.g. ketchup dispensers). Some jurisdictions, though, have banned self-serve outright, so such technology may not be a short-term option.
  • Refillable mugs — A staple of many sustainable food service operations has been filling customer’s own beverage containers, often at a discount. Again, this practice must be temporarily discontinued.
  • Plastic cutlery — The food service industry has been moving away from plastic cutlery, providing reusable cutlery in some quick-service operations. Many full-service restaurants are offering wrapped plastic cutlery as an option for guests who are uncomfortable with reusable silverware at the moment. Currently, plastic cutlery wrapped in plastic and potentially coming as a set (i.e. fork, knife, spoon, napkin) is a common practice. Even reusable cutlery is often wrapped in plastic or in another form of disposable packaging. The same is true for operations using wooden or other biodegradable or recyclable single-use cutlery. This practice will likely be continued during the pandemic and may likely be included in future infectious outbreak protocols. To adapt to this, some operators are using bio-resin for biodegradable wrappers; however, even these wrappers result in incremental waste.

Communication and messaging

Many consumers will notice when sustainable food service practices have been discontinued, but in many cases, the comfort provided by feeling safer will mitigate the impact of the reduced sustainability for the general public. However, some consumers will likely be concerned about the changes. As with many challenges, communication is key.

Here, it’s important to be as upfront about discontinuation of any sustainable food service practice in your operation as you should be regarding any operating changes occurring as a result of implementing pandemic protocols or other reasons.

The messaging should consist of two key points:

  • The operating changes are to ensure the safety of customers and staff.
  • You are still committed to sustainable food service operations.

When communicating about operational changes that include discontinuing a sustainable food service practice, you should indicate that this is being done in response to the pandemic to ensure the safety of your customers and staff as well as the patients. Most of these changes will be temporary, and your messaging should indicate that you will resume the sustainable food service practices as soon as it is safe to do so and/or when regulations allow.

It’s recommended that your messaging include your ongoing commitment to sustainable food service. You can highlight sustainable food service initiatives that are not affected by your pandemic response.

Such initiatives can include:

• Composting and recycling programs and other waste-reduction initiatives.
• Procurement of local foods, organic or hormone-free foods, or sustainable foods (e.g., sustainable seafood).
• Energy-reduction initiatives such as using environmentally friendly equipment and deploying technology that conserves and saves resources.
• Increasing the number of plant-based items on the menu.
• Reusable PPE — Customers want to see food service staff using PPE; however, where safe, employing appropriate reusable PPE with the proper hygiene practices could be considered a sustainable operating practice with careful messaging. This messaging should include the fact the use of reusable PPE is intended to reduce waste, and how you are ensuring you are doing this safely.


By promoting sustainability initiatives unaffected by COVID-19 protocols, you are showing your operation’s commitment to the environment. Transparency regarding any sustainability initiatives is a best practice for food service operations. Communicating new initiatives during this period, when some initiatives are temporarily eliminated, is even more important.

The food service industry has been an effective steward of our environment and will continue to be so moving forward. The short-term setbacks in sustainability initiatives as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic are necessary and temporary.

Jeff Dover is President of fsSTRATEGY, a consulting firm specializing in strategic advisory services for the hospitality industry, with an emphasis on food and beverage. Jeff is a Certified Management Consultant and a member of the International Society of Hospitality Consultants.

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