28 Jan Restaurant Sustainability, Profitability and Purpose – La Mediterranee Journey
Transforming your restaurant into a ‘green’ operation can feel overwhelmingly costly without immediate reward. And, as if every minute didn’t already matter to a restaurant owner, the time commitment to turn a restaurant into a more sustainable business may not seem feasible.
At Cheetah, we’re here to challenge those preconceptions and argue that going green with your restaurant is actually well worth the investment. Not only can it significantly reduce your operating costs, having an immediate impact on your bottom line, but conscious consumers are also happy to pay a bit extra knowing that they can feel good about where they dine.
Covid has shown a spotlight on our consumption habits. Through take-out, restaurant diners have been able to see a bit more clearly just how much product and material they are consuming and throwing away. Now is the time when consumers are most excited to support your sustainable initiatives! Now is the time to go green and boost your profit all the while.
From Beirut to the Heart of SF
Nestled in a cozy mercantile street in the heart of San Francisco’s Fillmore district sits La Mediterranee, a colorful restaurant with an incredible story- a family business evolving with the times. La Med, as it is known, was opened in 1979 by Vanick der Bedrossian’s father, who still meanders through the restaurant, keeping a watchful eye over his enterprise.
Originally from Beirut, Lebanon, the Der Bedrossian family relocated to the US with dreams of creating a homey restaurant offering the delicious and fresh Mezze dishes beloved in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Over time, the restaurant grew in popularity, increased its menu offerings, and opened three other locations. Eventually, Vanick took the family business into his own hands.
A few years ago Vanick had a moment to step back and evaluate his restaurant and its place in the SF ecosystem. He had ‘an epiphany’ as he described to me. His crisis was existential. Vanick was seeking more purpose. To find his ‘why’, Vanick went on a mission, slowly changing components of his business to be more sustainable and green.
Now, La Med is seen as a pinnacle for sustainable success, profitability, and mentorship. In turn, Vanick feels great about being a responsible, contributing member of the San Francisco ecosystem. He is happier, his customers are consuming better quality foods, and the community is grateful for his efforts. The best part- it’s also really helping La Med’s bottom line!
Sustainability in Industry
Sustainability in the restaurant industry is a trend that has steadily gained footing over the past decade (and likely long before that). Freak storms, crop deaths and rising temperatures have viscerally shown our impact on the environment and now consumers are voting, with their dollars, for more sustainable and responsible businesses.
During Covid many restaurants became less environmentally friendly. Out of necessity many opted for the cheapest to-go packaging and disposables. They have understandably cut corners with ingredients and dishes due to supply chain shortages and the highest inflation rates in 40 years. It has been a game of simply trying to keep one’s head above water.
As we move into our third year of Covid, it’s time to start thinking about how we can make the business of running a to-go heavy restaurant more sustainable while maintaining profitability. To-go containers are only a small part of the operation. In conversation with Vanick he delves into the wide-ranging methods restaurants can reduce their eco footprint and attract diners that resonate with your mission.
You may justly be intimidated at changing your operation during this tough time. Of this, Vanick says, “this is where I like to tell people who do this ‘you will be very pleasantly surprised’ in ways you may not be able to imagine when you start.”
How La Med Went Green
While I sip on a strong Turkish coffee under a hanging mermaid sculpture, Vanick goes on to tell me that his transformation to sustainability happened one step at a time instead of a complete overhaul.
In fact, in order to make his transition economically viable, he decided to opt for changes that would show him an immediate financial return. With guidance and support from the City of San Francisco, Vanick swapped the lights in his restaurant to LEDs, sourced his electricity from solar power, worked to change aspects of his to-go packaging, and reduced the size of his ‘black bin’ mixed garbage. Restaurants with smaller black bins and bigger green bins get rebates from the city for offsetting their landfill waste. Instantly he saw hundreds of dollars fall from his operating costs.
Were these actions alone going to give Vanick the purpose he sought? No, not quite. But as he says, once you get the ball rolling it’s much easier to keep going. If going sustainable feels like a chore you are undertaking to ‘keep people happy’, take solace in the fact that your efforts will benefit your bottom line almost immediately.
All of Vanick’s efforts thus far required only a time commitment versus a financial one. Once his sustainability started to take off in popularity and improve his margins, Vanick looked closer at where he was sourcing his ingredients from. He acknowledges the financial constraints on restaurants trying to get by and said, “For me it was a big deal to say ‘ok, now we are going to pay way more for our chicken.’ In an industry with razor thin margins that’s absurd!”
But, for those in a similar quandary, Vanick notes excitedly, “The reality is that the opposite has happened. It was the same price to source [lamb] locally as from Australia.” Chicken was more expensive, so they contacted a farm directly and came up with a solution that worked. “I said, ‘we need chicken breast pieces for kabobs.’ And they said, ‘We have these portioned 6 oz chicken filets with lots of trim left over. We don’t have a market for the extras – we can give it to you at a lower price.’ We’re combating food waste and it’s easier to work with. We have fewer knife strokes and labor to yield the same product.” These great partner relationships with local farmers and growers has allowed him to strike creative and profitable deals on the things he needs.
Vanick finds another benefit to sourcing his products and ingredients locally- supply chain stability! Of his local sourcing he says, “Especially during the pandemic and dealing with supply crises, local meats haven’t changed in price or availability! Conventional chicken breast costs more than what I’m paying… in an uncertain world, why not choose the more stable route?”
Vanick has continued to find local farmers who can give him the in-season products he needs. He even notes about buying higher quality (though more expensive) local, free-range beef, “[local beef] has a better yield, and we use less of it, so we marked up prices slightly to compensate but people are thrilled to have it”. By “better yield” Vanik means that high quality beef has less water content and doesn’t shrink as much as its conventional counterpart when applied to heat.
Vanick has long been part of the Cheetah family, and seeing his thriving operation in person was a delight. As we walk through the kitchen, eyeing his array of fresh fruits and vegetables Vanick says, “We’re thrilled with Cheetah because there are many many products we’ve been able to get from you that have helped us” Vanick exclaims, “especially vegan and plant based.”
Vanick has noticed a marked uptick in sales for his meatless and plant-based dishes and is turning to more vegan and vegetarian options to satisfy the plant-based trend. He notes that if you are to run a sustainable, ‘good for you’, restaurant, you’ll need to carry vegan products. ‘Flexitarians’’, or those who choose meatless alternatives when possible, are on the rise in the Bay Area – a trend that Vanick follows closely. The takeaway? Listen to your customers, keep an eye out for what they demand, and pass on higher prices to loyal, conscious consumers to see your profits soar.
Reducing Food Waste
Vanick is the first to say that when you delve into the world of sustainability, it is an endless rabbithole. He told me that he treats the entire process like a game! You have all of these ways that you can improve so simply pick what resonates with you most and get going.
Other sustainability efforts spearheaded by La Med are seen in their handling of food waste. In accordance with San Francisco’s recently enacted plan to keep food out of landfills, a bill making it illegal to waste restaurant food, Vanick donates all of his unused foods to Too Good To Go, an organization that repurposes perfectly edible but otherwise discarded food. He also notes that conscientious operators can curate menus that are less likely to generate food waste. Buying produce with longer shelf lives and incorporating good storage practices into daily operations are ways one can do just that.
Food waste is an issue that the Bay Area has been battling for years. With almost 80% of restaurant food ending up in landfills, we offer great tips for reducing your food waste and redistributing it to those in need!
Communicating your Sustainability
A crucial component in making the effort to go sustainable is to get accredited as a Green Business by the city. This will get you on the lists of ‘best sustainable restaurants in town’. Once you’re sustainable it’s all about communicating your successes. Vanick recalls, “The SF Department of Environment gives you guidance and incentives. They hold your hand and support you. Everything from lightbulbs to sourcing to recycling and best practice training – even into green energy”. Utilize resources like this and other credentials to demonstrate your commitment to the environment. Sustainably source your seafood under Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guidelines, or offset your carbon footprint to receive the highly respected Zero Footprint badge like La Med.
For Vanick the journey of going green was initially purpose based, but he has found his encouraging clientele willing to help him in his efforts, like paying more for higher quality beef. Being a four-decade staple of the neighborhood, many of his locals didn’t notice changes in his operation, even though it was running much more efficiently in unseen ways. For new customers and especially younger clientele, Vanick has seen that his environmental efforts are often the reason they are there!
To-go menus are now a cornerstone in every restaurant operation. Vanick is very smart with how he communicates his sustainability and local sourcing on his digital menus on third party apps. He says that in this space he has seen a significant uptick in orders of their meatless options and willingness to pay more for higher quality, “good for you and the environment” food. Making sure your 3rd party and digital menus really highlight your strengths is crucial.
Once you have made the conscious decision to become more sustainable, gathering accreditations and demonstrating your efforts on social media will help you garner attention. Utilize these social platforms to both show and explain your efforts and why they matter. This will help you validate the value in paying more for your more sustainable dishes.
What's Next For Vanick?
Vanick was quick to tell me that he is nowhere near the end of his quest to increase sustainability- not only in his business, but in restaurants across the entire Bay Area. His plans for future initiatives include doing away with all single use plastic and to-go packaging. As we eye the bustling kitchen filling to-go containers of hummus and small bags of pita bread, I see how difficult this may be in the current climate where your to-go business is your business.
In order to simplify efforts on his end and participate in a program working to advance his sustainable agenda, Vanick signed up for Dispatch Goods. With this program, restaurants are shipped reusable to-go containers which customers can return to participating restaurants or have collected from their homes after use. Cutlery and dishes are then cleaned thoroughly and returned to the system.
Dispatch Goods does come with an initial cost to purchase the reusable containers. But instead of absorbing this cost in full, he passes off the option to his customers. He expounds the benefits of using reusable goods, but is transparent in saying that it will cost an additional $2. So far the response has been good and he is excited to watch Dispatch Foods take off.
As if running a four-location restaurant operation on both sides of the bay wasn’t enough for Vanick, he has decided to take an active approach in helping others like him go sustainable. “I’ve started my own consulting and coaching on the side to help restaurant owners do that very thing – and I’m offering that free of charge” Vanick exclaims excitedly over his steaming mint tea.
Vanick wants SF to work together to help the planet. He acknowledges that the hardest parts about going green are knowing where to start, investing the time in learning, and making the move to implement. He knows, however, that if the process were easier, more restaurateurs would opt for it. Through his mentorship he says, “restaurants have the option to not spend money, and even save money, doing the right thing. I think people want to do that. It’s just starting and getting motivated to make those changes that’s difficult”.
Vanick der Bedrossian, a successful San Francisco restaurant owner, will sit down one on one with you and help you make positive changes to impact your profitability and environmental footprint. To offer his time and expertise free of charge is a level of compassion rare in such a cut-throat industry. In this way, La Med functions as an active part of their community and creates strong bonds with other restaurant owners.
Throughout his sustainability voyage, if there’s one thing Vanick has learned it’s that it pays off! And not only due to the reimbursements you get through the city, the decreased operating costs, or the uptick in distinguished, conscious customers. Vanick says it pays off because you simply feel better about doing better. If you know you can do it with little investment and with a master as your personal mentor, why wouldn’t you go sustainable!?
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