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Why restaurant startups must lead the way to a sustainable food future



Every year, as much as half of the food we produce across the world ends up as waste. From vegetable crops deemed too ‘ugly’ to harvest, all the way to restaurant diners feeling too embarrassed to ask for a doggy bag, attitudes at almost every stage of the global food system are in need of a revolutionary overhaul.

The sell-by-date for this transformation is fast approaching; according to the UN, food demands will increase by up to 60% in 2050 as the population continues to grow. One of the biggest obstacles the food industry must overcome is the monolithic, business as usual stance which keeps many commercial kitchens from adopting more sustainable practices.

Fortunately, the next generation of commercial kitchen entrepreneurs are already sinking their teeth into the issue. Startup restaurants and food technology developers are discovering that it pays to be environmentally conscious, and with the right support, the next generation of entrepreneurs could solve the food waste crisis.

Support the sustainable practice innovators

In 2015, the government Startup Loans scheme saw a huge increase in the number of applications from the food and drinks sector compared to the previous year. Many of these , sustainable new businesses are anxious to seize opportunities to promote more sustainable styles of sourcing and eating food. Environmentally sound vegan and vegetarian diets are being recognised as a ‘mega trend’ among established restaurant chains and commercial kitchen startups, while no-waste cooking is set to become an era-defining movement.

As pop-up restaurants become the most common entry point into the market, many new businesses are working remotely in rented commercial kitchens. These environments must, therefore, share a portion of responsibility, and foster sustainable practice amongst food entrepreneurs.

London based commercial kitchen suppliers Dephna have created a work space where customers have 24 hour access to cold storage facilities, alongside their rental kitchens. As the Food Standard Agency (FSA) observed earlier this year, promoting understanding and use of freezing food processes is key to reducing UK food waste. If commercial kitchen startups can incorporate saving food in freezers and working with frozen produce into their daily practice, then this could soon be adopted by the other rented kitchen providers, and the wider hospitality industry.

Another party who could play be significant in influencing and supporting sustainable new practices are food suppliers. Supermarkets throw away £230m of edible food every year, finding a way to utilise this excess and prevent it from being labeled as waste is paramount. In September this year, the first waste ‘supermarket’ was opened in Leeds. Here, food which would otherwise have been thrown in the bin is sold for ‘pay as you feel’ prices. The store was opened by The Real Junk Food Project, who have used supermarket waste to feed people across the world in cafés which cook exclusively in excess or wasted food products. With more funding and support, this could become a much more common style of business.

Reducing waste with the support of technology

Alongside volunteer organisations and efforts from established food industry figures, such as Jamie Oliver, technology has a huge role in bringing the scale of the food waste crisis to light. Now, we are all hoping technology will provide the light at the end of the tunnel as well.

Food-technology innovators are set to play a huge role in reducing global food waste. In the US, the Food Waste Innovation Fund has announced it will invest $75 million in startup technologies that offer solutions to food waste.

One startup that has been making ripples one side of the pond is London-based innovators Winnow. The Guardian Sustainable Business Award winners have invented a ‘smart meter’ for restaurants to acknowledge and carefully document how much food waste they produce, enabling them to effectively change their process. Since the innovation was first put to use in 2013 it has saved commercial kitchen businesses £2m, and has reduced carbon emissions from the hospitality sector by 3,400 tonnes.

Working in a similar vein to The Real Food Project is the new UK app Too Good To Go. The app enables restaurants to sell surplus meals to customers at much reduced rate, instead of simply throwing the food in the bin at the end of the working day. So far, startup restaurants have been the first to step up to the plate, and join the app service.

It will take a combination of all the aforementioned efforts and innovations to find an effective solution to the food waste crisis. Systematic change is needed on a global scale, and and many promising new ventures which are already making this happen, expanding their businesses and ideas across the world. As restaurants have a significant influence on the supply chain and food manufacturers, influencing and supporting sustainable commercial kitchen startups and the wider restaurant industry is a good place to start.