The most important factor that makes a restaurant sustainable is what’s on the plate.
"The biggest positive impact on one's carbon footprint comes from a fully vegan diet. The carbon footprint of cheese is close to that of meat," says Satu Lähteenoja, Senior Expert at the independent think tank Demos Helsinki.
The criteria for more sustainable choices state that restaurants should include at least one well-balanced vegan meal, preferably several. In addition, there should be an emphasis on organic, fair-trade and locally produced food items. In terms of beverages, tap water, for instance, is an environmentally friendly choice.
"Another major topic is food waste – what to do with leftover portions. Should they be sold to customers on an app or handed over to an organisation to redistribute? Restaurants should take a stand to minimise food waste systematically," Lähteenoja says.
There are many ways to make use of food waste. One solution is ResQ Club, a mobile app that makes it possible for users to pick up leftover food from restaurants. Takeaway culture and fast food have boosted the need for disposable plates and containers, and this mindset needs to be adjusted.
"Plastic dishes are often used for just five minutes, after which they become trash," says Lähteenoja.
She feels that restaurants could try to encourage their customers to pick up takeaway food in their own containers – for example, by offering a discount to anyone who brings their own dish. A water bottle already travels easily in a bag, and people could also systematically carry a coffee mug and food container with them.
"For lunch customers, this would probably not even be a big challenge," Lähteenoja thinks.
Juuri aims to be better and better
Founded in Helsinki in 2004, the restaurant Juuri has been at the forefront of sustainable thinking during its whole existence. Juuri is based on three principles: taste, origin and passion. As their name ('Root') implies, vegetables – especially Finnish ones – have always been highlighted with pride on the menu.
"In ten years, there will not be a single company that does not take a stand on sustainability,” says Juuri's Food Manager Antti Ahokas.
"A while ago, other nearby restaurants were laughing at us for grilling swedes and turnips while they were busy ordering spring lamb from the Pyrenees,” Ahokas recollects.
Nobody is laughing now. Ahokas feels that what was always central to Juuri's cuisine has now become a new norm: local and organic food, and produce with a clear origin, have become vital thinking for almost everyone. However, there is still plenty of work to do.
"We need to make an even bigger effort. Actions need to be planned even better, and we aim to tighten our procurement policy even further."
A big factor in the carbon footprint of restaurants comes from transportation. In the best case, restaurants would centralise loads to arrive less frequently, always aiming to order full loads whilst minimising distances. Finer work done at Juuri includes motivating supplier commitment to work more closely together and to form logistical networks with small producers.
"Through centralising, channelling and planning procurement, we have managed to drop the frequency of incoming transportation, and all in all decrease the carbon footprint of our logistics by 30 percent compared to 2016. We still have room to improve by channelling our logistics to the same main supplier and placing different orders so they arrive together,” says Ahokas.
Juuri and the lunch restaurant belonging to the same chain, Pihka, has constantly increased the number of vegetarian dishes on the menu. As a form of personal training, the staff of Juuri also educated themselves about vegan food and are now able to make their own Burmese-style tofu and seitan.
"Our gastronomic approach to vegetarian food is first and foremost to follow seasonal logic. We try to emphasise Finnish produce on our menu. This is something where we constantly work together with suppliers. For instance, fresh apples are available nearly year-round on the Åland Islands,” says Ahokas.
According to Ahokas, carrying responsibility and abiding by its values is extremely important for Juuri as an employer.
"In the future, we wish to offer job opportunities to marginalised youths, immigrants and refugees in particular. We will guide them and offer as many work tasks as possible. We can help people who have drive and the passion for this field a lot."
Bun2Bun made veganism into a phenomenon
When the Helsinki restaurant Bun2Bun decided to drop all meat burgers from their menu and instead offer only a vegan selection, many colleagues in the field could only shake their heads in disbelief. But not for long.
"For a moment, our sales grew five-fold. The growth has since calmed down, but our sales are still three times those when we still served meat burgers. So, this was also the right decision in a business sense,” says Pasi Hassinen, chef and co-founder of Bun2Bun.
From an environmental perspective, serving vegan food is already an excellent path to follow, but Bun2Bun strives to follow the same logic throughout their business – for instance, by keeping track of waste.
"Our food waste is more or less zero. Each portion is individually made, and their ingredients are counted by the gram."
Other waste comes from disposable tableware and burger wrappers, although they are fully biodegradable. The Bun2Bun branches at the food markets in the Redi and Kamppi shopping centres use shared tableware and utensils.
"We will try to open another branch in Helsinki's Kallio district soon and serve food only from long-lasting dishes,” says Hassinen of the upcoming street-side restaurant.
Sustainable thinking will be at the core of the new Bun2Bun restaurant. A carbon footprint calculator will be launched once the right calculation models are developed. The work clothes of employees are made of organic cotton or recycled fabrics, and they will be produced as nearby as possible in Finland or Estonia. Bun2Bun will also start to enjoy access to city bikes as a fringe benefit.
Through positive experiences, Hassinen also wants to encourage bigger businesses in the restaurant field to pursue bolder solutions.
"It is time to start talking about these things and acting on them. There is plenty of talk about dropping meat, but very few actually go through with it. Customers should also demand more from restaurants."
Yes Yes Yes serves vegetarian food for all to enjoy
The restaurant Yes Yes Yes only has vegetarian food on the menu, which may come as a surprise to some customers. The restaurateur duo Richard McCormick and Ville Relander say that as proud as they are of their principles, they do not find it necessary to underline them.
"Good food and good service speak for themselves. We wanted to challenge people's ideas of what good food is because 80-90 percent of our customers are omnivores. We always try to cater to everyone's needs and the waiter will always ask if someone is vegan or follows some other special diet,” McCormick says.
Yes Yes Yes does not want to be placed in the box of vegetarian restaurants, yet sustainability is central at all points of decision-making.
"Every action comes with a responsibility,” McCormick says. This means both economic and social care, and environmental responsibility. Yes Yes Yes pays special attention to procurement, with a high emphasis on nearby Finnish producers. Most of the wines are both vegan and organic. Logistics also plays an important role.
"By following the seasons, we can have an impact on where our vegetables come from. This is the reason why we refresh our menu several times a year, every two to three months. Seasonal ingredients are also visible on our cocktail list.
The restaurateurs say that there is hardly any food waste and ingredients are used as completely as possible.
"When we make tofu, for instance, we use the liquid that’s produced in cocktails as a substitute for egg white,” Relander says.
The next steps in the sustainability work done by Yes Yes Yes include addressing energy consumption in the building. The restaurant rents its premises from a housing cooperative and is tied to the shared energy contract of the building. But perhaps the restaurant can convince the property to switch its contract to renewable energy sources.
The most central viewpoint in terms of restaurants is what is on the plate. The more vegetarian food we eat, the better this is for the climate. Another major topic is food waste.