Going paper-free and using smart tech to keep track of inventory, food waste, and energy usage is one way to become more sustainable, and it could also help your bottom line

When one thinks of the growth of restaurant sustainability, plant-based burger chains that make their small carbon footprint a major part of their brand identity might come to mind. One might also think of restaurants that only use recyclable or compostable packaging or have gone nearly zero-waste in using every part of the vegetables and animals that are brought into their kitchen.

But going vegan or investing in paper straws aren’t the only ways for a restaurant to improve upon their sustainability. A new generation of smart technology sits at the intersection of sustainability and profitability, and many of these tools are becoming more popular because of their long-term return on investment.

As the restaurant industry becomes more digitized, one very simple example of how operators have almost universally become greener is by using less paper. With QR code ordering and digital receipts, many restaurants are using way less thermal paper than they used to. When the team at Von Elrod’s Beer Hall & Kitchen in Nashville was looking for an easy way to reduce their environmental impact, they immediately thought of ditching thermal paper, which — unlike regular paper — does not easily decompose and can release chemicals like BPAs into the atmosphere.

“When we were thinking about little things we could do to minimize our impact, we started adding handhelds and KDS screens and digitizing a lot of our stuff,” said Hillary Holmes, general manager at Von Elrod’s. “Now we aren’t going through all of these wasteful print materials. A lot of people don’t think about the impact of kitchen printers … but now we’re 95% paper-free and our workers don’t have to squint at tiny receipts anymore.”

And while the initial purpose of switching to QR codes instead of paper menus and ditching paper receipts might not have been sustainability, it is a happy byproduct and side effect. This has been a recurring motif in the hospitality technology space: For many restaurants, using tech to save money on energy, ingredient inventory and even frying oil is a capitalistic decision. But as HVAC systems and inventory management software get smarter, they can help reduce your carbon footprint while also shrinking your energy and supplier bills.

This is why efficiency is so crucial, especially for restaurant operators who have to worry about ongoing labor and inflation challenges. Putting up a lot of money, time and effort into investing in something like solar power or getting rid of plastic is not going to immediately appeal to the average restaurateur.

“These are really busy folks that have a lot on their plates, so we have to make it easy for sustainability-oriented solutions to take off,” said Manik Suri, CEO and founder of smart cooling company Therma. “You can’t expect massive market adaptation, especially if you make it hard [to invest in]. And that’s where smart technologies can be really powerful. That has been the role of technology since the beginning of human civilization, whether it’s a washing machine, a microwave or an energy sensor.”

Therma is a solutions-based technology company that helps restaurants curtail their energy bills using IOT (Internet of Things) technology that makes “dumb” devices like refrigerators “smart” by installing temperature and humidity sensors into the appliance. Before smart technology, a lot of energy-saving solutions consisted of expensive investments, like advanced insulation and solar panels, Suri said.

“If you can see a way to adopt sustainability technology that also saves you money or streamlines operations, then it’s a lot easier to make that case to owners and managers,” he said. “We see a lot of folks that want to do the right thing, but they also need to justify it on a financial basis.”

Smart HVAC software could be one piece of a larger sustainability puzzle, and while it might not be as buzz-worthy as an entirely vegan menu or going zero-waste, installing software that tracks your energy usage and senses air leaks could save 5-15% off your energy bill for the month, Suri said.

Reducing energy costs is a big trend among green tech companies in the hospitality space. Budderfly is an energy efficiency service company that operators can hire to upgrade their kitchen equipment, HVAC system and lighting to the latest energy-efficient, smart models that can turn off equipment during slow times to save energy.

While it doesn’t cost money upfront, Budderfly takes a sizeable chunk of the ROI from using the efficient equipment, while the operator gets to keep a piece of it. And while this may sound a little too good to be true — and very much like the next generation of Energy Star equipment — Budderfly CEO Al Subbloie said that restaurant operators are surprisingly not keeping up with the evolving technology.

“An operator might tell me, ‘I don’t want to spend money on new lights — I already have lights!’ even though they know their bill will be less if they invest in the new LEDs. But because it’s a three or four-year return, they’re like ‘forget about it,’” Subbloie said. “So they’re putting their money directly into their business and not into their infrastructure. … In my view, their equipment might need to be replaced, but they’re like, ‘I’ll wait until it dies and then deal with it.’”

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