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Driving Profitability Through Sustainability: Insights from Industry Leaders

Discover how Mendocino Farms and Out West Restaurant Group are using technology to not only cut costs and enhance sustainability, but also create a happier workforce.
sustainability panelists at murtec 2024
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"Sustainability isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s good business. During MURTEC ’24, Anna Wolfe, Senior Editor at Hospitality Technology magazine, moderated a panel discussion with two individuals who have learned just that: Brian Pearson, CTO of Mendocino Farms, and Steve Muhlbaum, COO of Out West Restaurant Group. In this discussion, Pearson and Muhlbaum shared how they’re using technology to save on energy costs, reduce waste, improve operations, and create a happier workforce – all while boosting the bottom line.

How does your company incorporate sustainable business practices?

“Sustainability is about so much more than just doing good for the environment,” Pearson said. “Obviously that’s important! But it’s also about supporting local communities. For example, we buy a lot of products from local vendors to help reduce CO2 emissions. But purchasing local also sustains that community. We digitize bureaucracy: we don’t print a lot of things and we have a lot of virtual meetings. In our restaurants, we use QR codes and digital menu boards so that we don’t constantly have to print new menus. This not only lets us deploy menu changes in minutes instead of weeks, but also cuts down on paper waste and CO2 emissions associated with shipping that paper. We also swapped from plastic cutlery to metal to reduce the amount of waste we create as a business. Whenever we do something, we try to be thoughtful in how we can integrate sustainable business practices.”

“Our company is very well aware that we’re responsible for impact on the environment and on our employees,” Muhlbaum said. “Every day, we try to improve everything we do by one percent rather than just improving on one thing 100 percent. At Out West Restaurants, we’re investing significantly in comprehensive programs and technology that will reduce our utility costs by 20-30 percent annually. This includes proactively updating HVAC technology to more energy-efficient models rather than letting old inefficient models continue on for a few more years. We’re also recycling the air within our restaurants so that our HVAC units don’t have to work so hard to cool or heat the air. We’re also looking into solar energy and trying to decide where installing solar panels might make sense.”

How important are employees in making restaurants more sustainable?

“I’m a big believer in the committee,” Pearson said. “Our executives get together regularly and ask: ‘What’s easy to do?’, ‘What’s low hanging fruit?’ and ‘How can we get our team members involved?’ We use an employee communication/messaging platform to get our staff members involved. They’ll often make great suggestions on what we can do that will make a small impact every day that eventually builds up over time to being a big impact.”

“It’s critical in today’s business environment to be open to the needs of employees and sincerely solicit advice from them,” Muhlbaum said. “You have to be open-minded enough to include everyone. We hold frequent meetings in restaurants to talk with our employees about sustainability. When you do that, it creates respect for what we are trying to do and makes them more likely to contribute to what we’re doing.”

“Our team members are very proactive at taking the trays and food and packaging away from guests when they’ve finished eating because they want to sort the trash, recyclables, and food compost in the right way,” Pearson added. “They want to make sure the silverware doesn’t get thrown away. Sustainability becomes a passion play for our team members. When employees are invested in our mission, that creates loyalty. So restaurants should really work hard to identify staff members who are interested in sustainability, create a community within the brand, activate them, start the conversation, and let them help regardless of their level within the organization.”

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