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HT Talks Tech: Alex Harden, Sustainability Lead at Just Salad

HT caught up with Just Salad to learn how it is integrating sustainability into its mobile app and more.
Just Salad bowl being scanned and returned
At Just Salad, customers drop their reusable bowls in a bin and use the app to scan a QR code to confirm the return. BringBack is currently available at 10 locations.
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HT caught up with Just Salad to talk about the brand's latest efforts in sustainability and technology.  The fast-casual salad concept garnered headlines for its reusable bowl program and how using technology amplifies Just Salad's sustainability efforts.

Just Salad Reusable Bowl program helped the company avoid producing 3 tons+ of single-use waste. Plus, by asking customers on their orders if they want to opt-out of single-use utensils, the company avoided creating more than 2,200 pounds of unnecessary waste in 2021.

HT:  What progress has Just Salad made in the past year towards its sustainability milestones?

Alex Harden, Sustainability Lead at Just Salad: We are currently working on our 2022 Impact Report – stay tuned! A major milestone since our previous Impact Report was our certification as a B Corporation in April 2023. Becoming a Certified B Corporation was a multi-year journey, assessing our performance across five impact categories, including workers, communities, customers, suppliers, and the environment. We are using the B Corporation certification framework as the basis for our ongoing improvement, and we’re honored to be part of this global movement of people using business as a force for good. 

HT: When we connected for the May 2022 article in Hospitality Technology, Just Salad was going to integrate the reusable bowl program into the mobile app. What's the status?  

Harden:  In 2022, we launched BringBack, a closed loop packaging solution, in the Just Salad app. Through BringBack, customers can choose to receive their salad or warm bowl in a returnable bowl. To return the bowl, customers drop their bowls in a bin at any participating Just Salad location and use the app to scan a QR code to confirm the return. BringBack is currently available at 10 locations across New York, New Jersey and Florida, and we are looking into expanding the program. 

We’ve offered reusable bowls for in-store ordering since the opening of our first location in 2006, making us home to the longest-running reusables programs in the U.S. restaurant industry. We created BringBack to make reusable packaging available to the increasing number of customers who order online. By offering reusable packaging for both online and in-store ordering, we’ve increased the accessibility, scale and impact of our waste reduction programs. 

HT: How important is staff training to the sustainability initiative? What role does tech play in the employee experience?

Harden:  Supporting our teammates through strong training programs is critical for putting sustainability theory into practice. We utilize engaging, mobile-based training platforms to train our staff. We have dedicated sustainability modules covering not only the instructions on how to execute programs (i.e. how to properly separate compost or serve customers in our reusable bowls) but also the impact of programs (i.e. the environmental benefits of diverting food and packaging waste from landfills). 

HT: Regarding tech projects, what are some recent accomplishments?

Harden: Since becoming one of the first U.S. chain restaurants to show the estimated carbon footprint of every item on our menu, we have focused on continuously improving the way we use this information to engage with our customers. We feature our carbon labels, calculated and verified by Planet FWD, across our digital menus, and we offer a “Climatarian” filter that gives customers a shortcut to identifying our lowest-impact options. Last year, we integrated our app with a carbon credit provider, Patch, so customers can add verified carbon credits at checkout to cover the emissions footprint of their meal. The amount of carbon credit added at checkout changes based on the carbon labels of the items in the cart. For example, if a customer chooses from our lower footprint Climatarian menu, less credit is needed to offset it.

In addition to helping our customers identify the lowest impact options among our menu offerings, our carbon footprint calculations allow us as a company to make targeted sustainability improvements to our menu. We receive footprint analysis reports from the Planet FWD platform that break down the emissions impact of each ingredient. We can use these reports to take actions like swapping out or avoiding ingredients in our recipes that would significantly increase the footprint of a menu item. 

In the future, we plan on revamping our loyalty and rewards program to include in-app challenges to further engage our customers on our sustainability programs.

Just Salad reusable bowl with arms
Just Salad Reusable Bowl program helped avoid 3 tons+ of single-use waste, and asking customers on their orders if they want to opt-out of single-use utensils -- avoided over 2,200 pounds of unnecessary waste in 2021.

HT: What are some of the new KPIs you've added to your dashboard? 

Harden: Since launching BringBack in the Just Salad app, we track the share of app customers that opted into the program, as well as the resulting waste diversion. We continue to track a number of sustainability KPIs, such as the share of plant-based and lower carbon footprint items in our sales mix, participation rates and associated waste reduction in our in-store reusables program, and the share of customers who opt-out of single-use utensils on their pickup and delivery orders. 

HT: A lot of operators are turning to automation and IoT. What role, if any, do these play at Just Salad?

Harden: We’re interested in incorporating automation and IoT into our operations but have not entered this space yet. We believe automation can incrementally replace mundane tasks and improve our team's efficiency and job satisfaction. As the restaurant industry continues to lean into ecommerce, the IoT presents an opportunity for equipment that bakes, cools, dispenses, etc. to work harmoniously with various sales channels to automatically fulfill orders. Much like robotics, adoption for this technology is iterative. 

HT: For other restaurants looking at being more sustainable in their operations, where should they start?  

Harden: There are a number of sustainable interventions restaurants can make across their operations. At Just Salad, we have integrated our sustainability team and supply chain teams, bringing an environmental lens to all of our sourcing decisions. To illustrate:  

  • What’s being served: Some foods are inherently more resource-intensive than others. Increasing the share of lower-impact and plant-based offerings can help reduce a menu’s overall footprint. At Just Salad, we limit sourcing on higher-impact proteins such as beef and offer plant-based alternatives to chicken and cheese. 
  • How it gets there: Shortening the distance food travels to a restaurant can also reduce the environmental impact. For our summer seasonal menu, we partnered with Gotham Greens to source butterhead lettuce from greenhouses local to our stores in New York and Chicago. 
  • How it’s served: Implementing a reusable packaging program avoids waste generation, as well as purchasing needs for single-use items. Just Salad’s packaging waste reduction approach is centered on reusable solutions, which we now offer to both in-store and in-app customers. 
  • Sustainability and supply chain are interconnected, as restaurants can reduce their environmental impact by making sustainable choices throughout their supply chain.
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