Carluccio's ups ante with fish sourcing policy
Carluccio's has improved its fish sourcing and waste management. But challenges remain on the path to sustainability
Carluccio's is a successful restaurant chain, with premises throughout the UK, one in Ireland and a number in the Middle East. Promising "great quality, authentic Italian food at sensible prices", the company is also committed to sustainability, and joined the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) in May of last year as a founding member.
The company's website says: "By making changes to the way we behave as a business, we are aiming to improve both the social and environmental impact of our operations. We know this is just the start of a long journey for us, but we're proud of the small steps we've taken so far."
However, while most businesses find taking action on sustainability offers measurable financial benefits in terms of savings on energy, waste disposal and the like, chief executive officer Simon Kossoff says that for restaurant businesses, improving sustainability - in most cases - represents an increase in costs.
Kossoff says: "I simply do not believe that the path to sustainability is one where our company can expect to improve our profits.
"Sustainability is an extremely complicated area, but I don't believe fundamentally it is an area that offers restaurant businesses an opportunity to make more profit. None of the things we've done have had a financial benefit. Some of them are no cost and some of them add cost, but I haven't come across a single thing that has actually saved us money yet. Some of the big ones that are out there, we haven't found a way of addressing without accepting more cost."
But that doesn't mean Carluccio's isn't committed to improving sustainability. Kossoff says: "This is really about what our customers and team are saying to us about how sustainability is becoming more important. I have a view that wider concern about sustainability has been held up by the recession, but is ready to explode when we move on economically."
Expertise in the field has come from the SRA, "a national not-for-profit membership association, providing restaurants with advice and support to help them navigate the whole spectrum of sustainability issues".
Kossoff says: "The reason we liked what they were doing was because they presented a progression towards more sustainability rather than simply a line you had to step over.
"That means we can take small steps, we can understand we've got lots of work to do, and we can be proud of what we achieve without feeling we have to change everything in one go."
The SRA offers a star rating process through which restaurants can become one, two or three star "sustainability champions".
Carluccio's is now a one star member - the largest chain of restaurants to have achieved accreditation to this level - and Kossoff says the firm is pushing to get its second star.
He says: "We use the SRA as an outsourced specialist rather than having any internal expertise in sustainability. The SRA calls upon its members to make a number of pledges each year with the aim of improving their overall sustainability profile. We're into our third year now and in the process of figuring out what our pledges will be for 2012.
"Our historic pledges have been around fish sourcing, waste management, and actions such as encouraging to get our team to cycle to work rather than drive.
"The SRA calls for a lot of work around how you relate to communities and your team so we've done a lot in that area. We haven't focused very hard on energy yet, and I think it may be an area where my explanation of how we feel about sustainability is slightly different in that we may make some cost savings."
Apart from input from the SRA, sustainability is championed with Carluccio's by volunteers within the workforce. Kossoff says: "We have volunteers picking up the sustainability agenda as a separate matter to their day-to-day job, because I believe you have to be motivated to work on this otherwise you can't really drive it forward. We have someone who works in our property area who's involved, someone out of operations, and someone in our marketing department."
Sourcing food locally, using organic and free range produce and insisting upon high levels of animal husbandry are the biggest areas within the sustainability agenda for restaurants, Kossoff says.
"We've worked on sourcing issues, which is the big one for restaurants. However, trying to source locally is very difficult for a national business. We've also done some work on our fish-buying, and we'd like to take that further. And we've done some work in other areas such as recycling and waste management."
In fact, 78.3% of waste was recycled last year. The company says: "That means around 3,400 fewer tonnes of waste to landfill, which is equivalent to 1,000 fully loaded double decker buses. We won't achieve zero to landfill any time soon, because we don't always have control over how waste is managed, particularly where our branches are in shopping centres, but we're on our way."
Kossoff uses chicken as an example of the challenges facing a company such as Carluccio's in improving sustainability. He says: "We sell some 15,000 portions of chicken a week and would very much like to be buying free range. The cost is completely prohibitive every time we look at it.
"We can pass part of that cost onto our customers, and we do believe our customers would pay a little more for a free range product, but unfortunately the cost it would require is more than we think they'd pay.
"We also believe there is an availability problem for the product we would need - so not only can we not afford it, but we can't get the consistency of product we need unless we go to European suppliers, but that would have to be frozen, would have to be imported and would have food miles associated with it, and some of our customers would baulk at that."
So while challenges remain, Carluccio's continues to make slow yet steady progress towards improved sustainability. "We're convinced our customers and our team think sustainability is important. I'm hoping in that sense - because we want to be in tune with our customers and our team - that we're moving in the right direction," Kossoff says.