What Does it Mean to be a Sustainable Restaurant?

Head chef Holly Dalton is delighted that her café is the first in Dublin to be recognised as “sustainable” by the UK-based Sustainable Restaurants Association (SRA).

“When we get our plaque, we are going to be bragging about it,” she says with a smile.

The SRA’s rating system is about more than ethical sourcing, says Dalton, of 3fe, on Grand Canal Street Lower.

It looks at everything from the amount of food-waste the restaurant produces to the gender balance in its kitchen, from the working conditions it provides its staff to the practices of the farmers it buys meats and vegetables from.

Dalton learned about the SRA’s Food Made Good system last summer when she heard that Loam, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Galway, had got its sustainability stars too.

She was immediately interested, she says. “Our coffee was already really sustainable, so then we realised we need to pull our socks up and the food and everything else needs to match that.”

The SRA examines food businesses based on factors arranged into three broad categories: environment, sourcing, and society.

“The business answers 200 questions and supplies all the evidence to us,” says SRA spokesman Tom Tanner. “Then we tot up a score and if they meet the minimum standards, they get awarded one, two, or three stars based on that score.”

3fe recently learned how many stars it got.

Environment

The environmental factors examined by the SRA are the supply chain, waste-management systems, workplace resources, energy efficiency, and water conservation.

Dalton says that she, like many chefs, was concerned with sourcing sustainable food.

However, it was only after she decided to apply for the sustainability rating that she started to consider all aspects of the sustainability of the business, such as how environmentally friendly her cleaning products are, or whether her blue roll is recycled.

She is radically overhauling food waste within the business. She preserves a lot of food that previously would have been thrown away – like the outer leaves of cabbages, which she uses to make sauerkraut.

When Dalton started the process, 3fe’s used coffee was all going in the black bin, but now they have started to compost that, she says. She plans to use the compost to grow vegetables and flowers in spring.

Another Dublin café that is striving to be sustainable is The Fumbally, on Fumbally Lane, off New Street.

Manager Swan Sweeney says they don’t go in for stars or ratings, but they do give serious consideration to the impact the business has on the environment.

The Fumbally donates its used coffee grinds to a community garden in Kilmainham, says Sweeney. “All our take-away packaging is biodegradable, and we source this from a company called London Bio,” he says. 

Holly Dalton at 3fe.

Dalton, of 3fe, has visited other outlets in the UK to see how they are reducing waste. “We were really inspired by a place in Brighton, called Silo, which has zero-percent food waste,” she says.

That’s because they restrict each customer to only producing one cup of food waste, and that gets put in a special machine that within 24 hours can turn food waste into compost.

Even having a vegetarian and vegan option each day helps the environment. “That food always has a much lower carbon footprint,” Dalton says.

At Fumbally too, Sweeney says there are always a number of vegetarian and vegan options available.

Sourcing

The SRA says sustainable food should be local, seasonal, fair-trade, and farmed in an environmentally positive way. Meat and dairy should be produced ethically.

Dalton says she examined all her suppliers and categorised them.

The priorities are clearly laid out within the SRA system for meat. “Free-range is number one, number two is organic, and number three is local, which is within 50 kilometres,” she says.

She had to let some good suppliers go, even though they might be excellent ethically, simply for being too far away. Purchasing locally reduces the cafe’s carbon footprint.

Obviously their coffee is imported, but since they are paying above fair-trade prices, that is considered sustainable.

It is acceptable to use imported products when there isn’t a local one that can be used as a substitute, Dalton says. So she uses Irish rapeseed oil when possible, but if a dish requires olive oil, she can still use that too.

But “when we sat down to fill out the paperwork for this, we realised that we were not doing enough,” she says. “So, we had to start from scratch.”

She soon realised that the pork the cafe was serving was a major issue. Dalton was buying good-quality meat products from a local butcher, but it wasn’t free-range.

“People don’t think about pork. It’s the most consumed meat in Ireland, and hardly any of it is free-range,” she says.

There is generally a huge emphasis on free-range chickens, but pigs are very intelligent animals, and their conditions in factory farms are “deplorable”, says Dalton

Sourcing ethically produced pork can be difficult, so when Dalton found a free-range supplier, she was surprised his pork was only €1 per kilo more expensive then what she’d been buying.

The new supplier was Peter Whelan, of The Whole Hoggs. He says he rears approximately a hundred pigs on 59 acres of forest, and that they are free to roam.

“They live a totally free and natural life,” said Whelan on the phone on Monday. “I’d be a realist. I don’t think there will come a day when every pig in Ireland is a free-range pig, but there must be a happy medium that could be achieved.”

He says he doesn’t give his pigs injections, and doesn’t cut their teeth or tails. And, “In my set-up they suckle from their mothers in the way that nature intended,” he says.

So, does all this make a difference to the quality and taste of the meat? Yes, says Dalton. It’s a much sweeter and tastier product because of the varied diet of the animals, she says.

“If you get cheap food there is always a reason,” Dalton says.

Society

The SRA also examines whether restaurants are treating people fairly, encouraging healthy eating, getting involved in their communities, and marketing themselves responsibly.

In terms of working conditions for staff, Dalton says 3fe tries to be flexible with scheduling. It will work the rota around the study commitments of those who are in college or want to return to education, she says.

The restaurant is trying to make all aspects of its business more gender-balanced.  “We do nights once a month which focus on staff well-being also,” says Dalton.

Like many other businesses, 3fe also engages in charitable works and run events that fundraise for charity.

The Fumbally too runs events to engage with the community. In 2016, they hosted a series of talks to engage people in different aspects of food, community, and health.

These included talks on the relationship between diet and cancer, an introduction to bees, and how to host a Bengali feast, among other topics.

Sustainability Stars

3fe have got their results from the SRA. With an overall score of 67 percent, they will be awarded two stars for sustainability.

Dalton says they’ll work through the feedback they’ve received from the SRA to improve the restaurant’s score the next time round.

The process “has really made me think about what I eat in my personal life too”, says Dalton. “When you know better, you do better, as Maya Angelou said.”

Dalton discovered the SRA ratings when another Irish restaurant got theirs, and now she hopes other Dublin outlets will follow 3fe’s lead. “I think when more people hear about it in Dublin, more people are going to want to do it,” she says.

Tanner says the SRA would welcome more members in Ireland. “Anybody who is committed to being more sustainable, come on board join us … we have our arms open to welcome people who want to make that positive change,” he says.

[CORRECTION: This article was updated at 12:13pm on 1 February to correct the name of the manager of the Fumbally. His name is Swan Sweeney, not Fawn Fweeney which makes more sense in retrospect. Sorry for the error.]

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