Consumers are paying attention, now more than ever.

If first impressions are the calling card for restaurant brands, last impressions in a word, “last” and should therefore be equally considered yet many times aren’t. In a social climate where consumers value brand transparency and ethics more than ever, dining choices are not exempt from this mindset.

Diners often want to know the impact of their choices ranging from where server uniforms are sourced to what the restaurant does with its food waste, the wages paid to staff, and the percentage farmers make off the beans they sell that ultimately becomes the $6 end-of-meal cappuccino.

This new reality reinforces the importance of operating in a way that supports the well-being of the people touched by the hospitality business as well as the future of the shared planet on which we depend.  As a result, the ability to grow a beloved restaurant brand whether large group or small independent depends on every single detail, approach, or decision to lead with purpose.

With so many choices, labels, and nebulous touchpoints throughout the entire system, it’s difficult to decipher which companies follow an ethical and sustainable business model. Traceability and transparency must be linked. Merely knowing the coffee’s origin isn’t enough which is why choosing the right coffee partner is one of the most integral parts of the program. Here are a few ways to execute a modern, ethical, and sustainable coffee program to make a great last impression.

Find the Right Coffee

Partner with a local roaster to make certain they follow a triple bottom line business plan (people and planet with profit as the last goal instead of the first). The right foodservice product will ensure availability, consistency, quality, and transparency. Look for companies that give back a portion of their sales to charities filtered directly back into the sector of industry. There are a ton of them. The “right” coffee also doesn’t mean it has to be the best rated or most expensive, it must complement the food and the clientele. For example, younger, socially aware guests may demand transparency, sustainability, and quality while older crowds may be less passionate about those elements.  

Consistently monitor checks and balances because the playing field changes so quickly

The homework was done to vet vendors, but politics, climate change and complex supply chain dynamics dramatically affect fair trade, availability, sustainability, carbon footprints, single use plastics and labor issues making it an ever-changing system. Companies like ours, Many Hands Coffee Company, and organizations such as Enviritas and the Global Coffee Platform prioritize staying on top of these issues, so customers don’t have to. It takes an enormous amount of time, resources, and money to do the right long-term thing. While it may be difficult to increase prices or give up a sliver of margin, it’s at the expense of the planet and the people who work tirelessly to create that cappuccino or macchiato. The consumer willingness to pay may surprise. It always does.

Purposefully market working with fair trade, ethical and better for the planet vendors to internal and external audiences

Ethically and environmentally‑minded adjustments to operations and menu will be noticed by customers, especially regulars. Use that to your advantage by being open and honest about your carbon footprint and thoughtfully explain why you’re making these changes.

Doing so is a brand differentiator and more importantly creates a call to action for others setting the tone for real change. Hopefully other hospitality players follow suit. It also invokes a sense of employee pride in that the entity they work for cares about its impact, is not green washing or ill-informed on corporate social responsibility or only values profit margins. When it comes to reducing coffee’s impact on the world, action is required from roasters, coffee shops, wholesalers, restaurants, and consumers. A handful of ways to inform diners and staff are with social media posts and emails explaining specific decisions, writing an article outlining the mission and send updates of your progress to local news outlets for recognition.

Consider going beyond the bean and extend the mindset to the entire coffee sector

The equipment, water, cups, or utensils being used, plus products like creamer, sugar, etc. and the labor should all be under scrutiny for the greatest impact. Water efficient faucets, energy-Star appliances and coffee makers, recycled, compostable and eco-friendly packaging and stirrers, organic or reusable coffee filters, non-vegan or dairy alternatives, and ethical sugar (yes, it’s a thing) all need to be considered for the most comprehensive ethical coffee program. 

By combining capabilities and turning to the restaurant sector to guide best practices, we assure industry partners and customers that we are being truly hospitable to our planet and the people who inhabit it for a more sustainable, inclusive world. Most importantly, it moves the industry one step closer towards serving as an exemplar of sustainability to other global industries. That’s systemic change we could, and should, all be proud of.

Miles Butler is a well-known resource in the industry and the co-owner of Many Hands Coffee Company with a goal of creating a fair, inclusive, sustainable coffee culture one bean, one bag, one cup at a time.

Beverage, Expert Takes, Feature, Sustainability