Catching More Flies with Organic Honey: Convincing Restaurants to Get Greener and Healthier
|Behind that uniform your server may be green like you, just waiting for support to get the restaurant owner on board.|
When the subject of greening your favorite restaurants came up last week, I found this excellent how-to page from GreenYour and was going to leave it at that. But all our Cater to the Earth discussion about attention to ingredients for reasons of health and environmentalism made me think there were a few more hints I’d like to add. As both a former restaurant worker and someone with dietary considerations, I can say that there are better and worse ways to get your point across to an eating establishment.
Keep in mind that restaurant workers work hard for their money and are in one of the most stressful professions around: they are more likely to suffer from depression or addictions than those in almost any other industry. Everything from their uniforms to their conversations with patrons has been planned out. They are usually not the ones involved in purchasing decisions or menu planning, so to speak to them as if they are personally responsible for the lack of organic or vegetarian options is incorrect. Presenting a clear and pleasant message to your server makes it more likely that the idea will be passed along to the higher-ups. As Compassion Over Killing found while campaigning for more vegetarian-friendly options, smaller establishments with less hierarchy have more flexibility in adjusting their operations.
Tips for communicating your health needs and environmental suggestions to restaurants:
- If you have a very strict diet, for either health or ethical reasons, do some research beforehand. By the time your server is there to take your order, it may be too late to expect them to accommodate a celiac diet or your commitment to local foods.
- Clearly and politely explain what your needs are. “My diet does not allow me to eat any (x) food. Could you substitute (y) or prepare the dish without it? Or “I prefer to eat local/organic food and sustainable seafood. Can you tell me what menu items I should order?” (Doing your homework with a seafood selector helps.)
- Tailor your message. Asking a server “Why haven’t you adopted a certain green practice?” may not be effective because chances are they don’t make those decisions. Even when talking to the manager/owner, however, it is probably better to formulate your idea in terms of a suggestion rather than a complaint. “Did you know there are alternatives to Styrofoam takeout containers?”
- Leave behind some information. One of the biggest barriers to greening restaurants is that the industry itself is so hectic. Leave behind one of these great downloadable comment cards from the Green Restaurant Association so that it gets to the right person when they have a moment to concentrate on it.
- Explain how they will benefit from going greener. If you’re targeting a particular practice, whether it’s composting, water efficiency, bottled water, or local foods, make sure you make a case for why this suggestion is practical, achievable, and will bring some benefit to the establishment. See some of the links for further reading here.
- Write a letter. Especially for chains, taking the time to put your opinion on paper or in an email shows you're serious. See these letter templates for convincing restaurants to stop serving bottled water.
- Check back in with the restaurant. Don’t just write them off as environmentally unfriendly or unhealthy. Give them a chance to improve. If you show that you are still a customer, they have more reason to accommodate your needs.
- Reward for good behavior. If your restaurant is (or is working on becoming) a haven for health- and environment-conscious diners, send them more customers--and make sure they tell them why the place was recommended. Pass on business to them through your office, community group, and friends.
- Spread the word. Post a review on one of the many restaurant review websites, praising the eatery for their green practices or vegetarian-friendly menu. Mention them on your blog or recommend them on a website dedicated to catering towards a particular diet.
- Conversely, if you decide to take your business elsewhere, tell them why. There is a local Caribbean cafe that makes delectable rotis in the most awful Styrofoam containers. Every time I walk by the place they must see my head turn involuntarily towards the prospect of a spicy tofu roti, but I keep walking when I think of the foam container. It would probably be better for both parties if I just told them what is bothering me about their packaging.
These suggestions are written with the intent to debunk the stereotype of the “green meanie”--that eco-activist who goes around pointing out the lack of green behavior. Like the person on a special diet who is thought of as the “overly fussy diner,” the green meanie’s message is merely lost in translation. It may take a moment for a harried waitperson (often misunderstood as "the server who doesn't care") to understand what you’re trying to say, but if you follow some of the suggestions above you are more likely to at least begin the dialogue about greener, healthier restaurant practices. Restaurants quickly become places where "everyone knows your face" if not your name, so being known as the kind of customer they want to keep coming back makes it more likely that they'll listen to your suggestions.