‍‍Radically reimagining the future restaurant

Radically reimagining the future restaurant, an interview written by Tracey Creed of Twentyfour.cc with Renee Coulter-Ngāti Kahu, Te Rarawa, NgāPuhi, Pakeha of Coco’s Cantina.

A restaurant meal represents a web of interdependent relationships involving the environment, culture and people. Yet the industry is a scandalous culture of consumption, of waste that cannot be separated from its context of late state capitalism and existing policies. Here Renee highlights the cultural, political and environmental issues that problematise every bite of food and how the only way to move forward is not necessarily solar panels but through cooperation and collaboration, prioritising mātauranga Māori to reduce our environmental impact. After all, Papatūānuku, of its own accord, has a right to exist and it is imperative to the human condition. We cannot live without her.

Ko Wai AU?

Renee Coulter—Ngāti Kahu, I am the co-owner of Coco's Cantina, which I founded alongside my sister Damaris 14 years ago. We worked in the business together for ten amazing years, and she is now working on an amazing project promoting owner-operated and independent businesses called The Realness. I am here on Karangahape Road with a good friend and fabulous chef, co-owner Emile Bennington.

You are working with ekos to establish your carbon footprint. What motivated you to begin this process?

So, my goal is to figure out ways to run my business sustainably, which is not greenwashing but truly has a lesser impact. And then I can share that knowledge with other people and my industry so that they can work lighter as well. Walk lighter. I'm just trying to give it a go for your local sushi shop, your Italian pizzeria. They aren't able to have these conversations or even think about them because they're just snowed under by the day-to-day.

What challenges have you faced so far in calculating your impact? If so, how have you addressed them?

I started counting carbon in 2022. We haven't told lots of people about this. Just people close to the restaurant know that we're on this mission. Our suppliers know because we’re asking for information. One of the biggest challenges was that I wanted hacks and shortcuts; I didn't want to do everything from scratch. But we are.

I reached out to The Restaurant Association, I reached out to New Zealand Tourism, to Auckland Council. I reached out to so many people, peers, and suppliers to find out who is going through this process, and I came up with nothing. I wanted someone to have done it already, to have the numbers figured out. It has been extremely difficult. They (ekos) want to know how your staff got to work and whether your fridges have leaked; it's a huge amount of work, but it did give me an understanding of what scope 1 is, what scope 2 is, what scope 3 is and that restaurants are dirty and basically 90% supply chain. And supply chain is very difficult to track.

And then that made me think I didn't want to own one (a restaurant).

I was very conflicted. I did not know if it was even responsible for someone who is tangata whenua when there is this heavy impact on the planet. I tossed and turned on it, and then I realised restaurants aren't going away, and if I sold it; someone would just buy it, and they might run it worse than me or not treat the staff as well so the restaurant stays in our hands and we start from the beginning. And if no one else has started this process in hospitality, we just keep asking questions and do it step-by-step.

Historically, you have supported responsible farming practices and agriculture that will build the foundation for a low-carbon food system. In assessing other areas of your business, what wins have you experienced?

All these other things led me to start thinking about more circular practices. I broke the restaurant into departments, so we’ve got the back of house, the kitchen and the bar. And at the moment, the bar is the focus because when you’re on a mission you need low-hanging fruit to feel like you're getting some wins, some impact. So the bar is where we were concentrating our efforts at the moment.

For example, some circular practices we're implementing in the bar; we're moving all the wine to tap wine, so we won't be sending hundreds of wine bottles to recycling. So the wine will come in kegs, they call them cubes, and they are designed to fit on shipping containers without needing to go on pallets, so they’re not wrapped, and once they’re empty, you can either refill them with wine, or they are used on vineyards or farms, so they have extra lives. And it’s local. We've also found a distributor that's doing the same sort of system for spirits so that will cut down on our bottle waste again.

I also realised how many empty bottles we were sending to a recycling plant. And I realised recycling, although it's better than throwing it in a landfill, takes energy to break plastics down; not 100% is recycled. Then there are all the things that can't be recycled. Then you have to think how it (the product) got here. Was it wrapped in plastic on a pallet? So, a year ago, we switched to filtered sparkling water, and we get Six Barrel Soda syrups from Wellington, so we got rid of all the sodas—the lemonade, the cola. We took all those cans and bottles out of our supply chain.

It’s difficult for a business to make its day-to-day operations entirely carbon-neutral; what areas have you found feasible?

Start small. Small does have an impact. It doesn't have to be solar panels on the roof, which is what I thought as well. For example, rather than the paper on the tables, we found leather-like tablecloths, and we wipe these down after each table. We also looked at our candles, so they’re now rechargeable. They’re not the sexiest things that you can blow out for your birthday, but the process stopped me from being a snob.

The Western sustainability movement looks for new ways to carry on doing what has been done in the past or is currently. How can we encourage other restaurants to create processes and systems entirely different from those created in the past that protect Papatūānuku?

Fact is, the hospitality industry isn’t doing great, and they're not doing great for a lot of reasons. Covid's been challenging. Then there is the cost of living. But lots of restaurants are doing little things. There just is not enough communication across the industry, so we can easily share our wins and help each other out. You know, go, okay, don't worry about that right now, but you can make some great wins in these areas.

If I say oh yeah, you're gonna have to spend this much money to change your gas or whatever; I don't think I'm gonna have much luck. But if I say, choose ten things, small things—the paper, candles, food waste, compossible containers, tap wine, spirits and bulk then people will start listening. And if I can actually show them how much money I saved [and I'm not doing it for the money], if you use fewer resources whatever it is, it makes you more efficient. And a more efficient business is a more profitable business.

If you figure out ways to use less of anything, you don’t use paper on your tables, no wax candles anymore, you use less water or less power, your bins get picked up once a week instead of 3 times a week, these represent savings. I've counted 2022, so that's gonna be our benchmark this year. We’re making big changes, and although most of them are low-hanging fruits, I'm going to then be able to say, this is what we saved.

Whatever the motivation is, if I can show dollar figures, show that actually being sustainable makes you more efficient, makes you more profitable [which is what business is about], if I can show that I went on this project—and it still saved us this much money, then I think people will listen.

How do you see your efforts leading the sustainability movement within the restaurant or hospitality industry more broadly?

We've had some of our supplies for 14 years. Some of them were here before we opened. They were helping us paint walls, sand tables and varnish bartops and I had to email them and say that I was moving to tap wines. And a lot of these suppliers don't do tap wines. So, that was one of the hardest emails for me to write. So this will have an impact because now they will start thinking about it. And then it's going to give other businesses the confidence to roll over as well, so I think that it will have an impact.

People normally get into the restaurant business because they love food and they love hospitality. I love the theatre of it and the experience of dining and cooking for people, but I think most people don't really consider the environment. They're not bad people; that’s just the reality. And that's not to say that you stop thinking about your responsibilities as a human on the planet, it just becomes much harder, and you have to become extremely disciplined.

I know how hard it is to write the roster, to get enough staff for the week or to get your stock on time. Sorry, I'm not overly optimistic, but I know that strength in numbers is a thing. I think most restaurants would like to be in a position to do better. When they start, they have this dream that it's [opening a restaurant] is going to be fabulous and that they'll be paying everyone 30 bucks an hour, but the reality is that beyond making money in hospitality, to break even is so difficult.

This also comes back to government policy and councils. They need to do more or stop giving out as many restaurant licenses so that they are supporting businesses and ensuring that sustainability practices are actually built into business plans—some basic criteria that you have to meet just like you if you want to have a liquor license. So, guidelines around soft plastics. Everyone should be composting. These should not be extras; they should be built into all food businesses, and therefore, you're not competing with somebody who isn't doing those things.

Therefore, when I sell my cake for $7, and your cake is $5, it's not fair when I've decided to use food boxes made from a renewable resource and your store is using plastic, and I pay for a special compost collection. So, of course, you can sell your cake for $5, and what happens? Everyone says I'm a rip-off, and I cut back as well, so you know, without going deep into the problems of liberal politics and capitalism, it is that these are the problems. It is actually much bigger than the individual restaurant.

Yes, there is personal responsibility; they [restaurant owners] should be able to have a business. Unfortunately, as soon as they open the door, they are already in a broken system, and the people best placed to fix it—our leaders—are busy worrying about other things. There is no structures or leadership, even The Restaurant Association. They can't force the government to do anything they can't force restaurants to do anything. This, [sustainable practices] is all just nice to have. And because we are in the commercial unit, you know of more restaurants, more business, more competition and more competition, when, if you fall out of the market, someone bigger will take your place and someone bigger does not necessarily mean someone more responsible. Even if they have the money to be.

So I think that restaurants, bars, deli’s and cafes, when they are very busy and at capacity and therefore the business is making enough money to pay good wages, replace the dishwasher, buy the new coffee machine—then as soon as they can do all of those things they have no problem with getting on board with better packaging, minimising waste, swapping the dishwashing liquid over or whatever it is that is the little piece of the pie, their bit, they’ll do it but they are never going to do it when they're stressing about bums on seats.

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Shout out to Tracey Creed for the writings, and Renee from Coco's Cantina for the sharings.

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