How restaurateurs are approaching new sustainability goals and what they need from policymakers and society for their implementation
Shortly after the #restart, Illa Brockmeyer and Sven Liebert spoke with small business owners in Berlin for the Day of Sustainable Gastronomy. New legislative requirements about reusable containers for takeaway and delivery and the ban of certain single use plastics in the EU are putting further pressure on the already heavily strained industry. They meet passionate individuals for whom sustainability is no longer uncharted territory. Nevertheless, these restaurateurs still see a lot of opportunities and explain what they expect from policymakers and how we, as customers, can support them.
It seems like business as usual these days, when you manage to find a table with friends in a fully booked restaurant or finally meet up again for a coffee with colleagues. One could almost forget what the gastronomy sector has gone through during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many fought hard, reinvented themselves with online businesses and delivery services. With the help of government support such as furlough schemes and financial aid they just managed to keep their business afloat. But part of the story is also that many hotels, restaurants and cafés have had to give up. According to a recent survey by the German Hotel and Restaurant Association DEHOGA, in Germany almost every second business still fears for its existence. Some are still waiting for financial aid that was supposed to be paid in November and December, more than 70 percent of businesses continue to wait for the so-called Bridging Aid III. The situation is aggravated by staff shortages, which were already evident before the pandemic, but have been exacerbated by the crisis. Currently, almost 30 per cent of establishments in Germany cannot open due to a lack of staff.
New requirements in terms of sustainability place increasing demands on small businesses
At the same time, regulatory initiatives proceed as if there is no crisis. Our customers from the hotel, restaurant and catering industry (HoReCa) in Germany are primarily affected by European regulations such as the ban on single-use plastics and the corresponding obligation to offer reusable containers. From 3 July, there is an EU-wide ban on placing certain single-use plastic products such as straws, disposable tableware or to-go cups (made of expanded polystyrene) on the market. Although existing stock may still be sold, retailers and entrepreneurs must essentially switch to available alternatives. At the same time, with the amendment of the Packaging Act, the German federal government has introduced a new obligation to offer reusable containers. Customers must be offered reusable containers for takeaway and food delivery services from 2023 onwards.
It is change that has arrived everywhere.Aymann Azzawi, Founder Refueat
Substituting disposable products while purchasing costly reusable alternatives are additional hurdles that restaurants and cafés must overcome to successfully relaunch their business. Especially when considering that, apart from private-sector providers, there is no overarching infrastructure that can implement the return-refill system demanded by the legislator. On the occasion of the Sustainable Gastronomy Day, we spoke with three entrepreneurs in Berlin about the long-awaited restart after seven months of lockdown and the ever-growing regulatory and social pressure to make businesses more sustainable.
Our first interviewee is Aymann Azzawi, a Berliner from Syria who founded his company “refueat” in 2016. Starting with mobile street food carts on wheels, he now has a catering business and produces for food retailers. We were at the heart of his business, a small “soul food” snack bar in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Refueat survived the crisis relatively unscathed. This is mainly because Aymann, together with his partner Andy Munser, has built up several mainstays. Through the sale of takeaway food, so-called food bikes, a new online shop and food production, it was possible to compensate for the loss of the catering business due to the pandemic at least partially.
Sustainability as change that has arrived everywhere
For Aymann, sustainability begins with the social dimension of his business concept. Refueat was founded to offer employment to refugees. “Sustainable integration only works if you are part of real life”, Aymann explains. In addition to the strong social component, Aymann also runs his business sustainably in other areas. For him, sustainability must be reflected in the whole concept: “It is change that has arrived everywhere”, he answers when asked about his motivation.
Aymann uses only sustainable packaging in his takeaway and catering business. Since he couldn’t find any products that matched his requirements, he started working with a start-up from Berlin, arekapak. The partnership resulted in containers made from dried palm leaves, an entirely natural product.
Of course, there are aspects that are still a challenge for refueat – in terms of storage, capacity or transport. One key challenge, however, in Aymann’s view, is the price of sustainable alternatives. While the ban on single-use plastics is only a few weeks away, that doesn’t mean that there are already enough alternatives on the market. Even if current studies show a certain willingness to pay on the part of the customers, Aymann is concerned about the concrete implementation of price increases in his company.
Small businesses in particular have difficulties in implementing reusable alternatives
For Aymann, the implementation of the new obligation to offer reusable containers is primarily a matter of volume and logistics. Reusable tableware is difficult to transport on food bikes when catering for up to 500 guests. Depending on the size of a business, there should be corresponding government support, Aymann suggests. Because the market also plays a role here. Many of the existing multi-use concepts are still underdeveloped or too expensive. The customer perspective must not be forgotten either. A circular system must work for everyone. “Just because it works from my side doesn’t mean it will work for the customer.”
Better calculation with digital tools helps protect resources
On top of that, the minimum wage is being increased again this year. The cost of goods has risen sharply due to the pandemic. A lower VAT rate would be an enormous help in the future, too.Yasmin Standke, Owner and Founder Yazup
From Kreuzberg we continue to Berlin’s Charlottenburg neighbourhood, where we meet Yasmin, owner and founder of “yazup”, a café and catering business. Yasmin, too, cares about sustainability in her business. Since opening her café, she has been committed to reducing the amount of plastic used and has recently started working with a supplier of reusable food and drink containers called Recup. The customer receives a reusable cup or bowl for a deposit which can be returned to yazup or other Recup partners. Yasmin thus promotes the general awareness among customers that there are reusable alternatives for to-go coffee. Of course, offering reusable cups also means more work for Yasmin. Because customers bring the used containers back to the café, where they then must be cleaned.
The digital tools that she successfully uses for her planning are also important helpers on the path to more sustainability. The so-called “MenuKit” helps employees calculate the use of ingredients for individual dishes and thus to produce exactly what is needed. As a result, less food is thrown away. At the same time, Yasmin stresses that things must add up financially. She wants to make her business as sustainable as possible. However, this cannot result in a deficit. That is why Yasmin would like to see financial support from the government. Because the obligation to offer reusable alternatives, which will come into force in two years, requires investments that can be considerable, especially for smaller businesses. Regarding necessary purchases, the reduced VAT rate for gastronomers comes in handy for Yasmin. “On top of that, the minimum wage is being increased again this year. The cost of goods has risen sharply due to the pandemic. A lower VAT rate would be an enormous help in the future, too”, Yasmin emphasises.
There is need for a comprehensive and affordable range of sustainable plastic alternatives
Our third and last interview takes us to “FLORIS Catering” in Berlin-Neukölln. There, we meet Floris Vlasman who, together with his wife Kerstin, has been running a catering company for almost 30 years. FLORIS Catering was hit particularly hard by the Corona pandemic. Business has essentially collapsed completely. With people working from home, large corporate clients disappeared, as did congresses, conferences, and other large events. But the company, too, has rethought and restructured, and expanded its online business. Unaffected by the crisis, however, the focus on sustainability remains. FLORIS Catering is known in Berlin as the “veteran of sustainability” and has already received a wide range of awards. In December 2020, the company took 2nd place at the METRO Award for Sustainable Gastronomy.
Which funds are available where and when? What percentage do I have to pay back? What interest rates are applied?Floris Vlasman, Owner FLORIS Catering
“Nowadays, everyone wants everything at any time and any place: strawberries at Christmas or asparagus in January.” Although this is possible, Floris explains, it is not compatible with his corporate philosophy. He prefers to use seasonal and regional ingredients and to produce only what is needed to discard as little food as possible. The newest “star” of the company is the composting unit. All cuttings from the raw goods segment (meat, fish but also processed food) are decomposed into peat soil here. This, in turn, will be used on the new raised beds, where the company grows its own herbs and lettuces. A circular economy, in other words.
Regarding the ban on single-use plastics, Floris tells us that there are already some alternatives on the market, made from hemp or shellfish, for example. But supply and manufacturers are still limited. At the same time, customers are not always understanding when prices suddenly go up. However, the drastic restrictions do not affect Floris’s drive and motivation; on the contrary, he is encouraged to push on and find solutions.
In order for small and medium-sized enterprises to emerge well from the crisis, Floris believes that better information management on the part of policymakers is above all necessary. To him, many central questions remain unresolved: “Which funds are available where and when? What percentage do I have to pay back? What interest rates are applied?”. Floris explains why this is important for HoReCa businesses, using the example of furlough payments. They could be applied for from March 2020 onwards, but were only paid out 2.5 months later. FLORIS Catering had to advance the salaries for two months, at a time when the company had no income at all.
Clear communication and a step-by-step approach by policymakers are essential for businesses
One thing is certain: Sustainability isn’t uncharted territory for our interlocutors. Despite existential challenges, they are mastering their everyday business with a mindset of “now more than ever”. And the three have something else in common: they have not let themselves be blindsided by the legislator or by customer demands. They aim for climate neutrality, the reduction of packaging and food waste out of a fundamental conviction. Nevertheless, political decisions present them with challenges that must be mastered logistically and financially. It is important to realise that processes for deposit and reuse systems cannot be implemented overnight. Let alone after a year during which the primary concern was to keep the business afloat. This requires flexible handling and strong government support – both financial and structural – in the implementation of the new sustainability regulations.
*** "There was never any more inception than there is now." Quote by Walt Whitman from "Song of Myself, 3".