Interview: Meuwly’s Talks Sustainability in the Restaurant Industry

In this month’s Interview series, we sat down with Peter Keith, the co-owner of Edmonton start-up deli, Meuwly’s.

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Kevin: Can you start by telling everyone Meuwly’s is all about?

Peter: Our main goal as a business is to promote and highlight incredible food produced in our community, Western Canada, and Edmonton. I think people should be more connected to where their food comes from, and this led to having a meat processing business with meat from free-range pasture farms with a focus on charcuterie. We use a café model with soups made from meat products and make sure to use all our scraps to reduce waste. We also have a market with products from other food entrepreneurs and we showcase their foods.

The other side of the business is working in restaurants. No one was really supplying locally-made meat products, so there’s an opportunity to serve that market with no filler, artificial additives

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Kevin: I know Meuwly’s does some work in the area of food supports, can you talk about what that looks like?

Peter: As a small business owner, you realize quickly you’ll get a lot of requests for sponsorship and donations, and you need to build that into your business plan and decide what your focus will be. As soon as you have a name, you will be approached with opportunities to give back. Small businesses only have so many resources, so part of the discussion was what would we like to do? We wanted to do food related support–initiatives that deal with food security.

We partner with Mealshare, who works as a broker for restaurants who want to donate meals in need. The way Mealshare works is when a customer buys one, we give one to Mealshare, and we also do it with our meat subscription box. We added the logo on the menu to raise awareness and as a visual reminder that lots of people in Edmonton don’t have food security.

We also work with Leftovers YEG, they’re cool because they approach 2 social caused at once: people in need of food and food waste. Leftovers is almost like a logistics company to repurpose food for people who need it. Lastly, we also work with YES; who sends money to shelters for youth.

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Kevin: What sustainability challenges exist for opening a restaurant?

Peter: People choose to get into the restaurant industry knowing it’s tough. One of the realities of the industry is that margins are very slim, and this overlaps other challenges. We need to have packaging that shows off products because this is consistent with the visual identity of our brand. On top of that, we need to manage our margins—we have a high labor product and try to use best quality, local ingredients. When you get to the packaging piece, there’s a zero-sum game: it’s sustainable, high quality, affordable—pick 2. We don’t want to be wasteful when we use non-renewable materials, but using a glass jar instead of plastic makes the costs go up.

It’s important to prioritize what our brand is about. There seems to be a strong base of people in Edmonton who appreciate high-quality products and will pay more, so that’s good. For takeout, customers have already paid for their meal, so many people don’t think about the packaging and it can be very expensive. Good quality, to-go containers can be 25-50 cents each!

How often we’re running the dishwasher is important too. A new set of cutlery with each course, new linens, and new glasses are washed before food is even consumed. There is so much energy that goes into serving a meal, and this might be why we’ll see a shift in food service to the use of baskets with recyclable paper liners.

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Kevin: What should people look for when trying to look for a restaurant that values sustainability?

Peter: One of the things that makes it tricky is it’s really hard to just observe and know—you need to hear from management what they’re doing, and most aren’t in a position to make changes.

Kevin: Ok, but what about social movements like the removal of plastic straws?

Peter: The straw example is funny because it happened so quickly. In an industry so within the public eye, people will follow suit to an industry-wide trend. Restaurants will keep straws if they think it will retain customers, and just because someone removes plastic straws doesn’t mean they care about sustainability. The first step is just being mindful, having dialog with yourself, and paying attention to what’s going on, being aware of he waste we encounter. Chat with the people working in the restaurant and ask if sustainability is part of their corporate culture; whether it’s something they’re working on or just to keep up with the competition.

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Kevin: You’ve mentioned food waste a few times, can you talk about why it’s such a huge problem in the food industry?

Peter: One of the things which perpetuates waste issues is having massive, oversized menus, but it’s also one thing that’s starting to change. Wanting to offer everything to everyone is a mindset that’s starting to change. If a menu is 50% bigger than it should be for your business, it’s inevitable your food will spoil before you sell it. If you need to keep many ingredients on hand, there will be spoilage unless you’re incredibly good at forecasting demand.

Our attitudes as consumers of food will shape what restaurants are offering. Many of us don’t want to eat the beet greens or other cast away parts of ingredients, so restaurants will be hard-pressed to repackage things that people wouldn’t normally eat at home—organ meats and such. If you’re less likely to eat at home, restaurants are less likely to use it. Some restaurants have done the nose-to-tail thing as part of their brand, but that’s an exception. For the most part, if people aren’t willing to buy the bruised apples at the grocery, then restaurants are less like to use as well.

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A huge thanks to Peter and the Meuwly’s crew for being honest about our state of consumption and giving some ideas for how to approach eating out more sustainably!

Check them out at:
https://meuwlys.com/
IG: @meuwlys
Twitter: @meuwlys

Photo credit from Meuwly’s webpage

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