Four Lessons in Leading Sustainability from the Legendary Zingerman’s Deli

Amber Johnson CSR, Sustainability

Planet ZingZingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a local institution that has gained national notoriety.  Oprah gushed about their sandwiches, Mindy Kaling brags about their gift packages, and Jason Segel filmed a movie there.

Popularity doesn’t guarantee good business sense, but Zingerman’s has that too. The Zingerman’s Community of Businesses (ZCOB) operates according to a triple bottom line they call “great food, great service, great finance.” And they do this without neglecting another component of traditional triple bottom line approaches: the planet.

In 2011 the ZCOB leadership launched Planet Zingerman’s, a group that meets monthly to establish plans for environmental stewardship in the context of their company goals. “We want to be as much ‘zero-waste’ as we possibly can,” says Rodger Bowser, chef and managing partner of the Zingerman’s Deli. It’s a business imperative, he says, because “the less product we use, the more efficient we become,” saving money and time.

After three years of working to reduce food waste and make the ZCOB businesses as sustainable and efficient as possible, Bowser and his colleagues have learned several lessons that are applicable within – and without – the food industry:

1. Make it easy for your staff.

Restaurants naturally create food waste, which most often ends up in a landfill, producing greenhouse gases. To tackle this, Zingerman’s Deli began composting all organic matter. Initially, staff members had to diligently separate the waste into separate streams, moving dairy products to one container, meat to another, and paper and other compostables to a third. This was time consuming and often resulted in confusion.

“Eventually we found a private hauler that does single-stream recycling,” says Bowser. “It’s much easier to educate your staff when it just goes in one place.”

The result? They’ve reduced garbage-hauling costs, turning 5,000 pounds of organic matter into compost each week. “Before we started, that almost all went to a landfill,” Bowser says.

How to apply this tip outside the food industry: Do a quick audit of your own recycling and composting options: can they be simplified? Move paper recycling bins closer to the copier machine, and printers; ask your recycling provider if they can take mixed-material containers.

2. Ask new questions.

Composting solved one problem – food waste – but created a new one: the organic matter ZCOB employees collected was often riddled with plastic straws, which are not compostable. Removing straws was a time-consuming and thankless task for the kitchen staff.

Allie Lyttle, a Zingerman’s Roadhouse line cook and their head of composting, wanted to find a workable solution. She noticed that waiters at the restaurant put straws on every table as they delivered drinks, regardless of whether or not the patrons wanted them.

“So we asked them to ask the question, ‘Do you want a straw?’” says Lyttle. Her goal – which she says is attainable – is to cut straw waste in half this year.

How to apply this tip outside the food industry: Look for unnecessary uses of disposable resources and encourage team members to switch to reusable resources, such as swapping Styrofoam or paper coffee cups for reusable mugs.

3. Accept bigger expenses up front, in order to see savings in the future.

Zingerman’s disposable soft drink cups were costing the company up to $1800 a month. The staff decided to make the move to washable cups that could be reused, preventing landfill waste. The problem: each reusable cup was more than $5 each. And they needed thousands.

Bowser and his team made the move anyway, accepting that the initial decision would be costly but that savings would be seen eventually. Now that the transition has been made, the company saves nearly $1200 a month.

How to apply this tip outside the food industry: When considering energy saving or waste preventing products or technology, calculate the long-term value rather than the short-term cost.

4. Get your team involved.

Lyttle is passionate about composting and recycling;  she attempts to produce no waste from her own home. The Zingerman’s Roadhouse moved one step closer to success by putting her in charge of their composting initiatives. Fueled by her own enthusiasm, Lyttle finds ways to inspire her colleagues.

“We talk about it every week,” she says. She provides tips and reminders in staff meetings to keep the topic top of mind. She has also worked to incorporate composting information into their new employee training, provided in English and Spanish so the information is clearly understood by team members. “The awareness works really well,” she says.

How to apply this tip outside the food industry: Add recycling tips to company newsletters or on the company Intranet. Help team members see the impact they make by posting the total weight of waste diverted from landfills, thanks to their work.

Find More from Our Food Waste Series

Food waste series graphic


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Amber Johnson is the corporate relations advisor for the Center for Values-Driven Leadership. Find her on Google+. To find more coverage of sustainability from the Center, check out these articles and videos.

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