Tuesday, March 13, 2012

International Boston Seafood Show: How A Restaurant Becomes Sustainable

As I have repeated often, seafood sustainability is a very complex issue so how does a restaurant navigate through those murky waters and become sustainable?

Attendees of the 2012 International Boston Seafood Show (IBSS) were provided some suggestions at a conference entitled: Implementing a Sustainable Seafood Program for your Restaurant-How to Navigate through the Sea of Conflicting NGO Information. Don't let the lengthy title throw you off, as it was a basic guide to the types of questions and actions a restaurant needs to consider if they wish to become sustainable. The conference was large on generalities and short on specific details, but it was only intended to be an overview and not an intense and detailed seminar.

The suggestions and advice were provided through the lens of two primary individuals. First, Jim Ulcickas, the co-founder of the Bluewater Grill, shared his own personal experiences with trying to create a seafood sustainability program. Currently, greater than 90% of the restaurant's offerings are sustainably caught or certified by respected Seafood Industry NGO’s. He is not resting on his laurels and is trying to move towards 100% compliance. Second, Emma McLaren, of Emma McLaren Consulting, works as a sustainable seafood consultant and shared some of her own insights into this issue.

There was an emphasis on the uncertainty of sustainability, the fact that it is quite difficult to properly evaluate the biomass of fish species. There are plenty of disagreeing experts on a range of topics. Thus it is a realm of gray areas, where there are few clear cut answers. In addition, there is no single solution as to how a restaurant becomes sustainable, as everyone has different needs and desires. What must be done is to custom design a program to the necessary specifications of the owner and restaurant. One of the most important elements, through the entire process is to gather as much information as possible.

A Five Step Program was then introduced, to be a general guide to proceeding down the sustainability path. The steps are very general, and the path will be largely determined by how the restaurant answers certain questions. For assistance, the contact information and description of a number of online and offline resources were distributed to the attendees to help with the five step program. Emma also consults to the restaurant industry and can be hired if a restaurant is having difficulty.

The first step is Commit, making that decision to become sustainable and creating a few basic goals. The second step is Learn, which entails assessing your current menu items to determine whether they are sustainable or not. This is also the step to decide whether you want to hire a consultant or not, though that can really be done at any step. The third step is to Source Responsibly, to seek out the proper suppliers, to decide which species to carry, which to avoid. The fourth step is Implementation & Adaptive Management, which entails training your employees, revising your menu, and ensuring you will react and change if new information surfaces. The final step is to Share, where you are encouraged to share your experiences with others, to help other restaurant owners who want to follow the same road.

I think these suggestions might help some restaurant owners understand all that goes into creating a seafood sustainability program. Planning is obviously crucial, and every step needs to be a learning process, gathering information, making decisions. Strangely enough, most of the attendees were not restaurant owners so I am unsure how much value everyone else found in this conference. It does show the burdens of a restaurant trying to be sustainable so maybe it is a valuable insight for some. Maybe next year they could do a more advanced conference for restaurant owners.

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