Many foodservice operators are benefiting from the halo effect of sustainability, but it’s hard to tell how truthful their sustainability claims really are. Similar to what LEED certification did for the building industry, United States Healthful Food Council (USHFC) is bringing transparency and guidance to the food industry by creating market-based incentives, programs and tools to increase the profitability of healthy, sustainable food.
The non-profit offers three programs: recipe analysis and menu labeling, nutrition consulting services and a certification program. Through its Responsible Epicurean and Agricultural Leadership Certification Program (REAL), it partners with third party registered dietitians to certify that operators’ menus, operations and supply chains are healthful and sustainable. For operators, REAL Certification offers a great marketing tool, as well as access to products from a network of certified ingredients suppliers at a discount. To date, there are 500 foodservice operations have received REAL Certification, including Restaurant Nora, Chipotle’s Shophouse, Bare Burger, Google, Stanford University and Boulder Valley School District.
USHFC is the brainchild of Lawrence Williams, an entrepreneur with a long history of tackling big challenges. Prior to USHFC, he worked with Elon Must to develop a collaboration between SpaceX and NASA to develop a domestic commercial crew and cargo for space travel. He also worked with Craig McCaw and Bill Gates’ Teledesic to negotiate with the FCC to make broadband access ubiquitous through the use of low-Earth orbiting satellites.
Lawrence’s experience in the tech world has always informed how he operates USHFC. Creating a new market and a new certification is no easy feat, but will perseverance USHFC has gotten some of the most reputable brands on board. Now, like any good entrepreneur, Lawrence realizes that its going to take a different skill set to scale the organization, so he is bringing on a new CEO.
I spoke with Lawrence about the biggest challenges he’s faced in scaling, how he’s treated his non-profit more like a startup and how new leadership will impact the direction of EatReal.
Danielle Gould: What’s keeping your team busy right now?
Lawrence Williams: We are currently in the process of finalizing and rolling out our updated certification standards, which we’re calling REAL 3.0. For the first time, this new certification will include numerous levels of certification (REAL, Silver, Gold and Platinum), which will allow for a deeper dive on some of the more complicated issues. We are also hosting the Eat REAL Roundtable and Eat REAL Kitchen Sausalito next week, where we will gather industry and NGO leaders for a two-day working group to weigh in and finalize the standards.
DG: What are your growth goals for the next 12-24 months, and how do you plan to achieve those goals?
LW: This is an exciting time for EatREAL! We just completed a merger with another nonprofit (The Institute for Responsible Nutrition), and are working through incorporating their board and leadership team into our organization, as well as the creation of a scientific advisory board to inform our standards. We are also in the final stages of hiring on a new CEO, who will be able to step in and scale our certification program to meet our growing demands. In the next year or two, we are going to work on expanding our consumer-facing brand and expand our footprint with the REAL 3.0.
DG: What does your team look like?
LW: We are a small and self-motivated team distributed between Washington, DC, Nashville, Chicago and San Francisco, supported by a nationwide network of registered dietitians. With fewer than ten people running a nationwide certification program, everyone here wears many hats.
DG: What does your company culture look like? How have you built your company culture?
LW: We have tried hard to act and operate more like a scrappy startup than a typical not-for-profit organization. Even though we are a non-profit, we try to function as a mission-driven business, not a charity.
DG: How are you preserving your company culture as you scale up?
LW: We spend a lot of time making sure we bring in the right cultural fit and we have weekly all-team meetings.
DG: What do you know now that you wish you would have known when you started scaling your company? What are the biggest challenges and lessons learned as you’ve grown your company?
LW: Externally, the biggest challenge in scaling has been working with the foodservice industry, which can be challenging because generally speaking the hours are very long and margins quite small.
DG: What will someone who works for you be able to add to their resume?
LW: Working with EatREAL to help transform our food system provides an opportunity to make a make a huge difference on what is probably the issue of our time. Food is integrally linked to the health of all people and the planet.
DG: What job(s) are you hiring for, and how will those positions help drive growth in your company?
LW: We are currently hiring a new CEO, which, as you might imagine, is quite pivotal for the development of the organization. This new leadership will determine the direction of EatREAL in the coming years – for a non-profit at this stage in its lifecycle, the input of our new CEO has the clout to fundamentally influence our brand recognition within the marketplace and to consumers.
DG: What kind of training do you offer for new employees who may be switching from other industries or who are just out of school?
LW: Working for EatREAL offers an opportunity to dive into the flow of an active and expanding organization while still being supported by your teammates. Here, a new hire or a new graduate will be able to explore a variety of avenues within the nonprofit world in order to discover which of their areas of interest are the most applicable and enjoyable in practice.
DG: What’s your favorite interview question?
LW: What motivates you to want to join our team?
DG: Why do you think it’s exciting to be working in food right now?
LW: There is no denying that food is a hot-button issue across the board right now. It is a dynamic time to be involved in the industry as we are confronted daily with new developments, policies, science, and research. What’s more is that food culture is inextricably linked to a variety of different issues and industries – whether on the side of social dialogue around such topics as race, socioeconomic status, and disease, or around industries such as distribution, education, and technology. As such a central component to our daily lives, food serves as an intellectual and ideological hub for people from many backgrounds and industries to converge and exchange ideas and information.
Leading physicians leverage REAL Certified® to help consumers identify real food
San Francisco, CA (March 22nd, 2017) – Recognizing the irrefutable connection between diet and chronic disease, the medical community is increasingly starting to advise patients on what—and where—to eat. To that end, the United States Healthful Food Council (USHFC) and the Institute for Responsible Nutrition (IRN) announced today that they have merged their efforts to promote REAL Certified, a nutrition and sustainability trust mark for food and foodservice establishments. Within the newly combined entity, the USHFC will continue to manage the audit and certification process, and the IRN, co-founded by Dr. Jordan Shlain and Dr. Robert Lustig, will serve as the scientific advisory board.
Stephen Covey first published his hugely popular book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, back in 1989. Since then, a cottage industry seems to have risen up with various pundits proposing their own “seven habits” lists for all kinds of industries and interests. I’m no pundit—and I’m certainly no Stephen Covey—but here’s my list of proven habits to help marketers of fruits and vegetables achieve real success in the marketplace, whether you’re marketing a branded produce item or working for a food commodity marketing board.
Produce marketers have one of the coolest marketing jobs around. Think about it. You advocate healthy eating and nutritionally balanced diets. You help consumers to live better, healthier lives. You help to sustain the time-honored tradition of farming at a time when family farms face many financial challenges. And to top it off, the farmers you are helping, in turn, are helping to feed the world. It’s a lot to be proud of. Your work makes a positive difference. How great is that?
FIND YOUR TRIBE
Every food product, including yours, has a core group of devoted loyalists. Folks who dearly love your product and identify with it. Seek them out and learn everything you can about them. What is it about your product that makes them such fans? Aside from loving your product, what other traits do these consumers share? Look beyond demographics. What comprise the common core values or behaviors among this group of loyalists? Odds are that once you’ve identified those core values, you can leverage that knowledge to attract many more like-minded consumers, who are easy candidates to become loyal fans of your product.
FOCUS ON THE VITAL FEW
My guess is that even the most heavily advertised brands in the world wish they had just a little more money to spend against marketing. And if you’re like most food marketers, you probably have more marketing priorities than your budget can reasonably address. So, don’t fall victim to trying to do too much with a limited budget. Simply placing a checkmark next to an initiative doesn’t mean you have successfully accomplished anything. Choose your strongest program and focus budget and energy on doing the best possible job in that one area. Staying focused pays a much higher dividend than diluting efforts over too many smaller programs.
BUILD A SOCIAL COMMUNITY, NOT A BULLETIN BOARD
Ever meet someone at a party who only wants to talk about themselves? Most of us try politely to cut off that monologue as quickly as possible and move on to someone who actually wants to have a two-way conversation. The same holds true for social media. If you just use social media as a bulletin board to post self-serving messages, you are losing the battle and fooling yourself. Don’t forget that social media is, well, social. Invest time to understand how your specific target audience uses different social channels and what topics or interests they share. Then, build a strategy to tap into their shared values, focusing on specific, most-frequented channels. Look for ways to build a community of like-minded people, encouraging them to contribute content and reinforcing the role your product plays in their lives.
SHAKE IT UP
Doing the “same old, same old” is just that: the same and old. Food commodities and produce are sometimes perceived as traditional and somewhat old-fashioned. Sticking with tired communication strategies reinforces that notion. Shake up the consumer’s mindset by finding ways to disrupt perceptions and help people to see your product in a new, more contemporary light. Inject the unexpected into your messaging strategy. There has never been a better time to create an unexpected idea that speaks to your target, and invites their attention and engagement in a new and unexpected way.
Video continues to grow as one of the most preferred ways of consuming content. Today, there are many inexpensive video production companies that can help you to tell your story engagingly through video. Sure, a viral sensation would be great, but it’s hard to do and difficult to anticipate. Rather than swinging for the fences with a hoped-for viral sensation, build a smart content promotion program based on singles and doubles. You’ll score the new relationships and engagement needed to push toward your goals.
MEASURE. LEARN. REPEAT.
If your initiative doesn’t have measurable goals that tie back to KPIs, it’s probably not a worthy program. Every initiative, large or small, needs to have quantifiable goals that can be measured. Follow the results closely. What works best? Do more of that. And don’t be reluctant to discontinue those activities that aren’t paying off.
Many behavioral experts claim that it takes about 66 days to create a new habit. The ideas I’ve outlined will no doubt take that long or even longer, but consistency and focus will pay off in the long-term. Good luck and go get ‘em!
Dennis Hardy is president and CEO of EvansHardy+Young. With over 40 years of food, restaurant, and hospitality marketing experience, he’s led agency teams responsible for EFFIE Award-winning work that revitalized lagging brands and created new levels of consumer awareness and usage. In his spare time, Dennis is a biodynamic beekeeper and he raises chickens.
There are certain words that come to mind whenever pizza is mentioned: indulgent, delicious, comforting, crowd-pleasing. And now another, perhaps surprising, one is entering the lexicon: healthy. That’s because a growing number of limited-service pizza concepts are making a concerted effort to provide guests with the better-for-you options they’ve been lusting after for years.
“People want healthier choices. They want to know more about the ingredients being used,” says Nicole Quartuccio Ring, vice president of nutrition strategy for restaurant nutritional analysis experts Healthy Dining Finder. “And it’s not just a fad. This is going to become the new way consumers eat and choose the restaurants they go to.”
With organic dough, seasonal produce, and a variety of veggie toppings, &pizza wants pizza to be a healthy, everyday meal option. &PIZZA / JAMES C. JACKSON
But rather than low-carb or low-calorie options, today’s pizza brands are creating their own definitions of what healthy pizza is, namely by cleaning up their ingredient lists, providing a broader range of ingredients, and allowing for more customization. In 2015, for example, Papa John’s began spending a reported $100 million a year to wipe its ingredient list of artificial colors, corn syrup, and a long list of other historically unhealthy options.
Smaller chains like New York–based Skinny Pizza are crafting entire concepts around this definition of healthier pizza. Skinny Pizza uses natural flour free of potassium bromate—an ingredient banned in Europe and several other countries—as well as organic tomato sauce made fresh in house. It also bakes its antibiotic- and added hormone–free chicken rather than frying it; uses nitrate-free pepperoni; and sources all-natural sausage, while its veggies are farm-fresh and local when possible.
“Almost every restaurant in this space has vegan options, whole grains. They’re making their sauces from scratch; they’re using less prepared products,” Quartuccio Ring says. “They’re aware of and trying to deliver on that transparency of providing more healthful options.”
San Francisco–based Hot Italian Pizza Bar is so confident in its better-for-you pizza approach that it’s deemed itself the #healthiestpizza in the country. As the first and only U.S. pizza brand to receive a REAL Certified Food Award from the United States Healthful Food Council, the brand is committed to providing clean, fresh, and sustainable ingredients. It also uses an organic house-milled flour to craft its dough, which it then ferments and proofs for 24–48 hours to break down proteins and make it easier to digest.
Not only are brands using healthier toppings, sauces, and other ingredients, but they’re also expanding the number of topping options. At Washington, D.C.–based &pizza, for example, the menu has 16 veggie options ranging from pickled red onion to roasted peppers, as well as 26 vegan toppings.
The fast casual also guarantees that products are MSG-free; dough is organic; produce is fresh and adjusted for seasonality; and dairy is free of added hormones. &pizza also crafts its own soda without the use of high-fructose corn syrup.
“Those looking for a healthier meal who don’t want to compromise on flavor or quality are some of our largest brand advocates, because there hasn’t been a lot of really craveable food that’s also cleaner and healthier in nature,” says founding CEO and president Michael Lastoria.
Like many others in the space, &pizza also gives diners the opportunity to customize their orders. Quartuccio Ring says providing customers with as many choices as possible helps them make the decision about what is healthy to them. Even further, allowing diners to watch the pizza-building process gives the impression that the product is fresh and therefore more healthful.
But as many limited-service brands have seen over the years, offering cleaner ingredients and better-for-you options can be pricy for both restaurants and their guests. The average Skinny Pizza, for example, rings in between $9 and $11, and owner Joseph Vetrano says some of the cheeses it uses cost the brand as much as $4.99 per pound.
“We try not to pass the costs all onto the consumer, so our margins get cut,” he says. “But we feel as the market is growing, a lot of our buying power is increasing and we can negotiate better.”
While local products and sustainable proteins are more expensive than canned or preserved ingredients, Hot Italian balances quantity with quality. “Instead of having 20 slices of pepperoni, you can put 10 or 15 that are enough to cover the pizza, and the price is still good,” says Fabrizio Cercatore, Hot Italian’s cofounder.
At &pizza, higher AUVs and foot traffic allow the brand to spend more money and time offering these premium, healthier options, but Lastoria acknowledges that not all pizza brands can or want to do the same.
Even if they do make the effort, there’s always the risk that marketing healthier pizza could scare off customers who fear that “healthy” equates to “not flavorful.”
“We don’t want to turn guests away that are looking for the most delicious or the best pizza in town, because we believe wholeheartedly that we do offer that,” Lastoria says. Instead, it is an added bonus for those who want to “look under the hood.”
That’s why &pizza’s healthy initiatives are less of a marketing ploy for the brand and more about creating a feeling of healthfulness.
“Our goal has always been to make pizza more of a lunch option, as well as a dinner option or anytime option; to provide a pizza that is cleaner and lighter and more refreshing that doesn’t weigh you down,” he says. “That in and of itself has been the biggest selling point.”
The United States Healthful Food Council (USHFC) has awarded the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) in Colorado with its first Responsible Epicurean and Agricultural Leadership (REAL) certification award for a public school district. REAL certificationrecognizes an operator’s commitment to healthy and sustainable food service practices.
Boulder Valley’s Food Services Director Ann Cooper has initiated programs such as extensive farm-to-school participation, chef demonstrations, school gardens, Harvest of the Month events and Rainbow Days. Photo: Boulder Valley
BVSD also becomes only the third foodservice provider in the state of Colorado to achieve REAL certification, joining two units of the Taziki’s Mediterranean Café in securing the designation.
Boulder Valley has been at the forefront of the move to more local, organic and sustainable food prepared from scratch in K-12 kitchens under Food Services Director Ann Cooper, whose initiatives have included programs such as extensive farm-to-school participation, chef demonstrations, school gardens, Harvest of the Month events and Rainbow Days, which teach K-6 students about healthy fruit and veggie choices and portion control.
“We are honored and proud to be REAL Certified,” said Cooper in a statement accompanying the announcement of the certification. “The philosophy of the BVSD School Food Project is closely aligned with that of the USHFC, especially when it comes to teaching our children to eat and appreciate healthy food.”
In recognizing BVSD, USHFC cited the district’s “exceptional” food preparation that focuses on cooking in-house from scratch, its use of only plant-based oils and its incorporation of healthy cooking practices.
The menu “goes above and beyond USDA requirements,” it added, noting that BVSD does not offer juice in elementary schools, and only in vending machines at the middle and high schools, and that it does not offer flavored milk.
Also cited was the “plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables” offered daily.
BVSD earned a particularly high score in the Leadership category, garnering 95 percent of available points through initiatives such as making plenty of water and healthy, vegetarian options available to students, the use of sustainable servingware, participating in Meatless Mondays and having a school garden and composting program.
BOULDER, CO: After undergoing an audit to determine its level of healthful and sustainable food service practices, Boulder Valley School District recently became the first public school district in the nation to be REAL Certified by the United States Healthful Food Council (USHFC). This prestigious certification is awarded to food and food service operators who stand out from others in the industry for their Responsible Epicurean and Agricultural Leadership (REAL):
Restaurant offers variety of pizza made from local, organic ingredients
As an international student studying in the United States, I must admit that I have mixed feelings about American cuisine. Juicy hamburgers, cheesy pizzas and extra-large Cokes are all part of my U.S. guilty-pleasures list. I always feel satisfied when eating these foods, and I feast like there’s no tomorrow.
But the pleasure comes at a price; after eating, I need to spend a solid two-hour session at the gym. Luckily, I recently discovered a healthier alternative which satiates all of these guilty pleasures and saves me from a sweaty workout.
I first spotted Hot Italian — the newly-opened Italian pizza restaurant located in Davis Commons, downtown at 500 1st St. — at the end of Spring Quarter 2016. Last Saturday, I finally had the opportunity to try out this new restaurant and learned about the owner’s endeavor to uphold the Davis community’s healthy and environmentally-friendly lifestyle.
Hot Italian is a REAL-certified restaurant, which is a “nationally recognized mark of excellence for food and foodservice operators committed to holistic nutrition and environmental stewardship,” according to the United States Healthful Food Council (USHFC).
Hot Italian is the first pizzeria in the United States that has been REAL certified by the USHFC. Not only does the restaurant use fresh, organic ingredients, but its furniture is also made from mostly repurposed materials, such as recycled paper and bamboo.
Hot Italian changes its menu depending on the season and is currently on its fall and winter menu. Customers have about 15 different choices of pizza, including a vegan option, and several choices of salad and desserts. They also serve beer and wine, either produced locally or imported from Italy.
Since it was a chilly Saturday morning, I ordered “Sozzani,” a salad with locally-produced baby spinach and pear; “Materazzi,” Hot Italian’s take on pepperoni pizza; “Gattuso,” a fall special pizza featuring pumpkin; and “Zucchero,” a dessert with Italian hazelnut cream and pear.
Fun fact about the menu: each dish is named after a “hot Italian.” For example, “Sozzani” is named after Franca Sozzani, an Italian journalist and editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia since 1988; “Materazzi” is named after Marco Materazzi, an Italian soccer star.
“Customers sometimes have fun guessing whose names are on the menu,” said Andrea Lepore, a 1992 UC Davis alum and owner of Hot Italian.
All of the dishes I ordered had colorful and aesthetically-pleasing combinations of different fresh ingredients, which made for a perfect Instagram post for all my friends to envy as they studied for midterms. Pepperoni has always been my favorite pizza, and I noticed that they added pitted olives on “Materazzi,” which is a great revamp of the greasy cheese and pepperoni that you’d normally find at other pizza restaurants.
My personal favorite would be “Zucchero.” Fresh out the oven, the warm dessert made me forget the cold rain showering outside. The sweetness was perfect for me, as I find most American desserts are too sweet, and I absolutely loved the smooth texture of the hazelnut cream mixed with chocolate powder.
The pizzas are about $15 each. For UC Davis students, the restaurant offers a lunch special: $5 per slice on weekdays. You can pre-order pizza from Hot Italian by phone or by downloading the Hot Italian app. Hot Italian also provides delivery service via the Joyrun app. For more information and to view the menu, please visit the Hot Italian website at http://www.hotitalian.net.
In the 5Q, Tincture gets together with leaders to discuss their day to day work and share their perspectives on healthcare, medicine, and progress.
Lawrence Williams is the Founder, CEO and Chairman of the United States Healthful Food Council. He has spent his career at the intersection of the public and private sector, including spending time working at the White House, with several federal agencies, and leading projects at Space X with Elon Musk.
1. Thanks for taking the time to chat. What is the Healthful Food Council? What problem are you trying to solve?
The basic idea was to form a best-practices certification program for the food and foodservice industry. Unlike yesteryear, the majority of foods consumed today are prepared by others. The economic incentives involved in making these foods at scale, unfortunately tends to promote highly processed foods high in sugar, salt, and fat. A lot of the businesses involved in the food industry have significant financial incentives to cut costs and use lower cost ingredients and preparation methods to improve profitability, and with very little transparency to consumers. Given this misalignment of interests between industry and consumers, the United States Healthful Food Council (USHFC) launched REAL Certified to recognize those in the food industry for their efforts to go above and beyond, and avoid unhealthy shortcuts.
To date we have focused primarily on the restaurant and foodservice space because there is such a lack of transparency around nutrition guidelines. The Affordable Care Act created a menu labeling requirement, but it places a heavy emphasis on calories and it’s only limited to larger chains. Some organizations are using REAL instead to benchmark themselves against the industry; we modeled the program after LEED certification program, but it’s also a model that’s been widely used across the environmental space, such as non-GMO, Marine Stewardship Council, and the Rainforest Alliance.
2. To many folks in the healthcare industry, food and nutrition is an intractable problem. No matter how much we improve care delivery — through payment reform, policy levers, technology, or other means — improving peoples’ lifestyles seems out of reach. Can you comment on the challenge of changing how people eat?
It is a serious, vexing problem. As our food system has evolved, it has become optimized for palatability and profitability. If you’ve ever watchedWeight of the Nation, they put it like this: “The food we consume is the food that is most profitable to make”. At the end of the day, despite the amount of control we have over everything else in our lives, most people are not growing their our own food anymore.
This all goes back to Michael Pollan’s thesis in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. As we’ve moved from an agrarian to an industrial society, more middlemen have set up shop along the way, and there are more profits that have to be made at every level — it’s profits to the nth power. Most cafeterias today unfortunately just outsource food to the lowest bidder. Ultimately we’re hoping to help consumers in the modern era to find a trusted source to shop for food or eat a meal.
We’re seeing the early stages of a societal shift where we are becoming more health conscious, more aware of what we’re putting into our bodies. Some restaurant chains are embodying this shift. Sweetgreens is an example — they’re competing against people who can do things for a lot less, but their bet is that quality and healthfulness of ingredients will resonate with enough people.
3. It’s never easy to go up against the interests of a giant industry. What does it take to change the business side of the food industry? Is there a lot of public-private partnership involved?
I’ve always been interested in the business of health. Food is something that everyone can relate to — most people eat multiple times every single day. But when I read Omnivore’s Dilemma, it occurred to me that you could be the most educated person and still not know precisely what you’re eating when you are consuming a meal prepared by someone else.
Despite the importance and frequency of our interactions with food, the system has clear interests to create products that aren’t good for us or for the environment. The more I began looking into it, the more I realized that food is integral to many of society’s problems — from individual health and wellness all the way up to the national economy.
But here’s an example of how the government can work in partnership with the private sector: We’re working with Tennessee Department of Health. The government there realized that we need to attack diabetes and obesity because they’re having a huge impact on the statewide budget. So they fund a certification effort through us, using REAL Certified in cities like Memphis. This allows us to come in and work directly with restaurants and organizations, help educate the public, and make an impact. It all starts with figuring out mutual goals and setting up the right kind of partnership.
It’s interesting to contrast the Tennessee’s approach with what Michael Bloomberg tried to do in New York City. The soda tax faced a lot of backlash from industry and the public. But in effect, both governments are trying to achieve a similar goal. Tennessee just took on a public-private partnership approach, and New York City used a more regulatory one. We’re not trying to put restaurants out of business — just the opposite. There are so many people who eat out today; we see this as an opportunity to turn a vicious cycle into virtuous cycle.
4. You’re set up as a non-profit, non-governmental organization. You’ve also spent time working at and with federal agencies. Can you talk about the role of government in food policy?
When it comes to crafting food policy, a huge challenge is simply aligning interests. It’s an easy thing to say, but it’s a hard thing to do. One problem with government is that they naturally develop a lot of what I call “lowest common denominator” policies. At the end of the day, if you’re a policy maker and you’re trying to develop a policy around industry (and what they’re willing to accept) you’ve got to make significant compromises to gain sufficient support to get anything done.
For example: The food industry contributes to diabetes and obesity, which have a huge economic impact. We can agree that we need to do something, but when you start to figure out what you’re actually going to do, you typically hit serious resistance from the industry whose business is affected. Do we limit ingredients? That will directly impact someone’s bottom line. So, we settle for labeling calories.
One part is agreeing on what should be regulated, and how to regulate it. But the much harder part is getting large commercial interests such as a McDonalds or a Cheesecake Factory to sign off on it. Regulation, especially with powerful forces like the food lobby, typically end up producing lowest common denominator policies, which are often either ineffective or produce other negative unintended consequences. It’s important, but I think that working with private sector stakeholders and industry — who are starting to get the message — is also a necessary approach in the long term.
5. Let’s shift gears. You’ve got a pretty interesting background, including working with Elon Musk. Can you share an example of something you’ve learned along the way?
In the very early days of Tesla, Elon would say that one of the reasons he funded the company was to help with global warming. People would react: “How are going to do that selling hundred-thousand-dollar sports cars to a few rich people?”
The answer goes back to the starting point. They had to set up a manufacturing line, which costs over a billion dollars. They didn’t have over a billion, so they had to outsource it. No other big car manufacturer would do it when they asked — but Lotus would. So that was the first part. Elon also wanted to prove that an all-electric car could actually outperform a gas car. That led him to the very first version of the Roadster. That’s where he got started. Then they created the sedan, and the next thing you know they’re competing with gas-powered vehicles across the entire spectrum.
From a direct impact standpoint, selling more electric cars helps reduce emissions. But in terms of the ultimate impact, Tesla has caused the bigger car manufacturers to pivot towards electric fleets, so it’s have a much bigger impact than simply the number of cars Tesla is putting on the street. Defining the goal and having a sustainable business model is so important. Innovation tends to start at the higher end of the consumer market, so you have to start with the people who are willing and able to pay more.
Sweetgreen is showing people that it can be done with salad, much in the way Starbucks did it with Coffee. And at the beginning of an innovation cycle, the early adopters tend to be upper income. But whether it’s a $10 dollar salad, a $5 cup of coffee — or a $200 pair of tennis shoes or a $600 iPhone — compelling products eventually make their way into the mainstream and have a major impact on society. And when I began understanding more about the profound impact that food has on society, I realized that there is an opportunity to make a big impact in a critical area that has the potential to touch every single person on the planet.
By now, most members of the restaurant industry have heard of both the U.S. Healthful Foods Council and its program, Responsible Epicurean Agricultural Leadership, or REAL.
The council has certified hundreds of restaurant brands nationwide that live up to its high standards for sustainable sourcing, environmentally sound practices, and healthful menus.
Additionally, the council is entering the second renewal period in a contract with the state of Tennessee to help restaurants there implement healthful change in an effort to curb climbing numbers of nutrition-related health problems such as obesity and diabetes.
“We have over 80 restaurants now in Tennessee that are REAL-certified now,” said Tennessee program manager Nikkole Turner. “[W]e’ve just started taking the [state] parks through our certification, too, and we have several communities that have signed on for REAL certification. Another big example, as far as ability to influence the market is concerned, is that we’ve awarded REAL certification to the first convention center in the nation, right in Nashville, at the Music City Center.”
It sounds good, but what does it take to live up to REAL standards? And is it truly worth the investment of time and money to undertake the certification process?
The REAL need
For answers to these questions, we went straight to the source — brands that have earned REAL certification. And we learned from them that certification does, indeed, require a heck of a lot of work.
We also learned that certification is practically a business imperative today given consumer demands for products and practices that are healthful and sustainable, as well as for proof of the same.
“Most of the restaurant industry has evolved on making food as palatable as possible,” said USHFC Chairman and CEO Lawrence Williams. “But now people are starting to say that it is not just how I feel when I’m eating the dish, but it’s how I feel afterwards. …
“But, when the industry is as competitive as it is — I would say maybe the most competitive industry on the planet — the margins are driven very low and there can be very perverse incentives to cut costs at every corner. But at the end of the day, the reason we’ve found that restaurants go through [REAL certification] is because of what’s in it for them. And our goal is ultimately to put butts in seats. … So for their investment of time, we want to give them a positive return on their investment.”
In addition to Williams, plenty of organizations and studies have noted the healthful-and-sustainable trend overtaking the restaurant industry. In fact, the National Restaurant Association has placed it at the top of its restaurant trends list for the past 10 years.
But if American consumers are feeling a greater drive toward healthfulness and sustainability, they are also coming up shorter on the time required to act on their inclinations.
In July, the USDA released the results of a 12-year study investigating the nation’s growing dependence on convenience foods and restaurant meals. Even the researchers were surprised to find that nearly half of the average American’s annual food budget is spent on meals out — a greater proportion than at any other point in the nation’s history.
At the same time, Americans are less willing than ever to sacrifice their health or their ethical beliefs about food sourcing in the interests of expedience.
The need for restaurants not only to move to more healthful menus, but also to prove to their customers that they have done so is underscored by findings that:
Americans eat out more now than ever before;
millennials, in particular, demand healthful and sustainable foods when they eat out;
today’s diners expect restaurants be transparent about their food sources as well as the healthfulness and sustainability of their operations;
millennials (again) feel empowered to coerce businesses to bend to their demands by “voting with their dollars”; and
diners are fiercely loyal to businesses that comply with all of the above.
Perhaps the long-term impact of obtaining REAL certification is best summed up by one restaurateur who has gone through the certification process, and whose restaurants now proudly claim REAL status.
Bareburger CEO Euripedes Pelekanos said simply:
For Bareburger, being REAL-certified is like getting to shout our mission from a mountain. Our crew hustles everyday to serve fresh, organic and delicious food. We’re basically just a bunch of food nerds trying to change the world one burger and crop bowl at a time, and that can be harder than it sounds.
REAL supports the crazy passion we have for our partners, purveyors and farmers … celebrates our wacky proteins and ever-changing crops … acknowledges our place in the industry as that loud-mouthed change-maker. REAL is the bridge between the food system and the people it serves. It’s like telling restaurant goers: ‘Hey! Look what these guys are doing! It’s pretty awesome and important!’
In the second part of this report tomorrow, we’ll talk with other REAL-certified restaurant operators in order gain a better understanding of what’s involved in the certification process and what its payoffs can be.
Experts say the deck is stacked against healthy food choices, but some believe the bloating of Americans won’t last forever.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported for years that more than a third of Americans are obese.
Their latest report shows that while the average American isn’t getting any taller, they are getting wider by an average of 15 to 16 pounds since the late 1980s.
Researchers with the CDC recently analyzed data from 19,151 adults, collected between 2011 to 2014. They found the average man stands at 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs about 195 pounds. The average woman is 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighs about 166 lbs.