Four panelists onstage the MAD Foundation panel

Can a Restaurant Do Well and Do Good at the Same Time?

The MAD Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by René Redzepi, the Chef and Owner of world-renowned restaurant Noma, recently hosted a panel discussion questioning if a restaurant can do well (meaning be profitable) and do good (meaning do right by their staff, community and the planet) at the same time.

Sharing their experiences and ideas were panelists Mark Bittman, food journalist and founder of Community Kitchen; Edward Lee, chef of 618 Magnolia and co-founder of The LEE Initiative; and Erin Wade, author and founder of Homeroom restaurant.

So, can a restaurant do well and do good? All of the panelists said they believe it is possible, but acknowledge the road to get there isn’t easy and is filled with obstacles.

Here are some highlights from the conversation.

What does “doing good” look like for a restaurant?

When asked if he could make a restaurant that did everything right, Bittman said it would have to be a nonprofit. He’s in the process of creating Community Kitchen, a non-profit restaurant that aims to have positive community relationships and a sliding scale for payment, which would entail offering a discount to low-income customers and a tax on high-income customers.

Chef Lee’s idea of success added a focus on sustainability. He envisioned a future with zero gas and plastic pollution — or at least significant waste reduction.

Wade added equity and fair working conditions to the mix. Her hope is to see more restaurants led by people of color and by women. She said she wants businesses to focus on being collaborative, cooperative and meaningful, which, in practice, looks like employees being treated well, with open book policies in place to promote transparency within the business. She also supports restorative justice instead of discipline.

The list of ideal ways to "do good" is nearly endless. Some additional points mentioned by the panelists are:

  • Proper work-life balance for employees
  • Reducing a business' carbon footprint
  • Advocating for social justice
  • Providing physical accessibility to all customers
  • Meeting environmental sustainability goals

The big question is how to implement these progressive changes while still making a profit.

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Chef Lee acknowledged that restaurants have run the same way for over 80 years and trying to get independent businesses to implement change is hard and takes time. For an owner to confront the challenge of doing right by their employees, community and the environment is an enormous task.

Chef Lee's non-profit, The LEE Initiative, tackles one of these issues at a time. They first create models using data, which allow restaurant owners to see how these systems work, with the intention for business owners to adopt the changes if they can. If everyone addresses a different problem, or even just part of one, Chef Lee envisions this knowledge and experience continually being shared and built-upon.

The panelists also emphasized the importance of thoughtful conversations, like this panel, and the power of using writing to create change.

Who can help restaurants?

Wade advocated for increased government regulation and support in areas from healthcare to education and environmental standards. She said if the US government offered universal healthcare for each citizen, then restaurants and other employers wouldn’t have to. She also cited wooden cutlery’s prominence in Europe after the E.U. banned disposable plastic cutlery as an example of how the U.S. government could take a stance to create and enforce environmental standards.

Wade also suggested that increased education around financial literacy would help anyone trying to start their own business in the restaurant industry and otherwise.

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What can consumers do?

A restaurant owner in the audience expressed frustration with their experience trying to do well and good. As part of a bigger capitalist system, they cited how their impact would be a fraction of what McDonald’s impact would be if they both stopped purchasing plastic straws. And in the same vein, the owner spoke about how consumers aren’t motivated to go to good restaurants, as they want to go to "cool" restaurants.

Chef Lee’s response? You can’t lecture, yell or shame consumers or business partners into doing good. You need to find an incentive, not a disincentive. And you have to start somewhere.

As an example, Chef Lee shared an anecdote:

Realizing they had an excess of plastic spice containers, The LEE Initiative asked their supplier if they could return the plastic containers to be reused. The supplier declined. Chef Lee’s team contacted multiple spice companies to see if any would create a new system to reduce plastic. After multiple conversations, they found one small company open to working on their terms.

While this isn’t moving the needle right now, Chef Lee says he plans to promote what this spice company is doing and hopes other restaurants will take note. And in the future, he says their old supplier may start losing accounts, wonder why and then rethink their business practices.

When it comes to consumers, the panelists agreed that people should support the restaurants doing good in the industry and promote them.

Big thanks to MAD for such an interesting discussion!

Read MAD's official recap of the panel

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