Is the zero-waste movement a viable option for the on-premise?

IWSR speaks with Rich Wood, head bartender at zero-waste cocktail bar Scout, about bringing the zero-waste philosophy into practice

The zero-waste movement is one of the emerging micro-trends in the global beverage alcohol market, and indeed the broader sustainability movement.

At its essence it is about sending less waste to landfills and reducing the amount of energy used to process it. It is broadly achieved by reducing consumption to only what is needed, reusing as much as possible and then recycling or composting the rest. Within the on-premise, especially in bars, there is a growing awareness of the environmental footprint of mixology. It has encouraged the introduction of less elaborate garnishes, the recycling of by-products, and zero-packaging policies.

Industry initiatives such as Tin Roof Drink are working to spread the word to bar owners about best practices within the cocktail industry. However, while there are still only a very small number of bars that are fully committed to zero waste practices, such as Bisou (Paris), The Perennial (San Francisco), Vesper (Amsterdam) and Sexy Fish (London), the zero-waste philosophy is gaining traction.

Rich Wood, author of ‘The Cocktail Guy’ and head bartender at the London-based cocktail bar Scout, is a leading proponent of the zero-waste movement, and integrates this philosophy into his cocktail development too.

For Wood, zero-waste is a “sustainable approach to cocktail ingredients.” Wood says, “we look at every ingredient, whether it is a garnish, a distillate or a preparation such as a cordial and ask whether we are getting the most flavour and utility out it.” If it is a juice, the bartenders at Scout ensure that they use all of the fruit, including the skin, the pith and seeds. If it is a vegetable, they use the leftover skins. “A lot of restaurants and bars discard so much waste that is mindboggling,” he adds. The wastage has only increased as bar owners moved toward fresh ingredients such as limes and other fruit. Scout goes so far as to ferment leftover cocktail ingredients for several weeks to create their ‘wasted wines’.

Scout also expects suppliers to be on board with its approach and asks them to deliver their products in either recyclables, or packaging that they then take away. The beverage alcohol is delivered in biodegradable jerry cans instead of glass bottles to reduce weight and carbon footprint. The Scout team also forages for a lot of the natural ingredients or sources from local ‘foraging farmers’.

“It is very difficult to be 100% zero-waste, but we are. At the very least we are conscientious about every ingredient that we go into to the point where we produce less commercial waste than domestic waste.”

Wood and Scout are obviously doing it for ethical reasons, but he also argues that there is a strong business case for zero-waste practices. “As a business owner, we’re trying to minimise the amount of costs to the business as much as possible. Our overall costs are massively reduced through our zero-waste approach.”

That is only half of the equation. Ultimately, will the punters buy in and find a zero-waste establishment an attractive proposition? “There is a lot of enthusiasm from a consumer standpoint. We employ a hospitality-first approach. It isn’t just about delivery of zero-waste products. We sit down with every person that walks in our bar and talk to them about what we do here specifically at Scout. We explain the process and procedures that we employ. We are fundamentally a neighbourhood bar [based in Hackney, East London] but pre-Covid we would get so many repeat guests from outside of our area, and even international guests would come in on their regular trips to London.”

That’s not to say that there aren’t some pitfalls to operating a zero-waste bar. Relying on natural foraged ingredients means that they are often unavailable for parts of the year. That means that they have to turnover their cocktail menu frequently depending on the season and availability. Recently, they have started to freeze-dry a lot of their ingredients, which means they are available for a longer period but also retain their integrity and freshness.

The on-premise sector, of course, has been battered by the Covid-19 crisis. It forced bar owners to come up with creative ways to keep their businesses viable. One of them was bottled cocktails-to-go. “We started to see a huge rise within weeks of lockdown in bars doing their own deliverable versions of their cocktails. Thankfully, we were super quick off the mark to do this. We didn’t plan to do it, but we found so many regulars were asking us for a version of a drink that they’d had in the bar to take home. We had already been doing bottled drinks to buy at the bar. It was just a case of scaling up what we had already been making. As irony would have it, we generated more profit during those initial few weeks than as we would do as a bar because our overheads were so much lower. At a final count just before the end of [the first] lockdown, we produced and sold almost 3,500 bottled cocktails.”

Between lockdowns, it was apparent to Wood that there had been some shifts in consumer attitudes and sentiment. “For us [prior to the second lockdown in London], for sure, it’s more neighbourhood locals now, than it used to be. We were not getting the people that were travelling from other parts of London. The smaller neighbourhood bars are the ones that people are feeling more comfortable in because it’s in their area. Speaking with my friends in the industry, it is also the smaller venues that are performing better. It seems that people just feel more comfortable in a smaller environment.”

“The forced lockdown has made people realise that it is possible to get the same cocktail experience but in your own home. People will still be buying alcohol or cocktails or bottles, but they’ll be buying them to entertain more at home, and you will see less and less people frequently going out. We are going to see some fundamental changes to the market.”


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