Why sustainable energy usage is a priority for SA restaurants

When Eat Out 2-star restaurant FYN won the Flor de Caña Sustainable Award at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards in June, for achieving the highest environmental and social responsibility rating as determined by the Sustainable Restaurant Association, it turned the spotlight on sustainability in South Africa’s restaurant industry.

While the Cape Town-based restaurant is known for its ethical and local sourcing of South African ingredients, the restaurant’s sustainability ethos extends to energy efficiency as well.

“In the kitchen we are constantly looking for ways to make things more efficient. Efficiency is to produce or do something without wasting materials, time or energy. A well-run kitchen is an efficient kitchen and we strive for efficiency in everything we do,” remarks Ashley Moss, culinary director at FYN.

Load shedding is boosting solar power adoption

While several South African restaurants are known for their farm-to-fork sustainable approach to food and scrupulous policies against food waste, the increased load shedding has been instrumental in pushing restaurants to move rapidly towards sustainable energy adoption as well, especially when a seamless supply of electricity is not available. This includes the shift to renewable energy resources such as solar power.

Franschhoek-based Babylonstoren, which began installing solar panels in 2020, is now reaping the benefits of reduced energy consumption, seamless power supply to its restaurants, energy savings and a lower carbon footprint. That said, efforts are taken to optimise natural lighting and minimise use of artificial lighting. Thus, while its Greenhouse restaurant is situated in a sun-drenched greenhouse and is partly outdoors, Babel Restaurant is a light-filled space with many skylights.

Similarly, Avondale Wine Estate in Paarl is currently installing a solar power installation that will ensure the farm, FABER restaurant, the cellar and all the houses benefit from the generation of solar power. “We will be off the grid by September, unless there’s an emergency or prolonged bad weather,” states Johnathan Grieve, proprietor of the estate.

Eat Out Woolworths Restaurant of the Year 2022, The LivingRoom at Summerhill Guest Estate in Durban, also plans to go off-grid by the end of the third quarter of this year with complete reliance on solar energy. Explaining how load shedding has made this a necessity, chef Johannes Richter, co-owner at The LivingRoom avers, “Solar is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, but load shedding has given us an extra nudge. With the move to solar energy, the idea is that we shift the largest part of our production during the peak hours of our solar harvest – between 10am and 4pm.” Additionally, the estate’s entire parking lot will be covered with over 100 photovoltaic units which feed into a three-phase grid. This is aimed at creating awareness among patrons about how the estate is harvesting energy and putting it to good use.

Energy efficiency and alternative cooking methods

From training and building awareness of energy-efficient and energy-saving practices, such as turning off equipment when not in use and encouraging staff involvement in identifying energy-saving opportunities, restaurants are employing multiple initiatives to promote sustainable energy usage.

Switching to alternative cooking methods is yet another way to promote sustainable energy usage. FABER restaurant, which won the Eat Out Woolworths Sustainability Award 2022 for its commitment to implementing environmentally and socially responsible practices, uses gas stoves for most of its cooking, energy-efficient cooling and refrigeration equipment and LED light bulbs to limit power usage. Moreover, its energy-efficient wood fireplace in the restaurant has resulted in 70-80% energy savings in terms of fuel used, executive chef Dale Stevens informs us.

Cape Town-based Galjoen restaurant, which advocates sustainable seafood sourcing, also uses several alternative cooking methods. Neil Swart, co-owner, elaborates: “We use some induction plates that can heat a pan in seconds. It’s much faster and more efficient than a normal stove that uses an electric element. We also have charcoal ovens and gas stoves.”

In terms of energy efficiency, planning around load shedding as well as making optimal use of ovens is key. “While we use natural gas for all our cooking, our ovens run on electricity. As an energy-efficient solution, we bake only during reliable times (when there is no load shedding) and a bit extra than usual to carry us over,” says Matthew Ballenden, founder, Fresh Earth Food Store in Johannesburg. The restaurant has also cut back on its stockholding and removed some fridges and freezers to reduce electricity consumption and save costs.

Schalk Vlok, executive chef at Babel Restaurant, says, “At Babel Restaurant, we cook most of our meat and vegetables in our Josper charcoal oven and grill. We also reserve the hot coals for the following day and use them first thing in the morning for our breakfast service to heat the produce for our hot breakfasts. Additionally, we cook certain items overnight in the coals instead of roasting them for extended periods in electrical ovens. For example, onions and sweet potatoes that bake in the coals.” In The LivingRoom kitchen, too, the residual heat from the oven after baking bread is used to slow-roast tomatoes or dry crisps.

Likewise, Marble restaurant in Johannesburg uses a wood-fired grill as an alternative to cooking with electricity and prepares meat, fish, poultry, vegetables and breads on coals. Similarly, FYN restaurant uses a binchotan grill sourced from Namibia which burns super-hot and lasts a long time. At the end of service, the coals are extinguished and reused for the next service.

Benefits versus challenges of sustainable energy usage

The perks of sustainable energy usage include reduced energy consumption, limiting dependence on the grid, uninterrupted power supply during load shedding, savings in terms of electricity bills and fuel costs to run generators, plus a lower carbon footprint. However, solar panels as an alternative to a generator is an expensive investment that not every restaurant can afford. Thus, most restaurants continue to use generators, which eat into their profit margins, despite their energy-efficient practices.

“The less electricity used in the kitchen helps lower our costs, but unfortunately the use of the generator during load shedding has resulted in increased costs. Currently, we have only had our normal inflationary increase to our end consumer and have been absorbing the huge costs of electricity. This is not sustainable and hence our need for the solar installation,” explains Grieve of Avondale.

Remarks Swart of Galjoen, “There are restaurants with huge budgets and support from outside investors that can afford to go off the grid. We’re a small ‘family-owned’ business that’s still recovering from COVID. But we are looking into funding for alternative sustainable energy.”

Sometimes, there is no choice but to pass on the additional costs associated with ‘green energy’ to consumers.

“Being able to not be affected by load shedding and being able to provide a greener product is costly and does have an element of luxury attached to it. The costs aren’t entirely absorbed by the overheads we have at the moment and so we have to give a portion of those costs over to our customers, but we can then ensure better service delivery,” avers Richter of The LivingRoom.

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