The drought has swept through the media these past few months, grabbing the attention of avid news-watchers and politicians alike. Having mounted over the past several years, this weather problem is much more than a passing fad, and the restaurant industry is a prime victim of its effects. Amidst these circumstances, however, are significant opportunities for innovative restaurateurs to shine. ‘Water-friendly’ may be the newest iteration of ‘going green,’ and those who adapt their menus and operations to water conservation are primed to attract new customers and great publicity.
A significant majority of our water supply goes to agriculture, with many sources claiming it as high as 80 – 90 percent! The media quickly latched onto this concept, and their attacks on foods that require more water for production [almonds are the poster child] have hurt sales. As a result, restaurants that rely on these under-fire ingredients may be perceived in a lesser light by the ‘foodie trendsetters.’ Taking the opposite approach, however—using more ingredients that require less water—may very well bring these trendsetters in through your doors and earn you a great word-of-mouth reputation.
Using the drought to your benefit in this way requires small changes and big promotion: Making minor tweaks to your menu, using those tweaks to paint the best picture possible, then sharing that picture with everyone you can reach.
Guerilla Tacos serves as a prime example. Located in Culver City [Los Angeles], this humble-yet-imaginative food truck made headlines with its ‘drought-friendly’ tacos. One of the key differentiators in this PR dream: sweet potato tortillas. While corn requires ~150 gallons of water per pound of corn produced, sweet potatoes require less than a third of that to yield the same amount. Combine that with the fact that sweet potatoes are a super food and you’ve hit two key food trends with one minor menu change…not to mention that people are definitely willing to venture out and try a sweet potato tortilla taco.
As was the case for Guerilla tacos, these menu changes typically just require one ingredient swap. Here’s a few other simple drought-friendly ingredients that may work for your menu:
The list could go on for ages, but these items should get the creative juices flowing. Again, the key here is promotion. To best get the word out, try some of the following:
1. Test products as your daily specials
As is the case with nearly every new product, a soft intro will help you make necessary adjustments to please the masses. Once you work out the smaller details [seasoning, portions, sides, etc.], the dish can become a permanent menu addition.
2. Highlight them on your menu
Once a dish has been modified [or is just naturally drought-friendly], make that point known! Options include creating a dedicated ‘eco-friendly’ section, or an icon to mark items across the menu.
3. Train your service staff to promote these items
Hosts and servers are your primary points of contact with the customer. Have your hostess mention drought-friendly changes while walking parties to their tables. Have your servers follow up by mentioning specific new menu items.
4. Promote through social media
If you have a Facebook page, Twitter feed, Instagram account, blog, etc. then certainly keep your followers updated on any changes that elevate your brand.
Don’t forget about operational modifications as well, such as water-friendly kitchen equipment and asking guests if they want water before serving [this is actually a law in some areas now]. And remember that ‘drought-friendly’ is subjective, so pursue these changes with the same caution as you would if advertising yourself as organic.
Note: All food comparisons are based on water consumption only and do not include factors such as nutrition and taste profile. Ingredient discretion is, of course, left to the chef.
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Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.