Vegetable trimmings are being turned into pickles and ferments, coffee grinds are used as soil fertiliser, waste milk is made into ricotta cheese and the resulting whey is added to pickling liquor. These sound like the activities of a highly motivated and environmentally aware kitchen. An organic farm-to-plate venture, or a boundary-pushing new Nordic spin-off perhaps?
But in this case, they are are just some of the sustainable practices followed by FoodSpace, a contract catering company feeding hundreds of people every day at 14 workplaces and colleges across Ireland. Last month, the company won an award for its sourcing at the Food Made Good awards run by the Sustainable Restaurant Association in the UK.
The ingredients the company uses in its kitchens in such diverse locations as the Backweston Laboratory Campus in Celbridge and the NUIG colleges in Galway, have this in common: they are local and seasonal, free-range and high-welfare.
Since its establishment two years ago as a division of facilities management company Apleona Ireland, FoodSpace has raised the bar on sustainability in its field, while offering customers a choice of unsubsidised hot main-course lunches for between €4 and €6, and still making a profit.
Pauline Cox, director of food service, was tasked with setting up a contract catering business with a point of difference when she joined the company, having previously worked with Compass and Sodexo.
“We decided that we wanted to be sustainable. We wanted to bring the business back to basics, to buy from the local butcher, baker, fruit and veg guy, fish supplier, and support local communities. I came across the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) and I thought maybe we could start with the sustainable principles and they could help us to put all the processes in place from the beginning,” Cox says.
Conor Spacey came on board as executive head chef, and Grainne Carberry as operations manager, and within a year FoodSpace had achieved the SRA's highest score, in an audit process, for adherence to its core principles of sustainable practice.
So what does that involve? “It’s broken into three pillars – sourcing, which is everything that we buy; people – that is our customers as well as our employees and how people are treated, and environment – everything from energy sourcing to water usage,” Spacey says.
The SRA assessment is rigorous. “For example, we only use Irish chicken and it is free-range, so I’ll say, here is our Irish chicken and here is where we are buying it and here is proof. They’ll say, ‘that’s great, but what are the chickens being fed? How much water do they have a day, how much land are they on?’ ”
The Irish company’s commitment to sustainability did not go unnoticed. “For a catering business to launch across 14 sites and achieve three stars in the SRA’s Sustainability Rating, all in a year, is an outstanding achievement,” says Andrew Stephen, chief executive of the SRA.
Another year on, and Spacey is the Irish representative to Chefs' Manifesto, a collective of more than 130 chefs from 38 countries working together to achieve a more sustainable food system. This summer, the organisation ran awareness-raising Action Hubs in London, Stockholm and Copenhagen, and in the first quarter of next year, Spacey will launch it in Ireland.
But what does all this mean for the customers queuing up for their meal or their snack at work, and are they aware of the change for good at work in their canteen, or “workplace restaurant”, as Spacey prefers to call them?
The first indication comes at the point of entry, where at least one of the main-course choices will be made entirely from ingredients sourced within 50 miles of the dining room, and flagged as such. Not even lemon, pepper, or spice makes it into these dishes that are designed to connect the kitchen with the food source. "The first thing I do, when we take on a new site, is Google what is available to buy, direct from farmers and growers, within a 50-mile radius," Spacey says.
Salad bar items might include a variety of pickles and relishes made on site from vegetable trimmings. “We sell lots of cauliflower, people love it, and we do lots of cool things with it, but probably up to 50 per cent of it is stalk and leaves, which people throw away. We make that into kimchi.”
And the salad dressings on offer could include some containing a variety of fruit vinegars, made with skins, cores and trimmings that would otherwise be wasted. Pineapple, melon and chilli vinegar was a recent hit, as was a watermelon and coriander one, Spacey says.
“We had a presentation to potential clients recently and we brought out our kombucha and vinegars, onion chutney and nettle pesto , and part of the presentation was to show how we would bring them on a journey to a zero-waste kitchen. We’re looking for a client to say, actually, I embrace that.”
According to Cox, that day might not be too far away. “We’re in the middle of a tender with a company, and one of the questions they’ve come back with is around how they could take all disposables and plastics out of their restaurant operation.”
“Even down to clingfilm in the kitchen,” Spacey adds.
A growing trend
It is something Cox sees as being a growing trend. “In a lot of the tech companies, in particular, you’ve got generation Z and millennials and they want to work for employers that value the planet and are sustainable in their whole ethos.”
Catering to lifestyle choices is one thing, but FoodSpace is a business, and as such has to operate profitably. So how does it manage to sell main courses made with these carefully sourced ingredients for a little over a fiver, and still make money?
“Our chefs have to be chefs. We buy in whole chickens, for example, and break them down, and we get a carcass to make a sauce. That’s how we can afford to do it. We can’t afford prime cuts, we have to work with secondary cuts, which makes our chefs have to think a bit more about what they’re doing,” Spacey says.
Working within tight margins means waste is a complete no-no, which is how ricotta came to be made on site at NUIG. "We have a Starbucks there, at the client's request, as well as Bell Lane and Lavazza," Cox says. "The Starbucks policy around the milk is you can't heat it twice – that's their brand standard and you have to work to that. But there is a huge amount of waste milk, and Conor came up with this idea."
Spacey asked the outlet to collect all its waste milk. “I was there one day watching and I saw all this milk going down the drain, and I thought, what . . .? I knew we had to do something with that, so we started making ricotta cheese with it. Now it gets blast-chilled and held in our cold rooms, and twice a week we make ricotta.”
The cheese production solved one issue, but opened up another. “When we make ricotta we are left with the whey, and we can’t throw it out, so we had to come up with a way to use it.”
Now, the whey is added to vinegar to make a pickling liquor. “So, all of a sudden we’ve got a full circle, from waste milk to cheese to whey and the whey helps turn waste vegetables into pickles,” Spacey says, in a perfect example of FoodSpace’s join-up thinking.
FEEDING THE WORKFORCE
Backweston Laboratory Campus, near Celbridge in Co Kildare, is home for the duration of the working day to several hundred employees. There is extensive parking, an onsite creche, and acres of landscaped grounds in which to spend a break away from the desk or microscope. But it is a isolated site, several miles from the nearest town, and there are no shops.
Inside one of the buildings there is a 110-seater cafe operated by FoodSpace, which is open from 8am until 4pm Monday to Friday. Tony Connor is head chef and there are five staff in total.
Connor says he sells about 120 hot lunches, 30 sandwiches and 20-25 salads every lunchtime, in addition to hot and cold breakfast options, morning and afternoon snacks, and reckons that 80 per cent of what they serve is cooked on site, from scratch.
There are always three hot-lunch options, and on the day I visit, the "50-Mile" option is pork belly (sourced from James Nolan butcher in Kilcullen), with Iona Farm buttered leeks and baby carrots, and potatoes (€6.50). The "Urban" choice is herb-crusted whiting fillets with lemon zest and black pepper (€6.50), and on the "Temple" selection, of meat-free and non-dairy, there are vegetarian pakoras with chutney (€4.95). A fourth brand, "Retro", offers traditional comfort-food classics when it is on rotation.
“We try to get the lunch menu up before the breakfast coffee crowds come in, so they might see something to tempt them to come back for lunch,” Connor says. A sizeable number of the workforce opt to bring their lunch in with them, and the weather is a factor too. “If it is raining, for instance, they might not come over [there are several isolated buildings on the campus].”
There are no frozen veg or fish used in the kitchen, which Connor says is “unusual” in his experience in contract catering. “It’ll cost you the same to buy fresh green beans in season, as it would to buy frozen, and the customers know the difference when it’s on the plate.” The same goes for fish, which comes in fresh. “If it is coming out of a bag or a box, they’ll know too.”