The Evolution of a Dish:

Sustainability Beyond Food: Insights from Dan Simons of Farmers Restaurant Group

Sustainability is a concept that extends far beyond the boundaries of food production and consumption.

In a recent conversation with Dan Simons of Farmers Restaurant Group on The meez Podcast, a comprehensive view of sustainability was explored, revealing its profound impact on business practices, employee welfare, community involvement, and environmental stewardship.  Here are 5 key insights from the discussion.

The True Essence of Sustainability is Profitability

Dan identifies himself as a conscious capitalist, taking a multi-stakeholder approach to business that considers more than just profit. This perspective involves acknowledging the inherent destructiveness of certain business practices and striving to mitigate harm wherever possible.

He stresses the importance of honesty and transparency in business operations, promoting practices that are less damaging and more sustainable in the long run. This approach not only helps reduce the negative impact on the environment but also builds trust and loyalty among consumers and other stakeholders.

"I see myself as a conscious or a mindful capitalist. I take a multi-stakeholder approach to business. There's more than just profit. But you can't be any former capitalist and not acknowledge that you're participating in destruction.”

For Dan Simons, sustainability extends far beyond the typical farm-to-table narrative. He emphasizes that true sustainability is about creating systems that endure and thrive over multiple generations. This includes farms that are not only productive but also safe for farmers and consumers alike, ensuring that the land remains fertile and untainted by harmful chemicals.

Such farms can maintain their productivity and health for hundreds of years, fostering a legacy of environmental stewardship and human health.

"Sustainability for me is a farm that can stay multi-generational. And the people can stay healthy. They're not giving themselves cancer, and they're not poisoning their customer, and they're not destroying the land. That's a sustainable farm, one that really lasts, you know, hundreds of years.”

Prioritize Employee Welfare & Mental Health

Dan Simons highlights the importance of sustainability in the context of employee welfare and community engagement. At Farmers Restaurant Group, sustainability is not just about environmental practices but also about creating a work environment where employees can thrive. This includes fair wages, opportunities for growth, and a healthy work-life balance.

By investing in their employees, Farmers Restaurant Group builds a loyal and motivated workforce, which in turn, enhances the quality of service and the overall customer experience.

“We want to build a sustainable business that's mindful of the planet, mindful of its people. And that while I wouldn't encourage my kids to go into this industry, I've got three teenage boys, and they've all worked in the restaurants. I'd love to build a company that we can give the company to the next generation of operators and leaders to take over the company”​​.

A vital point emphasized during the conversation was the importance of supporting mental health. Providing mental health resources, coaching classes, and support for team members is not merely about well-being. It is also integral in driving performance and productivity.

“The company's mental health support system is extensive and multifaceted. It includes providing free access to mental health professionals, both through direct visits and via the Talkspace app. This accessibility ensures that employees and their families can receive support when they need it, without the barrier of cost or availability. We also train our people to recognize signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety or mental health struggle in their colleagues."

Simons stresses the importance of normalizing conversations about mental health in the workplace. This is achieved through regular discussions and training, ensuring that mental health is a constant part of the dialogue among staff. By doing so, they aim to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues and encourage employees to seek help when needed.

“We have continuous use of conversation vocabulary to normalize conversations around mental health. So you wanna do a shift meeting in the restaurant. You want to talk about uniforms and food and today's specials and whatever. We're also gonna start those meetings off with a legit look in the eyes of each person. How are you? How do you feel? Before we get to the work of the work, let's get to the work of the humans."

Be Involved In Your Community

Community involvement is a cornerstone of Farmers sustainability philosophy. Supporting local farmers and producers not only strengthens the local economy but also reduces the carbon footprint associated with food transportation. Farmers Restaurant Group actively participates in community events and initiatives, fostering strong relationships with local stakeholders.

This interconnected approach ensures that their business practices support the wider community, creating a ripple effect of positive impact.

"We have a mantra or maybe a way that frames how we are thinking. Our expression is 'through the eyes of the farmer'. And that guides us... Everything matters. Everything's personal, and we see it through the eyes of the farmer.”

Simons also highlights the interconnectedness of environmental health and community well-being, noting that sustainable practices often stem from the desire to protect one's own family and community.

"So when I talk to farmers and I work with farmers... Their kids eat the food they grow, their kids play on the land that they own. Their kids fish in the rivers or the streams nearby. So you want to talk to someone about sustainability, talk to a farmer that doesn't want to poison their kids"

Be a Steward of Your Environment

Environmental stewardship is deeply embedded in the operational ethos of Farmers Restaurant Group. From energy-efficient lighting and water-saving fixtures to waste reduction programs and organic waste composting, every aspect of their operations is geared towards minimizing their environmental impact.

Dan Simons believes that these efforts are not just good for the planet but also make good business sense. By reducing waste and conserving resources, the restaurant group can lower operating costs and improve efficiency.

“This conversation just leads to, okay, so climate change matters. Look at the drought, look at the water consumption. Should we sell almonds? There are lots of these questions, and for me, if I get too wrapped up in the big picture, you know, it's going to trigger my anxiety and I'm going to think the world is an awful place. We're destroying the planet. But we're the ones that can save the planet, and for me as just a little restaurateur. I can just do my part person by person”​​.

Additionally, sourcing ingredients from local, sustainable farms ensures that they are using high-quality, fresh produce while supporting agricultural practices that do not deplete or harm the environment. This holistic approach to sustainability underscores the commitment of Farmers Restaurant Group to being responsible custodians of the Earth, ensuring that future generations inherit a world that is healthy and vibrant.

“And so we want to build a sustainable business that's mindful of the planet, mindful of its people. And that while I wouldn't encourage my kids to go into this industry, I've got three teenage boys, and they've all worked in the restaurants. I'd love to build a company that we can give the company to the next generation of operators and leaders to take over the company.”

Build Sustainable Business Models

Dan Simons emphasizes the need to integrate sustainability into business models, rather than treating it as an auxiliary concern or additional expense. At Farmers Restaurant Group, sustainability forms the backbone of their business strategy, permeating every aspect of their operations. This commitment encompasses mindful sourcing practices, energy-efficient design and technology, employee welfare initiatives, and community involvement.

By embedding sustainability as a core value, businesses can achieve long-term success while making a positive impact on the world."

"We need to stop viewing this as an add-on to our business. This is not a luxury; it is an economic imperative. The future belongs to those with the lowest cost of production who also prioritize their customers, the environment, and their employees."

A central tenet of Dan’s philosophy is the sustainability of the business itself. According to Dan, a truly sustainable restaurant remains operational and profitable over the long term. This includes creating stable jobs and career opportunities for employees, enabling them to support their families and achieve personal growth. 

Dan critiques the trend of rapidly expanding businesses that often collapse due to overextension and a lack of foundational strength. Instead, he advocates for horizontal growth, allowing employees to develop skills and assume more significant roles within the same job title, enhancing the business's overall value and profitability.

"A sustainable restaurant is one that stays in business. I’m not impressed by award-winning restaurants that disappear after a few years. Don’t your employees want to build a career and climb a ladder?"

Conclusion: A Vision for the Future

Dan Simons’ vision for sustainability is comprehensive and deeply rooted in ethical practices and long-term thinking. By focusing on creating sustainable business models, nurturing employee growth and well-being, engaging with local communities, and minimizing environmental harm, Farmers Restaurant Group sets a benchmark for what true sustainability in the restaurant industry can look like.

his holistic approach not only ensures the longevity and success of the business but also contributes positively to society and the planet.

Dan’s insights challenge us to rethink traditional notions of sustainability and consider the broader impacts of our business practices. By adopting a more inclusive and mindful approach, we can create systems that are not only profitable but also equitable and sustainable for future generations.

Listen to the full conversation with Dan Simons on The meez Podcast

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