EXCLUSIVE: Nando’s paints a blueprint for green restaurants

From converting the heat generated by its grills into hot water to donating leftover food waste to hundreds of charities, Nando’s has created a blueprint for sustainable restaurant and kitchen design that can be rolled out across multiple sites.

Henry Unwin (main image) has one of those job titles that makes people look twice at his business card. But the moniker of ‘Do The Right Thing Manager’ — which actually represents the name of a programme that Nando’s runs internally — couldn’t be a more apt way of describing what his role entails.

With more than 400 restaurants in the UK and a business that was worth almost £850m in annual sales according to the last set of accounts filed with Companies House, the sheer scale of Nando’s business means that even the smallest actions around sustainability invariably have a seismic impact when applied across an entire estate.

Unwin has been with the chain for two years, having initially gained experience in local and regional government before joining entrepreneurial sustainability charity Bioregional. There he wrote the environmental engagement strategy for the redevelopment of the London 2012 Olympics site before being approached to produce the sustainability strategy for Nando’s as a consultant. He was so integral to establishing the company’s policies and targets around sustainability that Nando’s promptly offered him a job in-house.

His remit as far as sustainability goes encompasses every aspect of the operation, from initial property selection to critical design features of the kitchen and even the conduits through which surplus food product is distributed. One of the boldest decisions Nando’s has made — and which is now paying dividends — was to construct a purpose-built sustainable restaurant at a brownfield site in Cambridge.

New green technologies and kitchen operations are trialled and tested at Nando’s purpose-built restaurant in Cambridge.It instantly achieved RICS SKA Gold, the highest possible sustainable fit-out rating. New technologies and kitchen operations are trialled here and, having had the set-up in place for 12 months, Nando’s now has a year’s worth of data to analyse.

“The thing with Cambridge is that it is a complete waste of time if it is a standalone green initiative, so we have been reviewing all of the work we have put into it to create what we call a ‘Green Fit-Out Guide’. Every restaurant that we open, and every restaurant that we refurbish, will aim to hit the standard of this new guide. That’s pretty much 50 restaurants a year, because we will open between 20 and 25 and we will refurbish another 20 to 25. It won’t take us long for the whole of our estate to go through that refurbishment cycle.”

Unwin admits the firm has been “fairly ambitious” when it comes to compiling the guide. It addresses everything that could possibly go into equipping a restaurant, right down to the materials and fibres being used to the tiles on the walls. Any water-consuming equipment must be low-flow and contain features that minimise water usage.
Out of all the various strands that shape what Nando’s is seeking to achieve, one of the most important right now is its goal of becoming a low carbon business.

“24 of our restaurants are run by 100% renewable electricity at the moment,” says Unwin, who explains that this covers every restaurant that has opened since Cambridge. By the end of this year it is aiming for all of its restaurants to switch to a renewable energy contract. “That will be a huge step for us because it represents 19% of our carbon footprint. We are moving across to renewable energy but I suppose before that it is all the stuff around being more efficient with the energy that we do use. We have been 100% LED for years and years now.”

Every restaurant that we open, and every restaurant that we refurbish, will aim to hit the standard of this new guide”

One thing Nando’s has done for a number of years is use heat recovery behind its grills, which then heats the water used in its restaurants, but at Cambridge it has taken this a step further by working with Dext Heat Recovery to introduce heat recovery to its extract ducts. “It is a slightly newer technology and one that we are very interested in,” explains Unwin.

That’s not all. The chain has also tested the impact of installing low-level extract canopies above its grill. By positioning them closer to the cooking appliance, the temperature of the air they are sucking in is hotter because less air is being brought in from the restaurant.

“That means we have got hotter air going out through the extract, which means it is better for heating — we basically have a heat exchange in the extract duct that heats incoming air so we can temper air up to 18°C using little to no energy at all, so if it is -5°C outside we can heat that air up and then give it another boost up to whatever we want it to. But we are not having to start from scratch with cold air.”

The other benefit of low level canopies is that not as much of the air that the company has spent time heating up or cooling in the restaurant escapes through the kitchen. “You are just taking air from above the grill, which uses less energy to suck it out and less energy to heat, which is wonderful,” admits Unwin.

There are still some major areas that remain unexplored. Refrigeration is a significant energy consumer for any kitchen but Unwin and his team have not yet had the opportunity to investigate it in the depth that they expect to in future.

One of the advantages of having a site like the one in Cambridge, where every single system is monitored and measured, is that as well as discovering what works, it is possible to identify what doesn’t. “We have got a load of PV panels on the roof that have not been operating to the efficiency we would have hoped, or I suppose in reality to what the supplier told us they would do. Cambridge has enabled us to really do stuff on our own without having to rely on claims from manufacturers who will obviously present a certain scenario.”

Henry Unwin, pictured during a recent impact assessment at Nando’s PERi farms in Mozambique, has overseen the development of the chain’s sustainability strategy in the UK.

Project managers involved in developing new Nando’s sites are given the Green Fit-Out Guide, but rather than being obliged to follow it to a tee at this stage, they are encouraged to proceed as they normally would but score themselves against it.

“The idea of this is that we can benchmark where we are at and understand if it’s easy for them to go and do it, and if it’s not then we want to know why it is difficult and what we need to make happen to enable them to implement that,” explains Unwin. “We don’t want to start saying, ‘oh we have done this amazing thing in Cambridge and everything is going to be exactly like that only to find that actually the low level canopy is causing people to keep hitting their heads on it after a year of operation and it’s a nightmare to clean.”

It is clear that while Unwin’s focus rests on creating the greenest restaurant operation possible he also acknowledges that there is a balance to be struck between sustainability and practicality. “Ultimately I want us to reduce our environmental impact as much as possible and we are not going to do that by creating a kitchen that doesn’t work for people. It is better to get it right and be welcomed into every project than annoy everyone.”

Interaction with the wider Nando’s team is a key part of the job. Unwin sits on the same floor as kitchen development manager Adele Hing and he says the factors she takes into consideration when selecting new equipment are intrinsically linked to its green objectives. Smaller standalone items of kit are put through their paces at Nando’s innovation kitchen in Putney, but larger systems, such as extract canopies, will be trialled in restaurants so they can be monitored under proper working conditions.

Ultimately I want us to reduce our environmental impact as much as possible and we are not going to do that by creating a kitchen that doesn’t work for people”

“If we were looking for a fryer, for example, we would be looking at what it takes to create the perfect chip, which might include where the chip has come from and how sustainable the process is, through to the oil and how efficient the equipment is at maintaining temperature. Adele has got lots of metering and all sorts of things around energy efficiency, water usage, even things like cleaning — is it easy to clean, does it need extra labour hours, does it need extra energy? So she is linked into what we are trying to achieve and if she is testing out a new piece of equipment then one of the key metrics will be energy consumption.”

Some 50% of Nando’s environmental impact in terms of its carbon footprint is linked to its food and so there is a huge piece of work being undertaken around tackling the key aspects of its supply chain, particularly chicken. Wastage is a part of this process, too.

“Food waste is really important and out of all the restaurants that can separate food waste, 92% of them are doing it, which is pretty high,” discloses Unwin. “And that’s taking into consideration that some restaurants do not have the capacity to do it, because the local authority doesn’t collect or there isn’t physically a space for more than two bins. In our Fit-Out Guide you can’t even choose a new property unless there is space for segregation of all waste streams.”

Nando’s plans to convert all its restaurants to renewable electricity by the end of the year.

Unwin is delighted that the Cambridge initiative has provided Nando’s with a sustainability blueprint that new and refurbished sites can take inspiration from. However, the real symbol of success for him will come when the actions it is recommending are implemented without thinking.

“It is not about getting attention as a flashy, green project, what really matters is that behind the scenes it is going to become bog standard. And that for me is what it is all about — making sustainability something that is ‘business as usual’ rather than over and above,” he concludes.

Key Nando’s sustainability initiatives

– Goal of 100% of restaurants to run on renewable energy to be achieved by the end of 2018.

– Creation of a ‘Green Fit-Out Guide’ highlighting sustainable best practices and materials for new builds and refurbishments.

– All Nando’s restaurants receive manuals that include information on managing equipment in a low energy way and access to an online portal that shows half-hourly electricity and gas consumption.

– Heat recovery systems behind grills provide hot water for use within the restaurant.

– Trialling of heat recovery in extract ducts for added efficiency.

– More than 600,000 meals donated to charity organisations last year.

– 96% of restaurants donated meals to over 500 charities in Q1 2018, up from 33% two years ago.

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