Insights / Interviews / Q&A with Just Salad's Sandra Noonan: Building a Sustainable Restaurant Brand and Why It's Important
Q&A with Just Salad's Sandra Noonan: Building a Sustainable Restaurant Brand and Why It's Important

Upon educating herself about waste, and particularly the problem of ocean plastic pollution, Sandra Noonan found herself galvanized to take action. So she started by creating a small advocacy group called Zero Waste NYC, designed to rally others together to inspire one another to live a more zero-waste lifestyle. Pretty quickly, this led her to rediscover Just Salad, a restaurant chain that’s been serving salads in reusable bowls since its founding in 2006, charging customers just $1 for a bowl they can bring in again and again.

“I was so captivated by the concept, and I thought that the brand was not getting sufficient credit for doing something this pioneering,” says Noonan. “So I contacted the company and started up a relationship.”

And the rest is history. In 2020, Noonan was officially brought on as Just Salad’s chief of sustainability. Over the past two years, she’s helped the company push its mission further with projects that include a carbon-labeled menu to indicate each item’s carbon footprint and a pilot program to make reusables available for online pickup orders. We sat down to chat with Noonan about Just Salad’s sustainability-driven initiatives. Plus, we get advice on the first steps other operators can take to become more eco-conscious, too.

Soon after you were brought on, Just Salad launched its carbon-labeled menu initiative. Can you share your main goals behind it? 

If we want to get serious about reducing the carbon emissions of the food system, we have to get more sophisticated as eaters. I wanted to innovate food labeling not only to display the nutritional information of our menu, but also the environmental profile of each salad. 

Research has shown that when consumers are presented with an environmental impact label, they do shift their purchases. So we embarked on a one year project to quantify the carbon emissions of every salad. The end goal was then to present that to the customer in a way that was compelling. We did that by grouping the lowest emission items into a diet filter called Climatarian, so when you go to the Just Salad app and filter by diet, the first lifestyle you see is Climatarian. The Climatarian lifestyle is to help people make food choices that are more aligned with our need to reduce carbon emissions as a society.

You mentioned that there’s research showing that labeling does make an actual impact on customer behavior. Do you have any data around how this is shaping your own customers’ choices?

In the weeks after we announced the carbon-labeled menu, we did see a jump in purchases of Climatarian items. But I think that it’s still a little early. Our next step is to get third-party certification of the labels. What I’ve taken away in customer interviews is that people are looking for that and they trust it more. So we’re investing more in improving than in collecting data at this point.

Back in the early days, when Just Salad first launched its reusable bowl program, what were some of the main challenges faced? I imagine there were some health code details to figure out.

Happily we’re not the only operator anymore to do reuse. It’s available on third-party delivery platforms, still on a limited scale, but it’s good to see we’re not the only ones anymore. But reuse does have some operational requirements. They’re absolutely doable if you have enough passion for it as a brand and operation. 

This means having a very detailed and clear process for the handling of reusable containers and integrating that into the DNA of your company. You want the standard operating procedure around reusables to be something your employees can do with their eyes closed, as second nature as any other SOP executed in the store. Just Salad has the benefit of having done it from day one. It’s a little tougher if you’re retrofitting that into your operation, and I am sympathetic to that, but it’s not impossible.

Do you have any tips for operators who are retrofitting it into their operation?

Come to Just Salad, seriously. And observe it. You see it executed at our stores in front of you, the key steps of filling the bowl and handing it to you appropriately without hand contact. I’d also say experience it as a customer [through delivery]. On Caviar now, you can order in reusable containers through DeliverZero

What do you think were the keys to making the reusable program at Just Salad a success?

One of the keys from the beginning was making it a loyalty program. We provide a free salad topping with every use of the reusable bowl, and as a mission-oriented brand, we know we’re paying for that. But we do get something in return. We get the loyalty of the customer who’s excited to come to Just Salad and get that free topping, in addition to the emotional value of knowing that they’re saving serious amounts of waste and carbon emissions.

Tell me about the bowls. What are they made out of and how many times can they be reused? 

They’re 100% polypropylene. It’s a very durable material that can be put through dishwasher cycles hundreds of times. They’re super lightweight. And they’ve got [our] logo on them.

The bowls cost customers just $1, but I presume they save Just Salad money on material cost. Can you share any data around that?

It’s not the reason we run the program, but the reusable bowl program certainly saves us some costs on disposables, and when you think about the cost-savings of disposable materials, it helps to offset the topping we provide for free. 

Do you have an estimate on how much waste the program diverts?

It depends on the year, but we estimate in the tens of thousands of pounds. It’s not just landfill waste. It’s water and greenhouse gas emissions. We’ve been conducting a study of the water and greenhouse gas emissions associated with disposable packaging, and it’s really eye-opening. We plan to release it in our sustainability report later this year.You’ve also launched a beta program at two of your New York locations where customers can opt for reusable containers when ordering online. Can you tell me more about that?

Yeah, so with the existing program at all of our locations, you buy the bowl, you own it, you bring it back, and it’s an on-premise [system]. But with the beta program, you can order your salad online in a reusable bowl, and it’ll be available for you on the pickup shelf. When you’re finished, you drop off that bowl for sanitation. 

The key difference is that you’re electing for a reusable bowl, and you’re not buying the bowl. You’re dropping it back off, so it’s a closed-loop system. A lot of our loyal customers have asked us for a long time to make it available for digital orders. This is the customer who doesn’t necessarily have the time to come in with their reusable bowl.

Do you have any advice for restaurant operators who might want to institute their own reusable container program?

There are ways to start small, and one way to do that is to work with a third party. We invented our own program in 2006, but now it’s 2022, and there are those options. So you could partner with a service like DeliverZero that provides the containers to you, and then customers on third-party apps can select the option to receive their order in a reusable container. This allows you to see how your staff is handling the new system and engage with your customers on it. As a small operator today with just a couple locations, that’s a much more sensible way to start than sourcing your own containers and taking on the full burden of that. 

You also have to express to your staff the ‘why’. You want them to feel some passion about participating and doing it right, and treating customers who come in with the reusable containers like VIPs. You need to engage with your staff on the problem of single-use waste and the power that restaurants have to be cultural innovators. Food is universal. We have a lot of power to change the culture towards more sustainable habits, and imparting that deeper ‘why’ is very important.

Beyond reusables, one of Just Salad’s eco-driven missions is to make a more sustainable menu. What are some of the main steps that have been taken so far to do this?

When we carbon-labeled our menus, we got a really good sense of what our average carbon footprint is, and every time we develop a new item, we now have a baseline – that hard carbon footprint number that makes us look at our menu from a sustainability lens we didn't have before.

We’ve also gone cage-free with our eggs, we have an animal welfare commitment, and we’re proud supporters of plant-based protein. Plant-based protein and dairy – we introduced vegan feta early this year – is really important to us

When beef was taken off the menu in 2019, what was the initial reaction? And do you have any advice on how operators can manage customer expectations when implementing menu changes like this?

Publicly, it was well-received. We did it at a time when that was just starting to be on the cultural radar. And we didn’t just take something away. We also added something. We introduced Beyond Meat, this very tasty menu at the time.

It’s important to do it thoughtfully. For example, our Chipotle Cowboy salad used to come by default with chicken. When we introduced Daring [plant-based] chicken, we made that the default. But the customer can still swap. If you’re a mission-driven, sustainable brand that wants to participate in transitioning diets, then changing the defaults is important, but recognize that behavioral change takes time and giving customers options is wise.

Tell me about some of the ways you’re striving towards zero-waste delivery?

We partner with DeliverZero and we’ve expanded our partnership with them to a handful of restaurants now. We also give 10 cents off on our native digital platforms if you say ‘no’ to utensils. And we supported legislation in New York City to make that the default, called “Skip the Stuff”. It hasn’t passed, but there was a big push last year and we’re still working to get it passed.

What are your predictions on a zero-waste movement going mainstream in the restaurant industry? 

The signs are there, and there are a few data points to illustrate that shift. The first is the big chains like Burger King and McDonald’s piloting reusable packaging. There's also the third-party delivery apps – DoorDash and Caviar have partnered with DeliverZero – and early on, I'm seeing a handful of restaurants participating in that pilot. 

Then there’s the policy story. That ​​“Skip the Stuff” [utensil] legislation I mentioned is just one of several pieces of legislation throughout the country that’s seeking to encourage reusables. And we haven’t even touched upon the reusable cup business models that are also emerging. Reusables are definitely getting more mainstream traction already.

For operators that want to start making more of an effort on the sustainability front, what do you see as some of the most accessible eco-friendly policies restaurants can implement now?

We shouldn’t underestimate training and motivating staff to just very simply heed customer requests for utensils. We shouldn’t just be throwing utensils in by default. If you have the resources, on your native platforms, defaulting to ‘no utensils’ is a worthwhile step. 

How do you think all of these sustainability efforts have shaped Just Salad’s brand to help it stand out from competitors?

It’s not only the only way to go in terms of natural resources and the carrying capacity of our planet, but sustainability builds brand love. It serves as a tiebreaker between two brands a customer might be choosing from. 

And we see it when our customers post to social media, in [posts that communicate], ‘Not only is the salad tasty, the staff friendly, but they also have this program I love – the reusable bowl program’. It’s reinforcing and adding another dimension to their relationship with the brand.

Where do you see Just Salad’s sustainability program expanding in the future?

We want to continue integrating technology and sustainability. In our mobile app, we're already showing dynamic carbon footprints. We want to make the reusable program accessible from all of our digital platforms. 

There’s also a lot of room for marketing and messaging innovation around menu-wording and menu-naming. There’s a lot of good work being done on how menu-naming and positioning of a menu can predispose a customer towards trying something plant-based.

And also I think that larger operators, in New York for example, could accelerate some of this anti-waste legislation by vocally supporting it. Us larger operators who believe in reducing waste need to make it publicly known.

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