Sustainable Food That Sells

Evaluate and tweak your menu using these long-term strategies to make your sustainable food program sustainable.

By THRESA PATTEE on May 8, 2017


Hospital food service departments are accustomed to managing the increased time—and sometimes the increased cost—incurred by sourcing food that supports the development of healthy, local, sustainable food systems. While tracking local and sustainable food purchases is important to understanding both budgetary and health impacts, understanding which recipes and menu items are profitable and popular is equally important to sustainable sourcing initiatives.

Creating a financially viable cafeteria menu requires the careful evaluation of each item offered. Calculating food cost, unit sales and profitability provides a granular view of the success or shortcomings of each menu item and identifies which healthy sustainable food sourcing efforts result in positive return on investment.

Menu mapping also helps determine where sustainable elements can be added to current successful menu items, and where substituting local or sustainable ingredients boosts popularity of lower-performing offerings.

Mapping “Stars” and “Dogs”

The first step to understanding profitability is calculating the food cost for each menu component and recipe. Using unit sales and profitability, an adaptation of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) Matrix can visually represent the success and shortcomings of each menu item. When evaluating a menu, consider every offering that carries an individual price, including (but not limited to) meals, entrees, sides, single-serve items and snacks. Our matrix categorizes items as “stars,” “puzzles,” “workhorses” and “dogs.”

Stars: High Profitability and High Popularity

Stars are the crown of your menu—both popular and profitable. Keep these items and promote them in any way you can. Stars offer a great opportunity to incorporate sustainable ingredients. The popularity of these items allows for the modest price increase needed to offset any increase in cost. Be sure to market the use of these ingredients to showcase the value of the selection beyond price point.

For example, hamburgers are a popular item at any grill station. To improve the nutritional value of your menu and lower your environmental footprint, offer a grass-fed burger raised without the routine use of antibiotics and include organic (and local, when seasonally available) lettuce, onion and tomato. Another option is to create a plant-forward recipe such as a blended burger that combines plant-based ingredients with ground meat to reduce the total meat in the burger while improving its flavor. (Blended burgers and other meat entrees are trending right now. Visit Health Care Without Harm’s Nutrition Month activity at for recipes and to learn about the health and environmental benefits of blending.)

You can also consider providing a higher mark-up on conventional items to offset the increased cost of incorporating sustainable ingredients. This strategy entices patrons to purchase sustainable menu items while maintaining your profit margin. Highlight certifications and label claims, and use descriptive language that both informs and entices.


Puzzles: High Profitability and Low Popularity

Puzzles have low sales but are highly profitable. Survey customers to find out if low sales are based on the price, taste profile or menu language. According to the Culinary Institute of America and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, highlighting details about a menu item’s taste and provenance—the “language of flavor and culinary adventure”—is an effective sales technique.

As an example, a chicken entree can be spiced up to give patrons a new experience, aligning both health and sustainability goals. Incorporate chicken raised without the routine use of antibiotics, and maintain the current price point by reducing the portion size. Add a Mediterranean spice blend, and serve the dish with a hearty side of local, sustainably grown vegetables such as zucchini, bell peppers and tomatoes. Accompany with organic house-made hummus, olives and whole-wheat pita.

On the menu, tout your dish as a sustainable Mediterranean platter. Plant-forward and vegetarian menu items have been noted by Forbes, Food Business News and Baum & Whiteman as a top food trend when prepared in a creative and tasty ways.

Workhorses: Low Profitability and High Popularity

Workhorses are items with high-volume sales, but they typically are losing money with each transaction. The goal is to create more profitable versions of these items without sacrificing popularity.

A house-made specialty such as a meatloaf may appear in this category. Evaluate the portion size: Is there too much on the plate for customers to finish? If the offered portion is appropriate, try mixing the meat with mushrooms, grain or lentils. This will maintain portion size while reducing ingredient cost and allowing for the use of more sustainably produced meat and increased health benefits.

Another option is to feature a smaller portion of an item in a “meal deal” combined with a less expensive side, such as seasonal local vegetables, to increase profitability.

Dogs: Low Profitability and Low Popularity

Dogs are items that are low in profit contribution and are slow movers. Dogs should usually be removed from the menu, as they are not contributing to profit and are likely contributing to wasted food.

When deciding to remove a low-performing dog, check if any of the ingredients are unique to the recipe or dish. This is an opportunity to reduce line items and inventory.
If a dog is critical to satisfying specific group of patrons, consider moving it from one section of the menu to another. Instead of accompanying an entree portion, make it a higher-priced, a la carte side.

When thinking about sustainable purchasing, consider if the item would gain popularity if sourced in a different manner. Brown rice may not be a popular add-on, but offering organic brown basmati may tap into a different customer base and allow for a higher price point that is more profitable.

Integrating Sustainable Products Into Your Long-Term Menu

Employing the BCG matrix on an annual or semiannual basis can help inform sustainable food purchasing choices year-round and support local purchasing during high season. When evaluating how to tweak menu items to make them more profitable and popular, consider what local produce will be available in the next six-month cycle.

As you discover stars, be sure they are featured on the regular menu. This process can help manage fluctuating food costs for all ingredients and menu items. Finally, keeping up with changing customer preferences and trends and keeping the menu fresh—both literally and figuratively—will maintain profitability and sustainability in your menu over the long term.