Restaurateurs who seek REAL certification will tell you it's a tough and sometimes painful process. Just ask Keith Richards, founder of the Taziki's restaurant chain, the first — and to date, the largest — franchise system to obtain certification.
"You have to be dedicated to seeing this through," Richards told this publication in a recent interview. "It may require recipe changes or bringing in other products that you typically don't carry, but sometimes change is good."
So yes, it can be painful. But it can also pay off. This is a story we heard time and again from the restaurateurs we talked with about working with the U.S. Healthful Foods Council to attain certification.
In fact, the story of the executive who directs the nonprofit USHFC is persuasive itself. To CEO and Chairman Lawrence Williams, the initiative was less about becoming a force in food service than it was about doing something to improve Americans' health in the long term.
Williams — whose name has been linked previously with SpaceX, NASA and the White House — opted to put his proverbial "eggs" in one healthful basket because he thought it might be the best way to help a sick and obese nation get and stay healthier.
"At the end of the day," he said in an interview with this site recently, "of all the things you have in your own control that affect your health … aside from smoking … after that, the most important thing you can do for your health is to control and look at the food you eat," he said.
Typically, the process of becoming REAL-certified starts with a USHFC registered dietitian's audit of restaurant vendor receipts and key operations.
The audit looks for specific practices in food preparation and sourcing of ingredients. A restaurant seeking certification pays several hundred dollars for this audit during which REAL researches the exact manner food is delivered from farm to table.
USHFC then obtains third-party verification of best practices in nutrition and sustainability in order to award points to the restaurant or restaurants being evaluated for certification.
The system, which is similar to that used in LEED certification of environmentally sound building operations, was developed with help from an independent panel of experts.
The REAL Index seeks to quantify factors such as:
David Silverglide, CEO of Mixt Greens, with locations in San Francisco and Los Angeles, said that certification is a lot to contend with chain-wide, and he understands the hesitancy of many food service providers to put themselves through such a trial.
"To responsibly source food and run a truly environmentally sound organization you have to devote a significant amount of time to learn what is really sustainable and what is 'greenwash.' And you have to find trusted partners that are transparent with their operations," he said. "The organization has to have its own knowledge base so that it can make the right decisions based on its values. Without a deep understanding all of the issues and a clear internal definition for what sustainability means to the business, it is impossible to operate in a consistently sustainable manner."
Matthew Guelke, co-founder of The Plant, a San Francisco-based chain, said it's necessary not only to view the process of certification as an investment in the future of the business, but also to commit to jumping through all the hoops involved, even if it ends up being more costly and labor intensive than remaining uncertified.
"The biggest issue holding chains back from more responsible sourcing is cost-related," Guelke said in an interview. "Many chains do incorporate a small amount of 'sustainable' product in order to market to the growing interest of consumers. For example, statements like 'organic wherever possible' are widely used to reference some sustainable sourcing.
"However, the more expensive and sustainably important ingredients, such as meat and dairy, are considerably more expensive than their conventionally farmed counterparts, and thus less commonly sourced by chains."
But leadership at The Plant, Mixt Greens and Taziki's ultimately decided that the process — rigorous as it may be — was essential to their brand identity, their path forward and their future success.
"Sustainable ingredients are more often better and higher quality than conventional, and thus the final product is noticeably better," said Guelke. "Over time, higher food quality creates more repeat customers [and] increased brand loyalty, and distinguishes businesses from the competition. … Ethical sourcing creates more meaningful brand loyalty and connection to customers."
This is what has resulted in such an impressive growth trajectory for the organic food industry, Gulke said. According to the Organic Trade Association, the sector grew 10.8 percent in 2015 — well above the 3.3 percent growth recorded by the food market overall.
Perhaps this awareness helps to explain why the operators we talked with said they experienced a greater sense of enjoyment in their business after REAL certification.
"The benefits have been many, and have helped create the most important part of our brand identity," Guelke said. "Benefits include greater customer loyalty and repeat traffic; happier and more dedicated employees that stay longer and grow with the company; the ability to attract talent with shared values beyond just serving food to the public; and ultimately the greater purpose to increase health and support the environment. You can't separate business and ethics, so when your business operates ethically, there is more joy in it."
"Sustainability was a cornerstone of our brand when we started and continues to be the lens through which we view all decisions today," Silverglade said. "For us the benefit has always been operating great restaurants in a way that we know is making a positive impact on our customers' lives and the environment."
"We're all trying to increase profits, but operators have to ask themselves, 'Are we willing to sacrifice profit margin for the benefit of our guests?'," Richards said.