De Japanner is one of Amsterdam’s hottest restaurants. On any given night, their two locations (De Pijp and Oud West) are buzzing with groups of friends sampling the traditional sharing dishes, and there’s often a queue to get in.
Beyond the hype factor, De Japanner is an example of a restaurant finding a happy midpoint between profitability and sustainability - not always an easy task in an industry known for its food waste. We sat down with founders Joao, Guido and Tosao, to chat about excess packaging, their unique AC system, and how the government should incentivise restaurants to become more sustainable.
Let’s start with your straws: why did you decide to look for an alternative to plastic straws?
Joao: With everything we do, one of the main parts is that we want to provide a place that we can be proud of ourselves, and that expands to everything. That means what we put on a plate, what we serve our customers, the drinks we want to put on the menu, what kind of products we use in our food... The same goes for the straws. You want to do it right, because it's your own thing. In a sense, it’s almost like a passion project. I think fine tuning the straws came a little later than that because it wasn't necessarily one of the biggest issues [back then] but later, you start realizing smaller things. Even though it's just a small thing, for me it made me feel a lot better. First we tried some bamboo straws, and I'd say we [the management team] clashed about it a bunch of times. I was very adamant that we needed the bamboo straws, but they weren’t great. So I was really glad when we found Straw by Straw. We came across them about a year ago, we've been working with you ever since!
So the decision to move away from plastic straws was driven by you and what you wanted to do, rather than people complaining about plastic straws? Did you experience people asking not to be given a straw with their drink?
Tosao: No, I don't think anyone ever complained - it was more of an internal thing.
Guido: Actually, what I do remember is people complaining about all the other alternatives that we tried out to replace plastic straws.
Joao: Yeah, when we moved away from plastic straws, that’s what people complained about! So it came from a place of us looking at the situation and being more critical, rather than the other way around.
Okay, that’s interesting to hear. What are some of the challenges that running a restaurant poses in terms of sustainability?
Joao: Waste is a big one for the restaurant business in general. I think we're actually pretty good at waste management. We use a lot of cut offs - we try to use it and turn it into a new dish. Either it’s a temporary thing, or if it's good enough, we might even end up putting it on the menu. And also, every day, we have staff food together with the team. If we have a bunch of leftovers from the previous day, we usually incorporate that and then eat it ourselves. I think waste wise, from what I remember working in other places, I think we're doing pretty well, food wise.
Guido: I agree. But it's an ongoing challenge. We try to work with fresh produce only, which means it’s always a challenge to map because to a certain extent you're going to have leftovers.
Joao: Yes, it's the balance. You don't want to have too little to be able to serve your customers, but you don't want to have too much that you're just going to end up throwing it away. It’s like a really fine tightrope you need to balance on. Yeah, that can be hard. I think the thing that we waste most is Cava! Every time, people just order one glass.
So the decision for you to move towards sustainability was based on you wanting to have, like you said, something that you're proud of and doing good in all aspects. But do you think that restaurants and bars have a responsibility to look for sustainable options? I guess these options are a lot more expensive than plastic straws, so how do you balance the need to be sustainable with running a profitable business?
“As a person partaking in the world, you have a responsibility and a moral obligation”
Plastic straws have been an issue for the past few years, and people like you started looking for alternatives. What is next? What do you think the new ‘plastic straw’ will be in the next five years, let’s say.
Joao: I think packaging.
Is that something you struggle with?
Joao: We don't do packaging because we don't sell products to take away. But in general, I get really annoyed by how many layers of plastic there are around pretty much everything.
Guido: Yeah, all of the products we get from the suppliers [wrapped in plastic] generate quite a bit of waste every day.
Right. And do you try and look for suppliers who focus on generating less waste, or is that not feasible for you at the moment?
Guido: Not yet, to be honest. We haven't contacted our suppliers and said “Well listen, can you do anything about it, because otherwise we might look somewhere else?” We haven't done that yet.
Joao: Yes, and also this is the part where you have to compromise as an entrepreneurs. Like you said before, you have to be profitable. Right now, sure, there probably are a few suppliers who supply alternatives but that would mean either losing out in terms of quality, or in your margins. Up to a certain point, it's acceptable, but realistically speaking, you can’t pick let’s say product A or product B just because it has one feature that’s better, while the other product might have 20 better features. Being a Japanese restaurant and bar is also a little bit niche, so a lot of products that we need aren’t local. We try to work with local products as much as we can, but a lot of stuff comes from Asia. An alternative would be to manufacture or produce everything ourselves, but then that would be a totally different restaurant and business.
“Being a Japanese restaurant is a little bit niche, so a lot of products that we need aren’t local”
Tosao took part in a campaign with the Gemeente recently. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Tosao: Well, it was a campaign about our waste - the normal waste, glass, the paper. They made a little video about our waste at the restaurant, and how we divide everything neatly. That’s not necessarily something that’s very unique about us - in Amsterdam everybody is familiar with the types of recycling.
Guido: The point that we tried to make through the video, is that if you produce waste as a restaurant or as a person, you're the one that's responsible for it. So that's why we try to cooperate with the Gemeente as as much as possible, not only to separate the different forms of waste, but also with the straws and stuff like that. We feel like it's our responsibility to take care of our waste - it’s as simple as that.
Joao: But there's probably like a lot of stuff that we either haven't thought about or just don't know about. That's part of the fun thing. You keep keep learning every day.
“We think that if you produce waste as a restaurant or as a person, then you’re the one responsible for it”
Do you think that the government should put measures in place to force restaurants and bars to achieve certain sustainable checkpoints?
Joao: Legislation is tricky. Forcing people to do anything is never going to work out in a positive way. I think incentives for sustainable solutions should definitely be more promoted and better managed by the government. I think penalizing people is never the right way to go, because you're always going to step on toes. People are going to say “It used to be way easier in the old days, and nobody was getting cancer”...
So what kind of incentives would work, do you think?
Joao: When we opened up our second place, I did some research and we actually got a subsidy because we had a climate control system that also heats. We were able to get funding, so I think that's an example which was really encouraging.
Guido: In general, it's better if you help entrepreneurs or people to go with the sustainable option instead of giving a penalty for the ones that don't.
Joao: I think what is more difficult is that these subsidies weren’t really well publicised. We found out through our own research and talking to our AC supplier.
Guido: It’s a lot about knowing and having the knowledge. The government sometimes thinks that a lot of things are your own responsibility. Everything's online, so you can look it up, but the problem is that a lot of people don't know about any of it. So there's a lot more good that could be done if the right people know about it.
Joao: If you're starting entrepreneur and you get more information on what's possible within your certain field or branch or whatever, a lot of people would think differently about how to tackle these problems.
“Everything’s online, so you can look it up, but the problem is that a lot of people don’t know about any of it”
When it comes to sustainability, what's something that you wish you'd known when you started the restaurant? Is there anything that you've really had to learn along the way?
Joao: I think part of being an entrepreneur is the learning curve. If you just step in thinking you know it all, you're going to fall flat on your face. And not that we haven't fallen flat on our face a few times, but we could have saved a lot of plastic if we would have had Straw by Straw four years ago! There's still a lot of other things we could improve on, just looking at all the other plastic, It's tricky. In a sense, you want to be critical and you want to change the system. Then again, it's really easy to use the excuse, “we're just one voice. How are we going to make a difference?”
Guido: It would have been nice to have had some sort of information package about all the options you have when you start the business. The AC is an example of that.
Joao: Yes - the AC definitely made us think. When you start a restaurant, your first concern is not going to be the AC. You want everything to be as cost efficient as possible. If you don't have a lot to spend, you want everything as good and cheap as you can get. So as Guido said, an information pack would be helpful, telling you to check out these websites or these possibilities on the government's website. There's a lot of stuff already in place that I think a lot of people don't know about it yet - maybe we don’t even know about yet. You can definitely come by this information just by looking for it, but I think if we would have started way back with that information package, I think there’s stuff we would have done differently.
Guido: We feel that this is definitely something that could be an extra responsibility of the government. There are things in place that a lot of people don't know about. That's a waste of time and effort!