Hello beer and BBQ friends! To celebrate Earth Day this year, we decided to talk about something very important to us – sustainability. We suggest reading this article, which will be the first in an ongoing series, with a beer in hand. This article gives background on what sustainability means to us at Prairie Dog Brewing and why it is important to us. It also offers small glimpses into what we’ve done in the past and are doing in the present to work towards being a more sustainable business, as well as introducing future sustainability initiatives we are considering. Future articles will dig deeper into many of the specific initiatives or sustainability criteria referenced in this article.
What is Sustainability?
The Oxford dictionary simply lists sustainability as:
the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
“the sustainability of economic growth”
avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.
“the pursuit of global environmental sustainability”
So the word sustainability does not directly refer to the environment, climate change, or any of the other causes with which it is typically associated. It simply means that something can be “kept going” for a long time, if not indefinitely. We might say that forestry is sustainable as long as resources can be extracted (including both the flora and fauna in those forests) no faster than they can be replaced by natural processes, or that Roman aqueduct systems that were designed over 2,000 years ago were sustainable because parts of it continue to operate today.
Sustainable is a term that is thrown around a lot these days – it’s pretty hard to get a cup of coffee without being exposed to brands that loudly attest to their sustainability efforts, along with every disposable cup of coffee sold. Unfortunately, sustainability has become an increasingly meaningless buzzword that we consumers have started tuning out, just like “local”, “free range”, “organic” or “fresh”. Yet at the same time, a lot of brands are actually making real, material sacrifices of their profits in order to drive initiatives that could have a direct, meaningful impact on the lives of real people (and animals), and especially on the lives of our children and grandchildren. Those brands are using our money, as consumers, to pay for those efforts, so this is not something we should just tune out simply by reflex.
Why Do We Focus on Sustainability?
At Prairie Dog Brewing, we envision an Albertan society that is largely based upon sustainable ideals, rather than on typical corporate ones, which focus on maximizing profit per time interval (and hence, maximizing immediate shareholder value), regardless of the long-term costs to that company’s staff, society, or the planet as a whole — a system that is completely unsustainable over the long term. In our vision, the average mental health of Albertans is dramatically better, and inclusion and equality are the norm. For this to happen, sustainability must be a part of our mission statement:
With quality at its centre, Prairie Dog Brewing will strengthen the social and economic fabric of our community through disruptive, ethical and sustainable business practices that provide a proven model for other businesses to follow, leading to a legacy of change within our community greater than a single company could achieve on its own.
First, if we fail to design and operate our business sustainably, we will go out of business and cannot execute on our mission at all. Second, even when we’ve settled into a sustainable business model that works for us, we must continue directing our efforts and some of our profits toward driving that change within our community, or we will still fail in our mission to create a sustainable legacy.
We see community as meaning several things:
The physical communities immediately surrounding our location and the people who live there, who we want to positively impact by providing an inclusive “third place” where they can gather with their friends and family, or provide them with a warm, comforting meal through takeout and delivery.
The community of businesses around us, both locally and throughout Alberta (especially locally-owned and operated businesses). A larger portion of each dollar we spend on one of these businesses is likely to stay in our province and contribute to our economic well being, compared with other businesses, and we can help support like-minded businesses by spending our dollars with them.
Communities of people based on individual interests, tastes and backgrounds. We are an inclusive brand; we want to share ourselves and the benefits of our actions with people from all walks of life, which is why we put so much focus on allergies, dietary preferences, accessibility, and maintaining a friendly environment for LGBTQ+ people.
When we built our mission statement, we intentionally left sustainability as a broad concept rather than drilling into a single category like climate change or energy usage, because the issues that impact our community are likely to vary with time and locality, and also our business may be in a better position to address certain aspects of sustainability at different points in its lifecycle. The important thing, for us, is that we’re always working on it.
“Change” is also intentionally vague in our mission statement because we are constantly learning and adapting to the realities of the world around us, especially the restaurant industry, where we are relatively new and are still learning. It’s important to know what the rules of the game are and why they exist, before we try to break them all with our disruptive efforts, potentially suffering unintended consequences as a result.
We have quietly focused on sustainability rather than shouting it proudly to the world because we are a humble bunch, and we believe that our actions speak louder than our words. Sometimes, though, we worry that people won’t understand our actions, especially because sustainability is the most common reason why we choose not to do some of the things that people want us to do.
How to Create a Disruptive, Sustainable Business Model
As we mentioned earlier on, the first major goal of our mission is to build a sustainable business model that serves as an example for others to follow. Unfortunately, the restaurant industry currently has a lot of bad habits that we do not want to fold into our identity and carry forward for others to follow. Abuses of power, misogyny, sexism, racism, mental health issues, dishonest labour practices, and deceptive sales/marketing tactics are pretty much par for the course in the industry right now, at least according to a lot of the people we’ve brought in for interviews or spoken with candidly about their employers. While we could stand up on a soap box with all 3 years of our experience in the business and decry our peers for the way they behave, it’s a better use of our time and energy to look at the root causes of these issues and focus on how we can prevent ourselves from succumbing to the same fate.
Over the past several decades, restaurateurs have seen their costs of doing business rise steeply, not only from ingredients, which have become massively more expensive and globalized, to new business and income taxes at every level of government, plus higher energy costs, minimum wages and stricter labour rules, progressively increasing payroll taxes, increases to insurance premiums due to new classes of liability that apply to restaurants, increased costs for cleaning and maintenance to satisfy ever-expanding health guidelines, new music royalties, software subscriptions/licenses and probably a hundred other things that conspire to increase costs by multitudes. The basic fact is that running a restaurant today is way more expensive and has far more moving parts than it ever had in the past, and people have to be paid to manage all those moving parts, too.
Yet at the same time as costs of doing business have steeply risen, restaurant menu prices and consumer price expectations have not gone up at nearly the same rate, forcing many restaurateurs to cut corners over and over again until there’s practically nothing left of their core values, creating the conditions that foster the problems above.
So the challenge for us at Prairie Dog Brewing is not at all superficial. We suffer the same high costs of doing business as other restaurateurs, and we are also paying benefits and fair wages to our staff, while making every effort to strictly abide by Alberta labour laws. We are working hard to employ honest and transparent marketing and pricing to our products, while also sourcing our ingredients as locally as possible. The path we’ve chosen to walk down may be what a lot of restaurateurs would consider suicidal to their own business.
For Prairie Dog Brewing to truly succeed at our mission of sustainability, we must find a way to overcome those high costs through efficiency, profitable products & services, honesty & transparency, and active listening.
Efficiency is critical to our mission. Labour, resources, communication, and planning all must be highly coordinated, with a lean team of passionate, caring people that maintain a focus on continuous improvement. We aim to hire people who are adaptive and flexible, and especially those who learn quickly and ask a lot of questions, and we rapidly weed out people who don’t fit our culture. In the short term, this is a very expensive way to hire for a restaurant and brewery, but in the long term it pays dividends because we have loyal people who are passionate about our culture and mission, who jump in and help out, no matter what obstacle (or opportunity) comes our way.
Profitable Products and Services
First, let us be clear that we are not trying to compete against our competitors’ pricing, or trying to follow or emulate any other restaurants’ menus or the latest fads or trends. Our business is as different from most of our competitors as Apple has been to Microsoft. For the most part, we really don’t concern ourselves with what our competitors are doing or what they charge for a similar product, because our prices reflect our own values and needs, including our costs of doing business and what we believe is fair for the quality of the offering. Our menu contains only things that we truly want to make because we think you, the consumer, will really enjoy consuming them, and because we are proud of our staff who made them, and the local producers that brought the ingredients into existence.
So while we absolutely have to focus on building a profitable menu, just like our competitors do, we choose to target profitability through both our efficiency and a highly strategic selection of ingredients from local producers, where we can cut out the costs of (non-Albertan) middlemen and increase quality through direct supply chains and good relationships. We also target profitability by setting pricing appropriately for the level of effort that goes into the food we produce, which we mostly make from scratch. Although our labour costs are higher for scratch-made foods, our ingredient costs are lower and we are also able to find opportunities for efficiency gains here, such as using common ingredients across a lot of menu items and using what otherwise might become a wasted byproduct of producing one food item as an ingredient in another. Making our own craft beer also helps a great deal by reducing our costs, compared with purchasing the beer from a third party.
Honesty and Transparency
Consumers need to know exactly what they’re paying for and why, both what’s on the menu and what our business does with their dollars to improve our community and lead a legacy of change within it. We facilitate a lot of this “honest talk” through articles like this one, social posts, and direct conversations with our customers and suppliers, but the most important thing we do is have open, direct conversations with our staff, who we trust to be our ambassadors to the public and do most of the “honest talk” for us. This is a big difference compared with a lot of other restaurants, where the staff may be isolated away from the “business” and have literally no clue why a particular change was made or how well (or poorly) the business that they work for is doing (thus giving them no opportunity to help it improve).
Although corporations are considered “people” in a lot of situations, they do not get voter’s rights in Canada, so they must ultimately rely on “the people” to represent them, not just trade organizations. We truly believe that if restaurateurs, as a group, were more transparent about their true costs of doing business and the challenges they face, consumers might be more supportive and empathetic of pricing changes, and certainly wouldn’t tolerate governments that continuously ram new costs and constraints down the throats of small businesses, all while making it easier for foreign businesses to come in and take us over rather than protecting us.
While honesty, transparency, pride in our offerings and efficiency are important, it is just as important for us to actively listen to our staff and customers about what they like about our offerings, don’t like, and would love to see down the road.
We read every single review that comes to us on Google, our delivery partner platforms, or through our reservations system, as well as all of the comments on social media and to our feedback email list – and when I say “We”, I mean, an actual owner or high-level manager at Prairie Dog Brewing, not an outsourced marketing company that provides canned responses and sends us a monthly engagement report. We gather up this review sentiment and share it with our management team on a weekly basis, and actively engage in discussions about how we can evolve to improve the guest/customer experience and our reviews.
For example, when we took up online pickup and delivery ordering at the start of the pandemic, we started gaining a ton of insight into our menu offerings and guest/customer perceptions that we did not have beforehand. For the first time, we had a central location where food issues were being reported, such as “too expensive”, “dried out”, “too small of a portion”, “not packaged well”, “not tasty”, etc. We spent the past year constantly iterating on our menu offerings based on these reviews, until we had almost completely eliminated food complaints that were not related to driver issues (outside of our control). Now that we went through that effort, every person who orders food from us benefits in some small way, increasing sentimentality towards us and help us to gain more of a following. So we know that listening to and earnestly hearing customers is very, very important!
How Do We Create a Greater Legacy of Sustainable Change?
This is a broad question, with hundreds of possible topics to choose from, and which many future articles will delve into. Broadly, Prairie Dog Brewing believes in corporate social responsibility and the “triple bottom line”, which means we care just as much about people and the planet as we do about profits, because ignoring either people or the planet in the pure pursuit of profit, as is the norm for business at present, has substantial hidden costs that are likely to hurt Albertans over the longer term. Our emphasis on the triple bottom line has led us to consider changing over to a certified B-Corp, which is right in our wheelhouse in terms of values and frame of mind.
Let’s look at the people and the planet aspects of the triple bottom line here, since profits are fairly well covered earlier in this article.
People means that we strive to improve the community of people within and around our organization. People on our team should some day leave us in a better state than they arrived in – mentally, physically and financially. We aim to build our staff into more confident and capable people, many of whom could very well lead their own businesses some day. We also hire inclusively and provide opportunities to all capable/qualified applicants – as we said earlier, adaptability, flexibility and a desire to learn and improve are the most important hiring criteria for us. Likewise, the same applies to our guests – we want them and their friends & families to have a safe and enjoyable eating and/or drinking experience with us, and we maintain extremely high standards for food quality, cleanliness and food safety, including for those with allergies.
Planet means that we aim to leave this tiny blue dot with a razor-thin atmosphere that we live on in a better state than we found it in when we opened for business. Nothing comes for free in this world, everything has a cost, especially convenience. The industrial food system that we are partaking in has horrific costs when you pull back the veil and truly look at what is going on, including what it is doing to our planet and to its people.
First and foremost, we firmly believe that food should be eaten as close to the source as possible. The further we eat food from its source, the worse it is for the planet, both because it it is difficult for the eater to see the impact of their eating on the environment where that food was grown, and because a greater footprint will be left by that food as it has to be processed, refrigerated and transported to distant markets. Furthermore, additional packaging and repackaging is typically required the further the food has to travel from its source.
For example, cattle farming and soy plantations are destroying the Amazon rainforest at record rates, right now, in order to supply an ever-expanding global demand for protein, both meat and plant-based. Maybe the question shouldn’t be so much about whether people should choose to eat meat or plants as a protein source, but about where they choose to get their protein from. We Albertans are fortunate to live one some of the best territory for free range cattle in the world – grazing naturally and without deforestation all along the foothills – and we have very high standards for animal welfare, safety, environmental controls, and ethics – so you can decide how that compares with Brazilian cattle and soy farmers working illegally in the rainforest. Likewise, our farmers have been growing wheat and barley here sustainably for generations, so people should be able to enjoy beer and barbecue here, at least in moderation, without any guilt!
All of this said, within our meat and grain supply chains we still see a lot of room for improvement. For example, it is unbelievably difficult to get brisket in this province, at least at BBQ-restaurant quantities, without going through an international behemoth packager with a horrific track record – one which focuses solely on profit, damning the people who work for them and paying no mind to the planet in the process (this was pretty obvious during the pandemic era). This can only be worked around if restaurants, intermediary meat suppliers, and farmers all work together to find another solution, even if the meat has to cost more, so we’re always looking to find a way to do that.
We lived in California for several years and witnessed the impacts of climate change first hand, so we very much believe the overwhelming scientific and anecdotal evidence that it is real, and that it represents a clear threat to the future well-being of everyone, including Albertans. Often people only think about earthquakes when they imagine the hazards of California, but the extreme 500+year drought that has caused fires that ate entire towns and left huge populations living in clouds of acrid smoke, massive regions to run entirely out of water, and frequent power outages pose a far greater threat to life. It also offers a continuous reminder of climate change caused by ignorance and greed. We absolutely do not want to see Canada fail as the United States have so clearly done, so we work very hard to keep our energy consumption down to a bare minimum, to do our small part, as we believe all people should.
For example, when we built our pub, one of our sustainability projects was to personally convert all of our (recovered and reused) light fixtures to support LED bulbs, right from the beginning. We put all that extra effort into refurbishing our lights and converting them to support LED because we believed it was the right thing to do, not because the government offered subsidies. Ironically, the government did offer subsidies, but we would have only been eligible for them if we went with old-school, inefficient lights and later replaced them with new units – requiring us to install lights twice, waste more energy, and send the first set of light fixtures to the landfill, which would go completely against the spirit of the subsidy.
Aside from being good for our planet and avoiding a pointless waste of resources, saving energy is just a smart business decision for the third P, profit. We pay for the energy we use, and with carbon taxes now present, we are paying a lot more per unit of energy than we used to, so we’re very thankful that we made those early efforts to reduce energy consumption, which we will discuss in future articles.
We hope you found this read an interesting introduction into who we are and what we’re all about, particularly with respect to sustainability. In the coming weeks and months we will post more articles where we will delve deeper into our efforts to reduce packaging waste and single use plastics, food waste, water usage, and bulk waste, and recapture of waste energy, among other things, which all contribute to our triple bottom line.
Thanks for joining us!