The Dutch caterer Hutten aspires to become a leading sustainable player in the food market. Managing director Drees Peter van den Bosch explains the moves he needs to make to transform his organization. "We don't tell people that our fried snacks are vegetarian."

Most of us agree that our food system has to change. But how do we inspire that change? Drees Peter van den Bosch’ motivation is simple: "I think about what I will say when my grandchildren ask me what I understood about the consequences of our behavior, and what I did in response. In fact, I wonder about that; we already know a lot about the impact of our consumption system and we are slow to act on it. On the other hand, I can see why we make choices for the short term: first of all, in some companies the shareholders are in charge. In addition, during a crisis it is better to be part of a more privileged group.  You often get through hard times better. That is the paradox; everyone wants a brighter future for their children, but in order to give those children a solid start before a real crisis occurs, we still feel the need to realize some short-term profits."

Three switches

Van den Bosch is torn, as even a catering company needs a healthy financial position to contribute to a transition to secure a better future. It’s true, Den Bosch says, and adds “we can do a lot right now by controlling our supply. There are three important switches we can slide. Seduction, where we incorporate sustainable options into great recipes and present them attractively. Reduce waste by working more intelligently and flexibly. And offer plant-based alternatives for certain products. For example, our Filet Americain - a typical Dutch meat spread - is fifty percent plant-based. If people choose vegetarian fried snacks for lunch, we don’t feel the need to mention that. Some may find that very paternalistic, but so be it. The fact that people can choose from four different croquettes - a dutch fried meat snack - at our buffet, doesn't help them at all. Instead, we just offer them one incredibly delicious vegetarian croquette, and make sure you really don't taste the difference compared to a meat croquette."

Shifting standards

It sounds radical not to give consumers a choice with their own lunch. But Van den Bosch thinks it's an insight into the new normal. "Norms are shifting. Nowadays we think it's absurd to smoke when dropping off your child at school. But it was very normal 30 years ago. Today we are already having strong conversations about the meat tax and abolishing VAT on fruits and vegetables. In ten years time, people will no longer be able to buy a gasoline-powered car. These are all changes that are paternalistic and will be resisted at first, but we will really have to do something. We had a big water shortage this summer while Pakistan was flooding. The fact we, as a reaction, decided that you can only get a vegetarian croquette doesn't seem like such a problem to me." 

The CEO also experiences what happens with customers. "At first, guests at our locations have to get used to us offering a much more plant-based menu, both at the company restaurants and at other locations. When we then test their satisfaction a few weeks later, it is at an equal level as before or even slightly higher. This really isn’t an elitist approach. Meat is more expensive than beans or vegetables, so it's actually egalitarian to cater with less animal protein. We demonstrate this in practice, because we also apply this strategy at big soccer stadiums, where we provide the food and drink. The management there wants to become the most sustainable stadium in the world, so in the future they will just have a vegetarian snack with the beer at halftime. If they already realize that, I'm sure no one there will have a problem with it."

Measuring what you eat

Van den Bosch hopes that net positivity will soon become measurable. "We've come a long way in measuring CO2. So whatever we save there, we can include in a pitch and eventually pay out to the farmers who counter those emissions. I would like to be able to measure biodiversity and soil fertility as well. Because if it's measurable, clients expect all bidding caterers to justify that in their tender. A product that improves biodiversity and soil fertility is then worth more to them, and that revenue should flow back to the farmer. But even if we can't measure that yet, we should start working on it. It should not be an excuse to wait any longer, because even without hard measurability, everyone knows what the facts are. Doing nothing is hypocritical."

In the end, "we need to put more value on biodiversity and soil quality and let the revenues flow back to farmers.”