In his book The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek champions a move away from trying to be the ‘best’ and towards a constant pursuit to be ‘better’, a shift from a finite way of thinking to an infinite-minded one.

The psychology behind this is that ‘best’ implies something can be finished, that you have set out to achieve a certain goal and have done it. The problem is this can drag us into short-term thinking as our eyes are drawn down from the horizon to hit our goals for the quarter. Decisions get made based on needing to hit arbitrary criteria without understanding the long-term consequences. Sometimes these decisions start to become questionable in a phenomenon he terms ‘ethical fading’.

Casual dining

Even before the pandemic, over-expansion had driven the casual dining sector into a crash. A restaurant founder slowly (or not) grows a successful group of restaurants based on a clear vision. In order to grow further, they get a venture capital firm to buy in at nine sites, who (to get their desired return) look to scale it to 30 and sell it to another VC firm. The next investors are even more ambitious and want to get their ROI by scaling it to 100 sites.

This in itself is not a bad thing, but what often happens is that in order to grow quickly and hit targets over five years, brands make short term decisions like taking on sites with rents that are too high, don’t scale internal processes to ensure excellence, can’t hire and train enough great people, use cheaper ingredients to cut cost and increase consistency. In short, something that was excellent scales to something mediocre. In this example, the idea of being the best, most successful business is measured in being the biggest. The vast majority of these businesses have undergone major restructures over the past couple of years.

Success, money, growth: I wouldn’t argue against any of these as being important. But surely the goal should be to create something to last, not an empire built on a foundation of sand.

So what does it mean to strive for ‘better’? It means you are on a journey that is never complete. As any successful restaurateur knows, if you want to succeed you always have to be watching, thinking, learning, adjusting, responding. The Japanese have a word for this kind of culture of continuous improvement, kaizen, a philosophy best personified by Alan Yau and the brand he founded, Wagamama.

You have to be slightly obsessed with what you are doing to be able to live up to this, which is why great hospitality people have always been a special breed. It is not just the people that are important, however. If we are looking to constantly grow and be better, we need to make sure we are operating in a system that can sustainably support us.

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Hospitality and the Circular Economy

Looking at the principles of a circular economy, there is a clear link with hospitality. The traditional linear approach (take-make-waste) is based on a finite mindset - you take natural resources to build a shiny new restaurant, operate it for a few years, then the next person comes along and puts most of your restaurant in the skip.

However, this is not how nature works. Nature is in an infinite circular game, endlessly recycling itself into the next iteration.

The linear approach is actually one of scarcity, where resources get used up and eventually we run out. The circular approach is one of abundance, of resources that through careful design and intelligent systems can be kept at their most valuable level and constantly reused.

The Circular Restaurant Guide produced by the Sustainable Restaurant Association and ReLondon is a fantastic starting point for anyone interested in this, as it covers all the aspects involved in operating a restaurant.

As designers, our attention at Object Space Place has naturally turned to look at how we can create physical restaurant designs that are circular in their nature. It is clear that doing this will take a huge amount of change to the way things are traditionally done – the way that materials are sourced and specified, designing things with disassembly in mind, focusing on an extreme minimising of waste, building partnerships with people that can repair and restore. But that does not make the work any less necessary.

Given the wake-up call provided to everyone by the pandemic, shouldn’t we all be determined to help move hospitality to an infinite mindset so we can create an industry that is genuinely sustainable?

  • David Chenery is the founder and director of sustainable hospitality design agency Object Space Place