Securing 13 restaurants’ worth of fresh, sustainable vegetables and hormone-free meats every day is challenging enough, but the extreme weather conditions and species extinctions driven by climate change create even greater variability in the availability, quality and cost of food. Traditionally, fast food chains relied on a limited set of highly-processed foods to achieve economies of scale, but Dig Inn is championing an alternate model – one that prioritizes long-term vitality of the land, and the communities that manage it, by sourcing from environmentally-responsibly growers, and intentionally diversifying and building flexibility into its ingredient pool.
Sourcing local, in-season produce
55% of Dig Inn’s weekly produce comes from local farms (local defined as within a 300 mile radius) . Reducing the distance that food travels from farm to table decreases greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), which are especially high for perishable goods that may need to be shipped/flown-in expediently. De-centralizing food production has the broader benefit of ensuring that if there were a natural disaster in one part of the world, local areas would still have a safety stock rather than being completely cut off. Sourcing locally also compels Dig inn to adapt part of their menu to what is in-season, and in doing so, retraining consumption habits to start with what the earth can sustainably provide, as opposed to what any individual demands in the moment.
Organics and diversity
Dig Inn seeks out suppliers that follow organic pest control management, practice crop rotation and polyculture, and the business currently sources 17% of produce needs from rare or less well-known vegetable varieties (think eastern broccoli or honeynut squash) . The idea is that reducing monoculture and encouraging more sustainable farming practices lead to improved soil quality and higher crop yields long term. Avoiding synthetic fertilizers not only reduces GHGs from producing the chemicals, but organically-managed soils sequester more carbon and perform better in volatile dry and wet weather conditions .
In the U.S. today, 30-40% of food goes uneaten , and food waste consumes 21% of all the country’s freshwater, 19% of all fertilizer, 18% of cropland, and 21% of landfill volumes . Food waste is responsible for generating 8% of global GHGs . Dig Inn has shifted 5% of its produce towards rescued “imperfect” produce whose appearance would not meet grocery store standards, but are perfectly nutritious . Dig Inn also works with vendors like Happy Valley Farm to use excess meat trimmed off the chuck roll, which would normally be thrown out, in its beef meatballs. To manage its own waste, it partners with non-profits like Rescuing Leftover Cuisine and Lovin’ Spoonfuls to deliver unused food to homeless shelters and soup kitchens at the end of each day.
Empathizing with suppliers
Increasing trust and communication among different members in a supply chain reduces total costs to the system – Dig inn has close relationships with the farms they purchase from, which allows them greater visibility into supply, faster reaction times (e.g., recognizing end customer preferences and suggesting growth of new crops) and transparency on expected COGS. In fact, Dig Inn is starting their own 40-acre farm to walk a mile in farmers’ shoes, where they can test out new environmentally-friendly farming practices and grow their own unique varieties .
Challenges and opportunities
Dig Inn’s environmentally-conscious sourcing practices create a lot of complexity: managing a large, diverse group of smaller-to-mid-sized farms requires more sophisticated models for matching supply and demand. Consumer expectations must be addressed when there is a sudden under-supply or termination of a favored product, and frequent menu changes to incorporate specialty items may reduce throughput time for orders. Dig Inn already mitigates some risk by planning new menus far in advance so they can plan against growing cycles, as well as introducing trial runs of produce that are variable in supply before expanding to more locations. Going forward, the organization can benefit from expanding its data analytics capabilities: 1) tracking real-time consumption patterns and required supply lead times for all its produce types, to not only better project future demand internally, but potentially selling its market insights to companies that want to predict or act upon cutting-edge food trends, 2) measuring the positive impact of their practices on eliminated emissions/waste to evaluate ROI beyond qualitative metrics, which would spur more action by other industry players, 3) collecting data across all its farmers that demonstrate the impact of various changes in farming techniques/crop mix on productivity and profitability, to offer data-driven consultations to farms based on aggregated data that is not currently shareable.
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Photo Credit: Dig Inn, 2016
    Phone interview with Dig Inn managers, November 2016.
 Food and agricultural organization of the United Nations, 2016, http://www.fao.org/organicag/oa-specialfeatures/oa-climatechange/en/
 United States Department of Agriculture Office of the Chief Economist, September 2015, http://www.usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/faqs.htm
 ReFED 2016, https://www.refed.com/?sort=economic-value-per-ton
 International Energy Agency, 2014, http://www.wri.org/blog/2016/01/champions-call-reduce-global-food-loss-and-waste