The Carlton Hotel: Fighting food waste and championing sustainable seaside tourism
The Carlton Hotel is an independent, 38-room converted Victorian hotel, located just a stone’s throw from Ilfracombe’s bustling harbour in North Devon.
We sat down with Eliot Seabourn-Wren, the hotel’s Chef Patron, to talk about food, food waste, and how doing the right thing from an environmental perspective often makes the most financial sense
Could you start by introducing yourself and telling us a bit about The Carlton?
I’m Eliot Seabourn-Wren, one of the joint owners and partners of the business. My role is Chef Patron, which means my remit is quite food-focused – although I do wear other hats. I also look after marketing, back-office, staff, and my partner looks after guest relations, front-of-house activities, like reception and bedrooms.
We’re now in our ninth year of successful trading at The Carlton – when we bought the business, it was operating as a big bed and breakfast with 48 rooms. In those 9 years, a lot has changed, both for the business and of course externally. Business wise, we’ve now got 38 contemporary well-designed rooms, and we’ve invested around £2m – including making the whole building more energy efficient – and more sustainable.
Some of these investments aren’t necessarily obvious to our guests – I’m talking about more efficient boilers, for example. We’ve also replaced all the windows and sashes (so they don’t rattle anymore!), we’ve re-wired, we’ve insulated, and we’ve put LED lights on sensors in situ.
Ultimately, we’ve felt that all this work to make us more efficient was the right thing to do – as well as it making commercial sense. This past year has been a challenge with extraordinarily high energy bills, which I estimate would have been 25% worse without the improvements above.
How would you describe your approach to food at The Carlton?
We have a strong traditional food and drink offer, which encompasses breakfast, some lunches, dinner every night and events. Our customer mix is a classic blend of guests, which means we cater for corporate, leisure, activity and group guests.
Most importantly, our whole ethos at The Carlton is that we support and buy local from trusted suppliers. I’ve always been passionate about that. I mean, it’s not just a great story on the menu. It’s the right thing to do, and also the smart thing! If you’ve got a problem, you can get directly in touch with your supplier and they sort it out, like coming back with a second drop, and my guests get the full benefit of this level of service. It really helps that so many of my suppliers are in town, and no more than 20 miles away, so fixing issues is really easy to do. Another example of the true benefit of a local supply chain – the locally-landed day boat caught fish is so fresh, so that once I receive it the fish, its natural freshness gives it longevity in my fish fridge. I feel we collaborate with our suppliers, so that as the seasons roll in we can take advantage of seasonal pricing as much as the actual seasonal produce.
We’re also very proactive with how we repurpose our ingredients and re-work dishes, to extend the life of our produce as much as possible. There’s lots of ways we try to be smart with our ingredients, and I really try to instil that into the team.
How did you first come across OIio?
It was early this summer when an Olio representative reached out to us. I liked the ideas being suggested which seemed to be in tune with our beliefs. After a few emails and online meeting we agreed to run a no obligation pilot programme. And here we are now!
I hoped that Olio would allow us to really reduce our wastage further. So as well as repurposing our food internally, with obvious routes like staff meals or blast chilling and freezing where possible, there has been product that has always been wasted, and the majority is plate waste. We wanted to find another way of using our surplus. So that’s how we arrived at Olio.
What elements of Olio do you find work particularly well for The Carlton?
Olio’s volunteers – or Food Waste Heroes (the people who actually come to the hotel to collect the food) are brilliant. We’ve established a great relationship – we’ve worked together to find the best times of day for them to collect food, and they’ll text me in the morning to confirm collections. There’s been a huge amount of flexibility which works really well for us.
We’re located in a beautiful part of North Devon, along the coastal strip, in a town whose population swells in the summer months with tourists of course. Just like many coastal resorts there is another side to the town, and it’s well known that the town sits in one of more deprived areas with associated issues like lower life expectancy linked to problems around health and wellbeing and regular all year round employment opportunities.
In a very small way, through working with Olio, I feel we are able to do the right thing by helping the local community. It’s good to know the food is going to people that can use it or need it.
At the end of the day, I have a pot for charitable and community focussed initiatives, and I’m using this fund for that. Plus, locally, I do think it’s good for our name – every time a Food Waste Hero tells someone they’ve collected food from The Carlton, there’s a benefit, and a positive association.
Did you have any concerns initially about working with Olio?
A small concern was as the surplus food we’re donating isn’t “off-the-menu” standard, might that give a negative association and perhaps damage the brand? For example, if we box up a simple mince dish, I worried that some people would think “Crikey, what are they serving up at The Carlton?” However, I’m much more relaxed about this now. It’s the right thing to do, and I think that outweighs those concerns. And the kitchen team have now started to share tips with the Food Waste Heroes on how the end user might use that dish to repurpose it into something more creative with say, some ingredients in your home store cupboard.
The only other thing that has been a concern is using disposable packaging to hand over food to the volunteers, which I’m not that keen on. But I’ve been discussing a possible work-around for that with the Olio team, and we’re talking about giving the volunteers reusable containers to bring back once they’ve redistributed the food. So we can hopefully solve that.
What has exceeded your expectations since working with us?
Locally, we’ve got other brilliant charities that do a drop-in meal service once or twice a week. But they have to use what’s available to them, and whatever’s been donated, which means there can sometimes be a fair bit of processed food involved.
What I love about Olio is that we can deliver a really high-quality, fresh food offer for local people. So long as we look after it, I’m very comfortable that your Food Waste Heroes really know their stuff on Food Safety. So it’s just nice that people aren’t getting just sticky buns and a packet of crisps. Don’t get me wrong, I love a sticky bun – but it’s nice that what we can offer has more of a nutritional benefit, too.
Could you tell us about any other sustainability or management initiatives that you’re running across your hotel that you’re particularly proud of?
As well as our local supply chain, seasonal menus and traceability of our fish, we’ve made some effort in other initiatives. Five years ago, we put in FOG (fat, oil and grease traps) to all our kitchen sinks, which prevent fat and oil going into the local sewers and causing blockages. It’s not that nice for someone to have to deal with on our side, but we know it’s the right thing to do.
We recently put in an EV charge point for electric car drivers – as there’s very limited outlets locally. As with all these things, there’s an element of doing the right thing from an environmental perspective, but it often makes good financial sense. The EV charging point opens The Carlton up to a wider customer base. The grease traps extend the life of our Victorian drainage system. You see what I’m saying.
Over the years we’ve encouraged team members to access our wellbeing support. What this really means is the business has funded personal training and wellness sessions for any team member interested. As an example, our hard working housekeeping team could have a yoga stretch session to assist in keeping their mobility in top condition. We know it’s back breaking work so to be able to help prevent injuries in any team members makes good commercial and moral sense.
What advice would you give to other hotels like yours looking to operate more sustainably?
I would recommend talking with the whole crew or team, slow down and really take stock. You will have low hanging fruit, things that you could readily do tomorrow. And then there are those actions that you can do in 12 months, and then there’s a 5 year plan. You’ve just got to compartmentalise it. It’s not overly complicated. You have to recognise that there will usually be an upfront cost, but this is normally an investment which will either pay you back in terms of monetary value, positive association or simply just doing the right thing so you can sleep better at night!
And finally, on a scale of 1-10, how likely are you to recommend redistributing your food waste via Olio to other hotels?
It’s a great 9 from me.
Well I don’t think anyone should ever get a 10, just for the record. There should always be room for improvement! And that 1 point knocked off is just about the packaging point I mentioned earlier. But I’m pleased we have Olio in place. As I’ve said a few times, it feels like the right thing to do.
We’re not in this business for a quick buck – we’re in it because we love doing it, and hospitality is in our blood. And with all these sustainability initiatives, it’s something we should all be doing. In the long run, these baby steps really help all of us.