Have you ever ordered a bagel and schmear and been handed a flimsy plastic spoon and a tiny plastic tub? Have you then had a burning desire to throw the un-schmeared bagel back at your bored, bespectacled barista and yell “FINISH THE JOB?!” If so, you might identify with this story.
(Spoiler Alert: This story is not about bagels.)
My anger has nothing to do with bagels (nor baristas), and everything to do with the concepts of waste and corporate social responsibility.
Compare these two scenarios.
Scenario 1: You order a bagel. The bagelier slices and toasts the bagel, then uses a dedicated knife to apply cream cheese from a large vat. The knife is then replaced in the vat, and you’re handed the warm, cut, and schmeared bagel wrapped in a paper sleeve and a single napkin.
Scenario 2: You order a bagel. The bagelier asks you, “for here or to go” and you confirm that it’s “for here.” The bagelier slices and toasts the bagel, then puts it on a paper plate along with a plastic tub of schmear and a plastic knife. By the time that he’s called you, the bagel has begun to cool, and between the time you pick up the bagel, pop open the top of the tub, and apply the cream cheese, your bagel is nearly room temperature. You then throw away the knife, tub, and plate all within eyesight of your bagelier.
Not only is the first example more efficient time-wise (note that the bagelier treats every order as a to-go, increasing the speed of delivery), but it also makes more sense environmentally, economically, and experientially. Let’s break that down.
Environmentally: Imagine 100 people ordered a bagel with cream cheese. At the first cafe, the byproduct would be 100 paper sleeves – not a big waste considering the necessity of the sleeve in preventing a mid-meal schmear smear, and actually saving water by serving the dual role of plate. At the second cafe, the byproduct would be 100 plastic tubs (which have to be cleaned before recycled), 100 plastic knives (same as above), and 100 paper plates (which are usually completely untouched but are by and large thrown out). Even compostable utensils are useless compared to the first scenario, as reduction is always more sustainable and less resource-intensive than recycling. Also, despite decades of recycling, people still don’t know how to separate, so compostable and recyclable items oftentimes join the journey to the landfill.
Economically: The true pain point for effecting change is the low price of resources. Based on a quick scan of WebstaurantStore.com, we can roughly estimate that restaurants spend only $0.02 per knife, around $0.04 for the lid and tub, and $0.05 per plate. For $0.11 a customer, it seems unlikely that any cafe will change its policy based on price, especially with the considerable markup of the food items covering the excess. However, the restaurant business already operates on very thin margins, and $11 lost per day on 100 inefficient bagels can stack up over the year. If a cafe operates 350 days out of the year, that’s $3,850 lost revenue – maybe that’s enough of an incentive for a small business to consider alternatives.
Experientially: When do you buy a bagel in a cafe? If you’re like me, it’s when you’re already on your way to somewhere else and want a quick bite to eat in transit. Operative word: quick. If I wanted to schmear my own bagel, I would buy all of the materials at home, and it would take me the exact same amount of time as waiting for the bagel maker to toast it in store. The immediate experience of buying a bagel is diminished by the work that I now have to do to complete the transaction, and that makes me not want to return to the cafe. UX (user experience) design is not limited to tech – it’s critical that every establishment evaluate what outcome they’d consider optimal and what steps are necessary to achieve that ideal objective. (Jeff Axup’s blog, aptly named Restaurant UX, provides more examples.) If I’m turned off by this wasteful practice and blasé attitude towards customers, I’m not going to eat at that cafe again, which costs the cafe future profits.
As consumers, we have incredible power to affect supply-chain economics, through boycotts, product recalls, and simple behavioral changes. However, for the most part, we default to a price-comparison when choosing everyday goods. This is a normal function of being a cost-conscious consumer, particularly in a society of widening inequality.
Therefore, it’s the responsibility of the business – of all of those in the supply chain, really – to think deeply about what resources they offer and how often they’re made available. There’s a big difference between handing someone a bagel with a knife, for instance, and pointing them in the direction of the accoutrement kiosk. When companies take a deeper look at the lifecycle of their products and identify even one area of improvement, they are taking a step towards reducing society’s so-called “dependence” on finite resources and reimagining a process in which human-centered design reigns supreme.
As a human, that’s a future I’d like to see. Now schmear my damn bagel.