Interview Singapore The Banter

The Banter: Going Green with Loco Group General Manager Will Leonard

Whether we’re still talking about the validity of Greta Thunberg’s points years on from her UN speech or getting a new set of reusable straws as a gift, environmentalism undeniably remains the hot topic in everyone’s minds. But how much of environmentalism is from the heart, or just a thinly-veiled attempt at corporate capitalism?

For Mexican restaurant and bar group The Loco Group, it’s the former, and one that they actively keep up and improve year-on-year with their initiatives and efforts. Most recently, their sustainability journey has led to them implementing an adopt-a-tree initiative, where patrons can pay $6, which will be matched by the group planting a tree to aid in Borneo’s reforestation efforts. Their Robertson Quay restaurant will also offer a carbon-conscious menu that features regionally sourced seafood and an expanded selection of vegetarian options.

“There’s a strong culture of eating out here, so we’ve seen business doing alright during this period, while also giving us an opportunity to slow down and look at our sustainability efforts.”

Speaking to Will Leonard, General Manager of the Loco Group, we found out more about how the group has expanded its efforts over the years, and what he personally thinks of environmental efforts today. “We’ve been quite fortunate in regards to COVID-19,” he says. “There’s a strong culture of eating out here, so we’ve seen business doing alright during this period, while also giving us an opportunity to slow down and look at our sustainability efforts.”

Will explains how he used to grow up watching his father garden, where his childhood home even had chickens around the place, and how that has led him to a lifelong love of nature. “It’s always been important to me, on a personal basis, and being part of this group, with 20,000 customers coming through our doors every month, we have the power to do things on a larger scale,” says Will. “We dove deeper into making our business more sustainable, and realised that the best way of making change is to influence others, especially with just four restaurants on our hands. The aim is to share our story, aid others in getting started on their sustainability journey, and amplify the effects and efforts from there.”

The Loco Group offers in-house filtered water

“As a brand, we wanted to take on more responsibility, and not just pass the costs of sustainability onto the consumer, or sell them a new product.”

Will realises how easy it is to claim sustainability without actually putting in the work. “As a brand, we wanted to take on more responsibility, and not just pass the costs of sustainability onto the consumer, or sell them a new product,” says Will. “What I came to realise was that we need to be honest with them about what we’re doing, and not just imitate what everyone else is already doing. With some businesses, you can see they use stock images and a lot of jargon, but for us, we wanted to show and say what we were doing in plain English, where customers can tell if it’s sincere or not. Take for example the QR codes on the menus, and to see consumers actively scanning them to find out more, it’s proof that we are engaging with them.”

It’s not hard to see what he means – the Loco Group’s website contains a comprehensive set of details and a timeline of what they’ve achieved so far. “Sustainability is a progressive journey that doesn’t end, and simply reducing the environmental cost of our business is something everyone can implement,” says Will. “Take for example how we switched to a fish source that was more sustainable, and found a good price for it. It’s important to start a conversation about these things to understand the environmental costs of the alternative.”

The Loco Group has switched to more sustainably farmed fish

“And even though it seems like the individual can’t do a lot, the customer is really the most influential person in the whole chain.”

“I like to believe that people are inherently good. You know how people found out about big brands that used child labour and put them in sweatshops, or how there were incidents like the 2013 Dhaka garment factory collapse? People woke up to the true cost of fast fashion, and it pushed the fashion industry into attempting to be more sustainable,” Will adds. “And even though it seems like the individual can’t do a lot, the customer is really the most influential person in the whole chain. It all boils back down to economics, and if customer demand drops because of their awareness of the unsustainable practices of these companies, and just by having consumers reduce their consumption by say 10%, that’s a move that will influence companies to change their way of working.”

“And I think the same applies to the F&B industry, where people are becoming more cognizant and aware of how even the things they buy from the supermarket can affect the environment. The way I see it, either businesses are already doing it, or eventually, the government will make you do it, and you’ll have to play catch-up.”

The Loco Group now adopts more paper packaging, as opposed to plastic

As a leader in the field of sustainable F&B practices, it’s perhaps no surprise that the Loco Group actually started an F&B sustainability council, bringing together industry peers to share learnings and supporting each other in their sustainability efforts. Members include the Spa Espirit Group, Lo & Behold Group and more. “Our members are required to be honest and articulate in what they’re doing for sustainability, and at this point, we’re primarily holding each other accountable to the actions we set out to do,” explains Will. “It helps that there’s that bit of competitiveness as well – the Hyatt, for example, always blows us away with what they’re doing, and it ends up spurring us all to do better. We each have our own challenges and domains of expertise, and we end up sharing best practices in this very collaborative environment.

The Loco Group certainly isn’t resting on their laurels, and constantly pushes for new ways and means to further their sustainability efforts. From having phased out plastic packaging and single-use straws, to achieving carbon neutrality and not using palm oil, the Loco Group is always trying to be better. “There will always be change, depending on the market, such as new tech products that can help our efforts, or the need to adapt to certain consumer tastes and trends. It’s never a case of just saying ‘ok, we’ve done this, and now we’re sustainable’,” says Will.

Roast Barramundi

And as a relatively bigger group with more financial power, criticism can quickly be turned towards them as having the means to go green, as opposed to say hawkers and smaller business owners, who are likely to have to shell out more finances for these eco-friendly products. Will, however, disagrees.

“The journey towards going green is infinite, and you can start it anywhere.”

“The journey towards going green is infinite, and you can start it anywhere. Whether you’re a hawker or an MNC, you might wake up one day and just realise that this is important to you, and even something seemingly innocuous can have its own small impact,” says Will. “If you happen to be the first hawker in your centre to say no to styrofoam or plastic bags by giving guests a discount, then that in itself is also a form of going green. It’s always hard to be the first one because of the herd mentality we’ve built, but what an achievement it would be if you could convince just one person to join your cause, as they spread it from there.”

“We’ve come so far now, putting ourselves ahead of the pack, and have to keep going,” Will concludes. “At the end of the day, sustainability is a race with undefined rules, and no one is really ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ in this game, much like how people have different definitions for a ‘successful’ business. I hope people see what we’re doing, and understand and appreciate why we’re doing it. And for our team, I think this is a part of the brand that they can feel proud of, and know that together with the consumers and us, they’re part of this journey that’s making a genuine impact on the world.”

The Loco Group’s tree planting programme pilots at Super Loco Robertson Quay from 3rd February, 2021. This initiative will be progressively rolled out at Super Loco Customs House and Lucha Loco in the coming months within 2021. For more information on The Loco Group’s sustainability journey, visit their website here.

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