The Future of Independent Restaurants in a Changing Climate

Authored by: Tara A. Scully, Director of Curriculum Development, Global Food Institute

February 20, 2024

assortment of fresh veggies

The palpable effects of climate change on our daily lives are not always obvious. Perhaps the experiences that most strongly resonate are increased occurrences of severe weather. But how is this macro phenomenon trickling down to affect our communities on a level that isn't just abstract, but tangible and immediate?

Our favorite local independent restaurants serve as one relatable example. In our latest research, The Climate Reality for Independent Restaurants: A Deep Dive into the Supply Chain and New Economic Realities, conducted by the Global Food Institute at the George Washington University and released in collaboration with the James Beard Foundation, we describe the immediate threats that the rapidly changing climate poses to independent restaurants, the millions of individuals they employ, and the farmers who supply them.

Our research enables and underpins a broader chef-led policy advocacy campaign launched by the James Beard Foundation. Through its Climate Solutions for Restaurant Survival campaign, the James Beard Foundation will unite chefs across the country to raise awareness, educate federal policymakers, and galvanize action to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Independent restaurants are more than just places to eat. They represent a cornerstone of our communities. These restaurants are the fifth largest employer in the U.S. and pay almost $75 billion in wages. These establishments are also a beacon of diversity; 41% of all restaurants are minority-owned, and they have the most minority managers of any industry.

However, these unique and essential establishments face many challenges. They lack the brand recognition, resources, and more robust supply chains of restaurant chains. These characteristics make them more vulnerable to disruption or shortages, like those we have seen in recent years from the COVID-19 pandemic. An astonishing 59% of independent restaurants fail within their first three years.

Environmental disruptions impair restaurant operations and food supply chains at local, regional, and global levels, triggering economic shocks that result in greater food costs, revenue and job loss, and, inevitably, higher prices for consumers.

As the effects of climate change increase, the food systems that independent restaurants depend on will be increasingly threatened. Agriculture is one of the most climate-vulnerable sectors. Extreme events disrupt the availability of food and ingredients from around the globe, decrease crop yields, and impair food quality and access. Extreme weather is also the most common cause of power outages, leading to food spoilage and interrupting cooking and commerce in restaurants. And when it’s too hot or too cold, extreme levels of precipitation, wildfires, and other severe weather all change the behavior of customers – meaning independent restaurants suffer.

Words from the Kitchen

As part of our research, we spoke with chefs from across the U.S. Their stories illustrate that the impacts of climate change have already begun:

“… we will be prepared for a big weekend because we project sales based on the rhythms of the businesses’ sales. And then there will be a wildfire, and the concentration of smoke will be so severe, people will opt not to leave their homes. We get stuck with food, beverage, and labor bills but no sales to offset them.”

Mary Sue Milliken
James Beard Award Winner


“There is always something we are challenged with, whether it’s the cost of romaine lettuce going from $28/case to over $200/case, or tomatoes from Italy stuck in port because of transportation issues for example. The largest problem is consistency in the final product when you have supply chain challenges.”

Brandon Whitestone
Chef and Culinary Director, Alexander Restaurant Group


"Supply chain issues [occur] almost daily, and there have been more disruptions in the past three years than ever before. Fishermen don’t go out during a hurricane, so it prevents you from sourcing a specific type of fish. The same is true for droughts; in certain regions [they] will devastate a particular crop, and you're left trying to find it from another area."

John Palladino
Restaurant Manager, Great American Restaurant Group


Diverse Food Systems are a Critical Component of Supply Chain Security and Climate Resilience

Nonetheless, in the face of these challenges, independent restaurants have a potential advantage – their access to local food supply chains and regional food hubs. Shorter supply chains and direct relationships with local growers and suppliers can make local restaurants more agile and resilient than those that depend on national or global supplies, providing a lifeline in times of crisis.

Local systems have become increasingly important, even as the overall structure of agriculture in America has shifted over the last few decades. For example, the number of farms has decreased drastically at the same time that large-scale farms have increased. Cropland has increased, mainly for commodity crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans. As a result, we rely much more heavily on global trade and imports for specialty crops like fruits and vegetables.

Local food supply systems play a pivotal role in bolstering independent restaurants. Over the past decade, we’ve witnessed a surge of food hubs, a mutually beneficial platform where local farmers can directly sell crops, and restaurants can procure local ingredients that cater to consumers. However, at the same time, we’re witnessing a decline in smaller farms across the country, reducing local and regional food supplies.

GFI’s research underscores the need to reduce our vulnerabilities by diversifying our food systems and bolstering food security throughout all our supply chains. Supporting small farms and farmers is critical to maintaining equitable and diverse local food production, which in turn nourishes independent restaurants and our communities. Local food production can be achieved through climate-smart and sustainable farming practices that diversify crops and supply chains, and by fostering local and regional food hubs. For restaurant owners, sourcing from local, sustainable farms not only supports farmers but also ensures fresher, higher-quality ingredients.

At the Global Food Institute, our research is not just about identifying challenges; it's about finding solutions to the world’s most urgent problems through the power of food. We strive to provide our partners with the cutting-edge research, critical thinking, and essential tools for crafting improved food policies, developing novel technologies, and leading critical conversations. This pioneering research empowers our partners at the James Beard Foundation to rally chefs to advocate for their industry against imminent threats. We’re proud to be working together to forge a more resilient future for our food systems, our communities, and our planet.

View the Collaborative Report