Restaurant Chains

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 42 restaurant chains.

We also look at tax avoidance, sustainable sourcing, shine a spotlight on the ethics of J.D. Wetherspoons and give our recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

What to buy

What to look for when eating out:

  • Is it organic? Is it organic or does it offer organic meals or ingredients?

  • Transparent supply chains Is it open about where it is sourcing its ingredients?

  • Does it have a living wage? Is it paying the Real Living Wage. 

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when eating out:

  • Is it owned by a private equity firm? Is the money going to a private equity firm investing in fossil fuels, mining or defence?

  • Are ingredients free range? Is the restaurant using meat or dairy that are not labelled as free range?

  • Is it meat? Meat production is riddled with issues: from carbon emissions to GMOs in animal feed. Looking for local, organic, or at least free-range meat will address some of these issues. Or better still go for a vegan or veggie meal to cut down your ethical footprint. 

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20)

Our Analysis

While the landscape of most UK city centres might suggest otherwise, the chain restaurant industry has been taking a bit of a hit recently with profits reportedly plummeting by 64% in one year, and restaurant closures reaching the thousands.

This guide rates 25 chain restaurant brands and shows that it is not just in terms of profits that restaurants are giving a poor performance.

We offer food for thought in terms of sustainable, ethical and transparent sourcing, children’s menus and finding independent alternatives. We also take a look at the Sustainable Restaurant Association and uncover where your money really goes when you are eating out. 

Image: Restaurant

Score table highlights

There are a number of categories in which all the brands on this table score poorly:

  • All the brands lost a whole mark under Animal Rights, Factory Farming and Palm Oil.
  • Most brands lost a whole mark for Environmental Reporting and Supply Chain Management and the rest lost half a mark.
  • All the brands were marked down under Controversial Technologies for lacking clear GMO policies.

Nearly all brands were marked down under Workers’ Rights.

Essentially, when it comes to having clear and transparent policies and sound ethical practices in place around the key issues relevant to the restaurant industry, all of the chain brands fall woefully short.

So, while all scored similarly poorly in the above-mentioned categories, the deciding factors putting some brands at the bottom of the table were linked to input from private equity firms. Many chain restaurants are backed by private equity firms that are also linked to fossil fuels, mining, defence, and high climate impact sectors. This means a number of restaurants also lost marks in categories relating to these factors.

There also appeared to be a high rate of likely use of tax avoidance strategies among these companies and brands.

Living Wage

The “Real Living Wage” is the hourly rate calculated by the Living Wage Foundation based on what people actually need to support a decent standard of living for themselves and their families. We marked down every single restaurant on our list for failing to make any commitments toward paying their staff the Real Living Wage.

Recently, the government announced the introduction of the ‘National Living Wage’, which increased the minimum wage for over-25s. At the time of this announcement, Whitbread publicly protested it, threatening job cuts and price hikes. The company didn’t seem to have the same concerns when it came to paying its directors, two of which earned annual salaries of well over £1,000,000 in 2017/18. Zizzi attracted criticism when it cut staff perks and changed its tipping policy the day after the National Living Wage was introduced.

While none of the restaurants were making any moves towards paying the Real Living Wage, Wagamama and Pizza Hut did not even manage to pay the minimum wage. Wagamama appeared at the very top of HMRC’s ‘name and shame’ list of companies that had failed to pay the minimum wage. According to HMRC, the successful Japanese-inspired chain had underpaid its staff by £133,212.42 by paying 2,630 staff below minimum wage.

This behaviour seems to point to an industry that has been depending on a culture of low pay in order to turn a profit.

Tipping policy

Over the past few years a number of chain restaurants have hit the headlines after staff exposed restaurants’ unfair tipping policies. Pizza Express was soon followed by ASK, Zizzi, Bill’s, Las Iguanas, Café Rouge, Bella Italia, Prezzo, Wahaca, Jamie’s Italian, and more. 

It was reported that waiting staff were being asked to pay the restaurants up to 10% of the total takings they had processed in their shift. In many cases it was stated that this was so that tips could be distributed to kitchen staff who aren’t tipped directly.

However, the levy was not being calculated from actual tips received but from overall takings. So, if waiting staff did not receive any tips they would still have to pay the same amount. Many reported that this meant they were often losing well over half their tips and some questioned whether it could put minimum wage compliance at risk.

Image: TGI friday protest

Unite the Union is currently running a campaign on the issue and states that sometimes the levy was also being used to cover administration fees on card payments or to cover breakages, under-payments or runaway customers.9 The campaign prompted many restaurants to publicly amend their tipping policies and a government consultation took place in 2016. 

In TGI Friday’s case, a dispute over tipping policy actually went to strike action in May as waiting staff protested against the fact that every time there was a rise in minimum wage they had benefits taken away.

Unite is still campaigning on the issue and you can find out more on their website by searching Fair Tips. Unite recommend that you tip in cash. A cash tip is more likely to go to the person that served you, who can make sure back of house staff get a fair share. 

Contracts

Concerns have been raised over the past few years over the widespread use of zero-hour contracts and the precarious position it puts employees in.

However, recently, issues have also been raised with permanent full-time contracts. It has been reported that it is common practice in the hospitality sector to ask staff to sign a form to opt-out of the 48-hour maximum working week. This form is reportedly often given at interview stage, meaning that employees feel pressured to sign it in case not doing so meant they would not get the job.

The Independent interviewed a number of restaurant chefs who had all signed a similar opt-out form. They said it essentially meant they could be asked to work a 60-70-hour week, while their salary remained reflective of a 48-hour week. One chef stated that this brought his hourly pay to an equivalent of £4, well below minimum wage.

What’s on the children’s menu?

According to the UK government, around a third of UK children aged 3-15 can be classed as overweight or obese. Public Health England have warned that restaurant culture is partly to blame for this situation, with eating out becoming the norm for many families.

According to an article in the Telegraph, studies consistently find a connection between eating out and higher calorie intakes – “Last year, Harvard researchers discovered that people who eat out regularly are more likely to be overweight and to develop Type 2 diabetes compared to those who eat at home.”

The Soil Association has been campaigning on the issue of children’s food in restaurants for a number of years now. Their latest ‘Out to Lunch’ report and league table was released in October 2017. The league table ranks restaurants on the quality of their children’s menu. It takes into account aspects such as availability of organic and free-range options, inclusion of vegetables in children’s meals, refills of sugary drinks, and portion sizes – especially of puddings!

As we can see from the table opposite, Jamie’s Italian comes out on top and was praised for providing organic options and lots of vegetables. Wetherspoons also scored relatively well with parents liking the organic drinks and flexible portion sizes. Wahaca received positive marks for having staff which could consistently answer questions about where the meat on the menu came from. Nando’s and Prezzo both ended up at the bottom of the rankings, with a lack of vegetables offered to children sited as one of the main reasons.

Image: League table

The gov.uk website attributed a number of improved practices among chain restaurants to the Soil Association campaign, not only pointing to the provision of healthier meals for children but also to more sustainable and transparent sourcing practices. Incorporating sustainable practices and certifications into children’s menus can provide a useful means for children to learn about where their food comes from and the impacts it has.

The Soil Association has issued a number of key asks in light of these findings:

  • Serve two portions of veg with every child’s meal.
  • Ensure children’s puddings are an appropriate portion size.
  • Make water freely available and stop promoting sugary drinks to children.
  • Offer children’s portions of adult dishes.
  • Offer quality ingredients such as free range and organic on the children’s menu.
  • Provide children’s cutlery as standard.
  • Make breastfeeding mum's feel welcome.

The Sustainable Restaurant Association

The Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) was started by industry professionals who wanted to create a ‘one-stop-shop’ to help restaurants perform better in terms of climate change, animal welfare and food waste.

When restaurants join the SRA, they undergo a Sustainability Assessment, and receive a rating of between one and three stars (top rating) depending how they score against a range of criteria in 14 areas of sustainability – community engagement, treating people fairly, healthy eating, responsible marketing, water saving, workplace resources, supply chain, waste management, energy efficiency, environmentally positive farming, local & seasonal, sustainable fish, ethical meat and dairy, and fair trade.

Four of the restaurants on our score table are rated by the SRA. These are Wahaca (1 star), Jamie’s Italian and Pizza Hut (2 stars) and Zizzi (3 stars).

The SRA runs a number of focused campaigns looking at things such as reducing waste and plastic, sourcing fish responsibly, and getting more veg onto kids’ menus. It provides resources and toolkits to help restaurants move towards more sustainable practices.

While the SRA is playing an important role in encouraging restaurants to be more sustainable and to think about certain key issues, we would not currently recommend its star rating system as a useful way to decide how to spend your money ethically. This is because, while the issues addressed are important and relevant, there is limited transparency about how these are scored.

There is clear discrepancy between how restaurants faired in our rating system compared to that of the Sustainable Restaurant Association. For example, in our table, Wahaca loses a full mark under both Animal Rights and Factory Farming and yet is commended by the SRA for its policy on meat.

Is there sustainability on the menu?

Table of sustainable items on restaurant menus

Key to the menu

Fairtrade/Rainforest Alliance

These kinds of certifications still seem to be limited to a few drinks, if they appear anywhere at all.

Free Range

Most restaurants have now either converted, or are in the process of converting, to free-range eggs, although not all of them specify that this covers all products containing eggs. Jamie’s Italian was the only restaurant to serve any free-range meat.

Organic

Organic items are also sadly lacking from the menus. Again, Jamie’s Italian was one of the better ones, serving some organic items in its children’s menu, including one entirely organic dish. Wahaca and Las Iguanas also had some organic ingredients and others had a few organic drinks.

Vegetarian and Vegan

Here there has clearly been significant improvement. Pretty much all restaurants had plenty of vegetarian options and a significant amount also catered well for vegans. Only one restaurant, Chiquito, had no vegan labelling on its menu.

Sustainable Fish

This was a little harder to discern – only one restaurant was using the Marine Stewardship Council label on its actual menus. We also had to look at fish sourcing policies and the Marine Conservation Society website and its Fish2Fork ratings from 2017 and 2015. 

Restaurants were rated on a scale of 5 red fish, the worst, to 5 blue fish, the best. Ratings improve, half a fish at a time, to rise to 4.5 red fish, 4 red fish and so on until 0.5 red fish. From here ratings rise from 0.5 blue fish to 5 blue fish. 

We would ask that restaurants start working more closely with the MSC and start using the logo on their menus to make it clearer to customers which options are sustainable and to help raise awareness of the issue of sustainable fishing.

Choosing an independent restaurant

As the score table opposite shows, there are no clear ethical front runners in the chain restaurant world, which is why we recommend finding a local independent restaurant. However, just because a restaurant is independent does not mean that it is more ethical – although your money is probably less likely to be going towards a large private equity firm to be invested in fossil fuels and mining.

So, what should we be looking for when trying to find an ethical independent restaurant and what should we be wary of?

Animal Rights

Look for restaurants where all the meat and dairy on offer is clearly labelled as free range. Of course, choosing a vegetarian restaurant is also a good option, and the most fool-proof way of avoiding any animal rights issues is to find a vegan restaurant. The Happy Cow website is a useful tool for finding vegan and vegetarian restaurants worldwide. Viva! has also just launched a similar tool for vegan places. 

Sourcing and supply chains

Pretty much all the restaurants on the table were shamefully vague about their sourcing policies and practices, making it difficult to judge whether they are really living up to their claims of sustainability. Check out the Real Junk Food Project to find restaurants near you that are serving food that would otherwise be wasted. You can visit the Soil Association website to find organic restaurants and cafes.

Look for restaurants that are transparent about their supply chains. Restaurants sourcing from small local producers will be more likely to have an idea of what is happening in their supply chains. You can always get in touch with restaurants and ask about their suppliers.

Wages and Modern Slavery

You can use the Living Wage Foundation’s website to see which restaurants near you are members of the Foundation (choose hospitality in the industry dropdown menu).

While they do not perform well in terms of the Living Wage, large chain restaurants are probably less likely to be able to get away with unrecorded cash-in-hand payments. You can view the full name and shame HMRC list of businesses which failed to pay the minimum wage on the gov.uk website.

Larger companies are now required to publish a Modern Slavery Statement which outlines what actions they are taking to tackle slavery in their supply chains. Smaller companies, however, are not required to do this. The police and anti-slavery organisations warn that there could be many people working as slaves in the UK restaurant industry.

Stronger Together has produced a briefing for the hospitality industry with specific advice for restaurants and hotels.18 It stated that 1% of modern slavery victims were exploited in restaurants but that the number could be far higher due to the hidden nature of the crime. You can visit Salvation Army for further information.

Company behind the brand

JD Wetherspoons is probably most frequently in the headlines these days due to the owner’s strong Brexit stance, yet there has been little external criticism of its ethical practices. The chain scores similarly poorly across policy and sourcing categories (environmental reporting, palm oil, animals).

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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