The bar chain leading a carbon revolution

Revolution Bars CEO Rob Pitcher on denuding Pornstar Martinis to save carbon, removing gas from kitchens and engaging suppliers on “enormous” scope 3 emissions. David Burrows reports.

Rob Pitcher is a man named to run bars. The chain he currently presides over as chief executive is famous for parties and its Pornstar Martini cocktail: vodka and prosecco – what’s not to like? “It’s the number one selling cocktail in the UK,” he says. Many will undoubtedly be sipped in the run-up to Christmas, but those at sites operated by the Revolution Bars Group bars will be slightly different – there will be no passion fruit garnish.

“We sell over a million [of these cocktails] a year,” he continues, “and to do that we fly 36 tonnes of passion fruit airfreight from South America to the UK every year. We chop them in half […] then drop it on the top. It's the garnish – [it] doesn't do anything to the drink. No flavour enhancements, nothing.”     Most of the fruits end up on the bar almost immediately – “people bang their noses on [them]” – and then in the bin. “We fly it all the way from South America to do that.”

Replacing passion fruits with an edible rice paper alternative will save 100 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, according to an announcement the company has made today (Monday December 6th). Low hanging fruit for a business with a footprint of 49,984 tonnes of CO2e in 2019/20. Still, every little helps when you have a target to reach net-zero by the end of the decade. 

Indeed, the business boasts of being the first UK bar group to commit to a science-based target to achieve net-zero. Energy efficiency within the bars must be dramatically improved and waste to landfill cut in half. Menus will change and new technology applied throughout the estate. Adjusting for the impact of coronavirus, there has already been a gross emissions reduction of 13.25%. 

The 2030 target is a 30% reduction in total emissions but the current forecast is to hit somewhere in the region of 36% to 40%. Much rests on a pilot project for the electrification of kitchens, due to run in the Reading Revolución de Cuba bar. “It’s an obvious one but easier said than done,” says Pitcher. 

This is unlikely to deter a man who is clearly ambitious when it comes to net-zero. Sometimes too ambitious, as he admits. “We were sort of going, can we do this [net-zero] by 2025?” he explains. “But we then realised actually we were offsetting too much [and] getting ourselves another five years to drive down the footprint before we offset the residual was the right thing to do.”

The 2030 deadline is not to be sniffed at – 2040 or 2050 are more popular lines in the sand among hospitality and food businesses. Still, the shorter time frame means there will be considerable reliance on offsetting of scope 3 emissions: 60% will remain in 2030 but by 2050 this will have shrunk to 6% – far ahead of the 22% the Zero Carbon Forum (ZCF) envisages for the average pub. 

Offsetting has been used to make the cocktails menu carbon neutral but Pitcher maintains that his focus is on decarbonisation. The Reading site will trial a number of new technologies – from efficient lighting and insulation to energy monitoring systems, including “intelligent control in the cellar cooling”. Discussions are under way with the landlord about solar panels for the roof (encouragingly, other landlords have already reached out to talk about net-zero).

If that all pans out and can be rolled out across the other 66 bars, it would leave just 5% of scope 1 and 2 emissions to offset come 2030, ahead of the ZCF sector target of 10%. Then comes the work on scope 3, which is far more daunting. “Our scope 3 is enormous,” Pitcher admits. 

Of Revolution’s current emissions (43,361 tonnes of CO2e) just 4.5% are scope 1; scope 2 is already zero thanks to 100% renewables for directly supplied electricity. That leaves a shade under 41,000 tonnes (94.5%) of scope 3 supply chain emissions. 

Suppliers are already being engaged, most recently through the process to set science-based targets (the calculations have been prepared and the validation process should be completed under the new target format with the Science-Based Targets initiative in April 2022). A “horrifically long” questionnaire sent to suppliers actually proved a “lightbulb” moment. “It’s kicked off these fantastic conversations” with companies like Diageo and Red Bull, Pitcher explains. “They’ve got a team of people [working on this and…] suddenly our scope 3 is looking much better.”

However, more need to step up to the plate: “We’ve got other suppliers who haven’t given this the time of day yet.” Some have been struggling to come out of the pandemic, he admits, while some are smaller suppliers who “don’t know where to start yet”. Some are actually carrying great ideas, which could be “amplified” by the bigger players. 

Pitcher sees 2025 as the point at which suppliers are either with them on the journey or not. By then, “unless you are delivering a reduction in our scope 3 we are going to have to go to somebody else”.

The race to net-zero requires pace but also patience. Care has to be taken not to run so fast that customers are left behind. Pitcher admits this happened with the chain’s food offer, which swung too far towards vegan dishes (meat has a high carbon footprint) and sales dropped. People come to Revolution for a great burger or a pizza, or a paella in the Cuba bars, Pitcher explains, so when plant-based was prioritised “guests were just like ‘where have my treats gone?’”

Now the business is moving incrementally rather than taking massive leaps. There will still be missteps but Pitcher wants to learn from larger businesses and share knowledge with smaller ones. 

Sector collaboration has clearly blossomed during the dark months of lockdowns. Pitcher is a big fan of the ZCF where he has been able to talk freely with peers he wouldn’t ordinarily meet – those from the quick service restaurant behemoths, for example. This stops him “wasting our money trying things that they’ve already got the answer to”.

The Reading pilot will also ensure everything from new tech to carbon-cutting customer nudges can be tested without breaking the bank. “If we are going to make mistakes, let’s make them on one site and […] really measure the impact of each individual thing that we do,” he says. This insight can also be shared with those working on smaller budgets to ensure they make sound investments.

Those passion fruit-less cocktails will save £130,000, £100,000 of which is being ploughed straight back into the work at Reading. The LED lights rollout has a payback of around 18 months, while the technology being installed in cellars promises a “massive reduction” in electricity consumption and will pay for itself in just eight months. Those are the kinds of return on investment figures boards like to see. 

So how much is Revolution investing overall in its bold net-zero ambitions? The current “best guess” is that the 2020 to 2030 plan will cost £5m. “[…] some of the expenditure is unknown at this time […] because we don’t know what technologies we’re going to implement,” says Pitcher. “We’ve dedicated half a million this year to sustainability projects and that’s out of a budget of circa ten million.”

Company calculations show the £5m investment over 10 years will deliver a £7m benefit. But “this should not be about commercial advantage,” says Pitcher. “This is about saving the planet.” It is a statement straight out of the responsible CEO playbook 2021 and one likely to have been repeated often at the Cop26 climate talks. But at Revolution the rhetoric appears to be backed by real action to reduce carbon.

The company’s approach, setting targets that stretch (and at times stress), is laudable given the 18 months this sector has just struggled through. Pitcher praises his staff on a number of occasions, highlighting their role in meeting the net-zero objectives. Work on this agenda started to get serious back in 2018, he explains, which is the year he arrived from Mitchells & Butlers. He understands net-zero is a long journey.

During our chat (his first extensive interview on net-zero) it became clear that Pitcher is – at least as far as CEOs and corporates go – refreshingly honest: about the challenges facing a business with ambitions to achieve net-zero; about the mistakes that he will make and has already made; about the cost of it all. It’s the kind of honesty that normally comes with a few of those Pornstar Martinis.

1 Response

  1. Great to a see a CEO know his organisations carbon footprint in detail and is pushing for innovative solutions in all three scopes! Sound leadership right there!

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