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Firebirds wood fired grill

Firebirds Wood Fired Grill sources fish from sustainable farms that operate responsibly. This pecan-crusted trout is a menu favorite.

Indelible Shades of Green

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Regional and national brands are fortifying their stance on sustainability with policies and practices that yield significant results.

By Barney Wolf February 2015 Chain Restaurants

Multi-unit operators are increasingly embracing a more sustainable business model, whether simply taking modest, focused actions, working to reduce their carbon footprint, sourcing food from environmentally friendly producers, or enacting comprehensive sustainability programs. Returns on their investments in green operations run the gamut from heightened consumer appreciation to cost savings to simply knowing they are doing good for future generations.

The Green Landscape

According to National Restaurant Association research, 58 percent of consumers say they are likely to dine at a restaurant that practices sustainability. A Technomic survey found that 63 percent of people favor a foodservice operation viewed as socially conscious.

Those preferences aren’t likely to drop off in the near future, says Jeff Clark, director of Conserve, the NRA’s sustainability initiative that provides tips and tools to operators.

“It has been a top trend for several years now,” he says. “This is going to be more and more so, as the next generation—the Millennials—age,” because the topic has particularly important value among this group of about 77 million Americans.

“Companies are going to have to adapt to the market changes that the Millennials will drive,” Clark notes. Restaurants need to incorporate this trend into their business and think how to communicate it to consumers.

Some ways restaurants can become more sustainable are simple, such as conserving water by using low-flow pre-rinse spray valves in the kitchen and serving water on request in the dining room. Powering equipment only when necessary also saves energy.

Other means of conserving water and energy, including purchasing more efficient equipment—from Energy Star–certified refrigerators to LED lighting to low-flow urinals in the restrooms—may require a cost up-front, but they pay for themselves over just a few years with reduced utility bills, Clark explains. In fact, a number of power and water companies offer rebates for purchases of more efficient equipment.

At the same time, sustainability is a way for a restaurant chain to hedge its risk against rising prices caused by a shortage of a particular ingredient or natural resource.

Sustainability can take many forms. The NRA’s Conserve recently teamed with LeanPath, developer of automated food-waste monitoring systems, to help restaurant owners minimize food waste, which provides environmental, social, and financial benefits.

The use of sustainable ingredients is also on the rise. Global market research firm Mintel finds that full-service restaurant menu mentions that include “sustainably raised” as a description grew 225 percent between the third quarters of 2011 and 2014. The majority of that growth was from dishes featuring fish and shellfish.

Meanwhile, a separate Mintel survey discovered the share of consumers dedicated to buying green products rose 6 percent from 2012 to 2014.

“Young adults, specifically those aged 18–34, are drivers of the green market,” explains Paul Pendola, Mintel’s foodservice analyst, noting eco-friendly shopping preferences will likely remain with them as they age. “Sustainability is increasingly becoming part of the value proposition when choosing a dining-out location.”

While much of the sustainability buzz has revolved around independent operators and chef-driven restaurants, as well as some fast-casual restaurant chains like Chipotle Mexican Grill, numerous full-service chains have ramped up sustainability programs in recent years. However, full-service chains are not always getting the recognition for their accomplishments, notes Wade Hanson, a principal with Technomic, citing a study the firm conducted last year that found most consumers view limited-service restaurants as leaders in sustainability.

“Full-service chains get credit for their employee diversity and a little for pay, but they haven’t or aren’t able to communicate what they’re doing in sustainability,” he says.

Conveying sustainability to consumers is easier for independents that make it an integral part of their business, and for limited-service companies that continually relay the message directly to customers via everything from menuboards to packaging.

Some full-service companies may find it difficult to get consumers to recognize their sustainability efforts simply because the actions are often discussed in terms of the brand’s parent entity rather than credited to the name that consumers recognize. “As a result, the good [repercussions] don’t land on the doorsteps of the individual restaurant brands,” Hanson explains.

Ted’s Montana Grill has installed solar panels in select locations, and units in georgia and florida are partially powered by solar energy. Ted’s Montana Grill

A Concept Grounded in Conservation

One of the pioneers of sustainability among full-service chains has been Ted’s Montana Grill, which was created in part to protect the American bison and expand restaurant founder Ted Turner’s herd.

“Sustainability and our commitment to the environment plays a huge role in what Ted’s Montana Grill is about,” says Paula Owens, purchasing and sustainability manager of the 46-unit, Atlanta-based chain. The chain’s internal mantra is “eat great, do good.”

Both Turner and restaurant company chief executive George McKerrow Jr. are conservationists, and their concept was launched in 2002, before sustainability was a growing trend in the restaurant industry.

Over the past four decades, the North American bison population has grown to about 400,000, most on private ranches, according to the National Bison Association. Turner’s operations manage over 50,000 head.

Bison was rarely on restaurant menus when the first Ted’s Montana Grill opened, but now is available at numerous eateries, driven both by the increased availability of the product and by consumer demand for the protein that is a leaner, healthier alternative to beef.

The restaurant company’s sustainability efforts have gone well beyond growing the bison herd and includes numerous energy and water conservation steps.

“Back in my day, restaurant employees would turn on every light and all pieces of equipment at 6 a.m. even though they may not need it until 10,” Owens says. “Now, the times when we turn on equipment are dictated by company policy.”

The chain switched to LED lighting at most restaurants, incurring a cost of $110,000 but saving $150,000 in 2012, the first year following implementation. Two units, one in Atlanta and another in Tallahassee, Florida, are powered partially by solar energy.

Tablecloths are vinyl-covered and then topped with paper to reduce linen cleaning, and takeout packaging must be compostable, recyclable, or made with recycled materials.

One of the more unusual decisions was to use American-made paper straws, a product that restaurants basically stopped offering several decades ago when most converted to plastic straws. Paper is biodegradable, while plastic is not.

McKerrow tracked down a company that once made paper straws and convinced it to resume production, promising Ted’s Montana Grill would support it. Today, the company, Aardvark, a part of Precision Products Group, manufactures paper straws in Fort Wayne, Indiana, for a number of foodservice operators.

Ted’s Montana Grill also began funding a water-restoration program for the Upper Yampa River in Colorado, the chain’s second-largest presence. The program purchased water rights upstream and restored millions of gallons to the drought-ravaged river.

Big and Small Embrace the Cause

Some of America’s largest full-service chains have developed sustainability programs, including Darden Restaurants, the Orlando, Florida–based parent of Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Yard House, The Capital Grille, and others.

Darden’s efforts include reducing restaurant energy use, water use, and waste sent to landfills. The company says its investment in LED lighting has reduced energy use by 12 percent since 2008, and switching to all-natural floor cleaners has saved more than 32,000 gallons of water per restaurant. More than 13 million pounds of cooking oil have been recycled. At the same time, when Darden constructs new restaurants it follows the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards with LED lighting, low-flow sinks, water-saving landscaping, and energy-management systems.

Darden set numerous sustainability goals in 2009, including reducing water and energy use by 15 percent by 2015. The company reached its water target in 2011, and has reduced energy by 12.4 percent.

“As a company, we’ve made a commitment to reduce both the physical footprint and the amount of resources used at our more than 1,500 restaurants across the country,” community affairs director Stephanie Ghertner says in an email to FSR.

Mid-sized chains like Shari’s Restaurant Group, in Beaverton, Oregon, also have aggressive sustainability programs. Shari’s, which has approximately 100 family-dining locations in California, Idaho, Nebraska, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming, won the Oregon Governor’s Sustainability Award in 2013, thanks to its practices in recent years.

In the company’s statement announcing the award, Bruce MacDiarmid, Shari’s CEO & president, stated, “Since 2008 we have reduced our total electricity usage by 6 percent, gas usage by 7 percent, and water consumption by 19 percent.”

“But it’s not just about saving dollars.”  MacDiarmid continued, “It’s about being a good corporate citizen in the communities we serve.  Our guests in the Northwest expect businesses to be environmentally conscious.  And we’ve been on the leading edge of those expectations.” 

Additionally, Shari’s purchases coffee beans from the Rainforest Alliance Certified Farms, particularly notable since each of its restaurants serves an estimated 50,000 cups of coffee in a given year. The company also recycles and converts cooking oil into biodiesel fuel.

Newer, smaller chains are also seeking to become more sustainable. Charlotte, North Carolina–based Firebirds Wood Fired Grill, with three dozen units in 13 states, has begun a sustainable seafood program that is now in 10 restaurants.

Cooper’s Hawk recycles containers, like its wine kegs and wine bottles. Cooper’s Hawk Winery

“We recently teamed up with farms—a salmon company out of Chile and a trout company in Panama—that have sustainable footprints,” says executive chef Steven Sturm. “They are operating their pens in a very responsible way.”

He hopes to expand the program to all of the restaurants by the end of this year. Sustainability is “one of the things that’s more important to the guest,” the chef notes. “As stewards of food in the world, we’d like to try and influence the way things are done.” The chain is also testing LED lighting in two of its restaurants, and virtually all the kitchen equipment is Energy Star–rated, steps that not only conserve energy but that also make sense from an economic point of view.

The restaurant company sources its wood on a local basis. In North Carolina, for instance, Firebirds works with a local forester, who plants new trees to replenish the fuel employed at the restaurants. “Wood-fire grilling uses the ultimate sustainable natural resource,” Sturm says. “It’s not like coal or electricity that’s gone when you use it. You can harvest trees, plant new ones, and in a few years you have a new fuel source.”

At Cooper’s Hawk, the 18-unit chain based in Countryside, Illinois, sustainability efforts extend from the company’s winemaking to its wine service. Not only are most of the grapes grown sustainably, but also containers are reused.

“The biggest impact is in-house, with our bottle washer and keg system,” says Rob Warren, the company’s winemaker.

The winemaking facility at corporate headquarters includes a machine that removes labels and sterilizes used bottles shipped from the chain’s units in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.

“The bottles then go directly to the filling line, where we fill them, and they go back in circulation,” he says. “Glass manufacturing is resource-heavy—it uses a lot of heat to produce the product—so we are able to conserve energy with our system.”

Since the program began in 2012, Cooper’s Hawk has cleaned and reused 840,000 bottles, resulting in a cost savings of about $500,000.

Customers ordering a glass of white wine are served from keg taps using technology to keep the product from being exposed to oxygen that would change the aroma and flavor. When containers are empty, they are returned to Countryside to be cleaned and refilled.

Warren expects Cooper’s Hawk will pour glasses of red wine from keg taps at all of its restaurants by the end of this year.

The company’s wine sustainability efforts are “a win, win, win,” he says. “The customers are getting a great wine, it’s a very green way to do things, and it saves us money.”