thinkstock
Full service restaurants can be more environmentally conscious without spending a lot of money.

Going Green for a Little Green

Underline Image
Something as simple as serving water on request, rather than automatically pouring water for every guest, could save millions of gallons of water each year.
By Barney Wolf Philanthropy

Restaurants have discovered that becoming environmentally conscious is as good for the budget as it is for the planet.

“What’s great is that we’re getting all kinds of operators addressing this,” says Chris Moyer, senior program manager for Conserve, a National Restaurant Association initiative that inspires eateries to explore conservation efforts. “It can run the gamut from people who have not done anything to those who have already taken steps to become more green, and there are all kinds of no-cost or low-cost solutions that they can embrace.”

Better yet, most will have an impact. Something as simple as offering water to guests, instead of pouring it automatically, can benefit the planet. Moyer noted that if just one in four diners declines water, it could save about 25 million gallons of water a year.

In fact, the benefits are so quantifiable that becoming green may soon be mandated by utility companies or, in some instances, by law.

“It is going to happen,” says Howard Cummins, founder of Green Restaurant Strategies, a San Francisco–based consultant. “That’s the direction we’re heading, and the sooner you embrace it and get ahead of the curve, the better.”

When Cummins, a restaurant veteran, talks to operators, he doesn’t tell them to become green because it’s the right thing to do. Instead, he lets them know it will save them big bucks and can also serve as a marketing tool.

“Greening your restaurant can absolutely be achieved on a budget with highly effective results,” affirms Lara Hardcastle, project manager and green guru for Founding Farmers, a pair of restaurants in Washington, D.C., and Potomac, Maryland, that are owned by the North Dakota Farmers Union and are committed to a sustainable, farm-to-table food focus.

In fact, many energy conservation steps cost little or nothing—things like turning off lights, installing motion detectors so lights are activated only when needed, and sealing windows and doors to prevent heated or cooled air from escaping.

“One of the first things we looked at, which resulted in very good savings, was light bulbs,” says Trey Foshee, chef and partner at George’s at the Cove, a highly regarded, innovative, and GRA-certified San Diego eatery.

While compact fluorescent light (CFL) and light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs are more expensive initially than traditional light bulbs, both CFL and LED bulbs use far less energy, last longer, and typically pay for themselves in less than two years.

In addition, many power companies provide incentives, such as rebates or lower rates, for companies that take steps to reduce their overall energy usage or reduce demand during peak-usage hours.

Technological advances, such as the Intelli-Hood control system from Melink Corp. in Milford, Ohio, have also added to energy-saving opportunities. The system helps a cooking hood work more efficiently, which is significant because cooking equipment uses considerable energy, is often turned on when employees open a restaurant for the day, and is one of the last things to be turned off at night.

“The Intelli-Hood has a couple different sensors,” explains Richard Bailey, chief sales officer. “It has an activity sensor that senses activity on the grill, such as steam or smoke rising from the surface. It is also heat-sensitive, so if there is not a whole lot going on it will lower the fan speed.” Energy savings, he notes, can be upward of 50 percent.

Thanks to the growth in green solutions and improved technologies, it has become easier for restaurants to embrace sustainable practices.

“Much of what we have and know now wasn’t available in 1996 when we got started,” said Ron Silberstein, managing member of ThirstyBear Brewing Co., a San Francisco–based certified organic brewery and restaurant.

“It’s just great you can find all these things,” he says. “Now, we are looking at a grease separator, and we’ll recoup the cost in about a year and a half by saving on grease-removal costs.”

Changes in other types of waste removal also provide operators with various ways to go green and save money.

“A full recycling and composting program was one of the easier things we did when we started in 2009,” says Peter Pollay, executive chef and owner of Posana Café in Asheville, North Carolina, where more than a dozen restaurants are GRA-certified.

“About 90 percent of our waste goes to compost, which is sold afterwards,” he explains. That, along with recycled materials, “means that much less goes into landfills.”

The first step restaurants should take, suggests James G. Maxwell, principal architect with Architects II in San Francisco, is to make “an honest assessment of the restaurant’s operating procedures from back to front” of the house. Typically, water and energy are two of the biggest areas where restaurants can conserve vital resources.

Michael Oshman, executive director of the Green Restaurant Association (GRA), a Boston-based nonprofit organization that helps restaurants become more environmentally responsible, says most water-conservation efforts are “no-brainers,” such as repairing leaks in faucets and toilets, putting aerators on faucets, and running dishwashers with full loads.