An improving selection of products at prices moving closer to the mainstream, coupled with growing consumer support for sustainable business practices, is prompting the increased use of materials made from rapidly renewable and reclaimed resources in foodservice construction, according to operators and designers.
Examples of such materials are beginning to surface regularly. They range from the flooring made of fast-growing bamboo and fixtures crafted from reclaimed local college athletic bleacher wood in the weeks-old LYFE Kitchen, a fast-casual restaurant in Palo Alto, Calif., to the recycled quarry tiles, bamboo countertops and salvaged wood floors used by Fox Restaurant Concepts’ four-unit True Food Kitchen casual-dining chain.
Even pioneers in the use of such alternative building materials are continuing to try the newest products or strategies for reducing their business’ impact on the environment, including Evos, a 17-year-old, eight-unit “healthier fast-food” chain. Evos co-founder Michael Jeffers said the Tampa, Fla.-based chain is currently testing concrete flooring that is stained without the use of harmful chemicals.
He said alternative construction materials regularly used by Evos include:
• Fiberglass-reinforced plastic wall panels with a high percentage of recycled materials for frequently cleaned areas of the kitchen.
• A faux floor linoleum made from “wood flour” — or sawdust left over from other production processes — linseed oil, rosin, jute fiber and limestone.
• A wood substitute made from reclaimed and pressed sorghum straw used for framing restaurant artwork, among other roles.
“Sustainability is in vogue right now and a lot of companies are embracing it, but this is part of our DNA and culture and who we are,” Jeffers said.
Committed to the cost
Gary Wiggle of Keisker & Wiggle Architects said the requirement by management of Chicago-based LYFE Kitchen that development work begin with the drafting of a sustainability platform and environmental goals for the project convinced the creative team that “sustainable design wasn’t going to be an afterthought or sideline of LYFE Kitchen, but actually part of the DNA.”
Such commitments are important in the designing and building of restaurants that use reclaimed and rapidly renewable construction materials as part of an overall sustainability strategy, as such restaurants can cost from 10 percent to 20 percent more than conventionally constructed facilities, according to Evos’ Jeffers.
Karl Behrens, chief operating officer for the projects division of contractor Compass Group’s North American organization, acknowledged the 10-percent- to 15-percent-higher cost of some sustainable building materials, such as bamboo versus hardwood flooring. But he maintained that there could be overriding factors that make them a good choice.
“The audiences we are now catering to in these buildings, who we are designing these structures for, have a sheer appreciation for those [sustainable] materials,” Behrens said. “They love to see the bamboo on the floor or the reclaimed barn wood on the floor because to them those are signs that this building does not necessarily cost the ecosystem or cost the environment something.”
Some good news, Jeffers, Behrens and other operators and designers said, is that the price for alternative construction materials is coming down as production ramps up to meet increasing demand and competition among producers increases. The selection and aesthetics of those products are improving, as well, they indicated.
Among the projects using rapidly renewable and reclaimed building materials recently completed by Compass Group was the Oaks Dining Hall that opened in August on the campus of Bowling Green State University in Ohio. The university’s foodservice operations are managed by Compass Group’s Chartwells Higher Education Dining Services.
Behrens said that, in addition to a growing array of bamboo flooring and surfaces products and sorghum-stalk wood substitutes, the Compass Group projects team now regularly specifies a wood substitute made from coconut shells and resin panels embedded with rapidly renewable resources for texture or color, such as dark banana fibers.
Other examples of restaurants using rapidly renewable or reclaimed materials include:
• Chipotle Mexican Grill, referring to its LEED platinum certified restaurant in Gurnee, Ill., said it increased the strength of the concrete it used there, reduced energy usage and greenhouse gases tied to cement production, and lessened landfill pressures by mixing in fly ash, a byproduct of coal combustion previously typically sent to the dump.
• Bamboo furnishings are used by a wide range of restaurant concepts, including Tilth, an organic specialty restaurant in Seattle, and Coal Burger, a three-unit “coal-fired burgeria” group based in Scottsdale, Ariz., that also uses reclaimed wood.
• Bamboo flooring is used at branches of the 10-unit Pizza Fusion chain of Boca Raton, Fla., as well as at upscale independents, such as Darren’s Restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Calif.
Sometimes there is a subtle difference between a construction material perceived as sustainable versus one that is not, explained Margee Drews of Margee Drews Design, the interior designer for LYFE Kitchen. For example, she said, the teak wood used for some table tops in LYFE Kitchen came from the deliberate and documented thinning of sustainably managed forests.
The strategy of using rapidly renewable and reclaimed materials is one whose time has come, according to Brian Bucher, creative director for global design firm WD Partners, which worked with Compass Group and Design Smart LLC on the Bowling Green State University project.
“There has been a convergence of a few things brewing the past several years,” he said. “One is the client’s interest in being more sustainable, especially now that they typically have a sustainability statement or cadence for their corporation and are interested in the long-term benefits just from doing ‘the right thing.’ You have designers, architects and developers, who are all certainly focused on wanting to incorporate [sustainable materials], as well. And you have manufacturers of materials who are now readily making these materials available to them as part of their mainstay product lines.”
Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of foodservice strategies at WD Partners, added that when it comes to the use of rapidly renewable or reclaimed materials, operators are getting “push and pull” encouragement on multiple fronts.
“The ‘push’ will come from regulations and requirements by municipalities, and the ‘pull’ from consumers,” Lombardi said. “There is no doubt that we’re at the beginning of this whole transition from what used to be called a cowboy-frontier mindset,” or belief that resources are limitless, “to a spaceship mentality” of a closed environment where some resources are limited and must be used wisely.
The durability issue
While the appeal to consumers of alternative materials viewed as more sustainable is building and the prices of such materials are coming down, there are still some challenges associated with their use.
“At True Food Kitchen it is important to us that we minimize our carbon footprint whenever possible,” said Kara Sundeen, director of development for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Fox Restaurant Concepts. “The flip side is that these materials are harder to get and are also typically more expensive. We have also discovered that they are often not as durable as some of the materials we typically use in our other restaurants.”
Beyond that, Sundeen said, such alternative building materials can “require special attention and more maintenance then nonrenewable materials.”
Behrens of Compass Group, who said he believes some highly renewable resources used as building materials are as durable or more durable than some of the materials they replace, conceded that some nonconventional items “do take a little bit more care” or require different treatment. For example, he said, the manufacturers of some bamboo-flooring products recommend using a mop dampened with water and light soap for cleaning, which stands in stark contrast to the turn-over-a-bucket-of-soapy-water approach to maintenance for some other types of floor coverings.
“I think that is a little bit of the drawback” to the use of some alternative construction materials, Behrens said, “in that it requires a little bit more operator education in how to treat and deal with and coexist with these sorts of products.”
Indeed, said Bucher of WD Partners, education is a significant part of the move to using sustainable materials.
“You used to see bamboo flooring put into some commercial spaces, where now you might see more polished concrete with the same sustainability story, but with less maintenance requirements and more durability,” Bucher said. “As people learn more about what’s available and work with it, they are definitely learning how to specify appropriately what should be used and where.”
Fox Restaurant Concepts’ Sundeen said her group “always hopes to learn more about how to integrate sustainable materials into our facilities,” but also offered up a cautionary tale of sorts related to that endeavor.
“We have found it difficult to sift through the hype, as there are many [producers] who make claims that, upon further research, turn out to be false,” she said.
Despite such setbacks, Sundeen voiced the thoughts of some other operators interviewed for this article when she said True Food Kitchen’s positioning as a “lifestyle concept” makes it “important that we use as many sustainable building materials as we can.
“While, at this time, we don’t see it having a huge impact on our sales, we believe it is consistent with our core beliefs and will, over time, have a positive impact for the restaurant,” she said.