Corner Bakery Cafe at OHare International Airport
Foodservice operators at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, pictured, and Midway International Airport will soon have to adhere to a number of eco-friendly policies.

Implementing Chicago airports' green initiatives

A closer look at the new sustainability initiatives at Chicago airports and their operational effects.

O’Hare International Airport and Midway International Airport in Chicago launched new sustainable-sourcing and environmentally conscious packaging requirements in April that observers say could accelerate the adoption of greener practices by concessionaires and on-site restaurants in terminals across the country.

While the Chicago Department of Aviation’s new Green Concessions Policy [3] extends only to O’Hare and Midway, operators looking to grow in airports said the city’s actions would likely inspire other airports to consider greener requirements for their foodservice tenants.

“A lot of airport authorities have green practices in place, but in the past it’s always been about their airline partners using the property in more green ways,” said Vaughan Lazar, founder and chief executive of Pizza Fusion, an 11-unit Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based chain that advocates the use of sustainably sourced ingredients and eco-friendly practices.

“We hadn’t seen that from a concessions standpoint yet. I think it’s about time,” he added. “With the amount of people traveling through there on a daily basis, not only can you make a big impact, but you can touch a lot of people and pass that message on. I hope there’s a trickle-down effect.”

The new rules at O’Hare and Midway include a ban on polystyrene foam from all packaging as well as the prohibition of all petroleum-based plastics in takeout bags, trash bags, disposable containers and utensils. In addition, concessionaires must implement source-separating programs that sort all used food and trash into recycling and composting bins where appropriate.

On-site restaurants also will be required to use recycled paper for all office and printing uses and donate as much surplus food as is allowable by food safety regulations. By 2016 concessionaires will be required to derive a minimum of 20 percent of food costs from sustainable supply sources.

“The CDA’s new Green Concessions Policy is among the first of its kind in the airport industry and is another great example of how Chicago’s airports continue to serve as a benchmark for environmental stewardship,” commissioner Rosemarie S. Andolino said.

The CDA will train concessionaires at the airports to comply by year-end with the new rules.

Fueling a movement

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Anthony Joseph, president of Atlanta-based Concessions International, agreed that measures taken at one of the world’s largest air-travel hubs would greatly influence other U.S. airports looking to compete in that industry.

“One thing airports can do, because they have such a large, captive audience, is create the market for this,” Joseph said. “When ... a major airport requires it in a contract, it has a dramatic effect. You can imagine what a shot in the arm green practices get from Chicago’s airports.”

In 2011 the CDA introduced the Green Airplane Rating System for airport vendors that incorporate sustainable planning and practices in their design, construction and operations. More than 100 vendors and projects have attained the rating, including HMSHost Corp., which oversees concessions at three terminals at O’Hare, and Midway Airport Concessionaires, which runs Midway’s foodservice outlets.

“HMSHost is a strong advocate for sustainability and green practices, and we also see interest in these areas from many of the airports in which we operate,” senior director of communications Sarah Cody said. “Our airport restaurant locations are great about sharing energy and water conservation measures, so our goal is to implement those practices across more locations to help reduce our usage of these critical resources. … Many of our sustainability initiatives are being implemented at O’Hare.”

HMSHost also operates the O’Hare Urban Garden, an aeroponic garden in which the company grows vegetables, herbs and spices within the airport to be used in all its restaurants in the terminals. Cody also said HMSHost expanded its food donation program in 2012 to give more than 1 million pieces of food, and it forecasts giving away 2.5 million items this year.

The company also has tried to increase its recycling of items like shrink wrap and some metals and has ramped up its use of LED lighting.

Not grounded by cost

Observers said operators at Chicago’s airports could meet the CDA’s year-end deadline for implementation, especially since the supply chain for greener packaging and chemicals, more sustainably sourced food, and recycling and composting programs has improved in recent years.

Michael Oshman, founder and CEO of the Boston-based Green Restaurant Association, said the implementation schedule would not be too short for most operators. The organization has worked with restaurants to change their practices and attain its highest certifications in shorter time periods, he said, and it always depends on how swiftly the foodservice outlet is willing to move.

“What they have going for them is they’re all in one place, and they’re mandated to do it,” Oshman said. “That gets restaurants moving quickly when their landlord requires something.”

Concessions International’s Joseph agreed that the supply chain exists for a more aggressive move toward greener airport foodservice, but he cautioned that the intricacies of franchising multiple brands could complicate the task for concessionaires.

Concessions International operates 40 restaurants in seven airports, with a diverse roster of brands like Einstein Bros. Bagels, Seattle’s Best, Caribou Coffee, Nathan’s Famous and Panda Express.

“It might be challenging, but it’s feasible,” Joseph said. “It’s about getting volume with suppliers to make costs manageable, and it’s difficult when you manage all these brands with different franchise systems. They all try to differentiate themselves through their packaging, and packaging is so important for airports because people take them into gate areas, on the plane or home.”

Pizza Fusion’s Lazar said the industry has come a long way since he started the chain seven years ago.

“You’re seeing Styrofoam banned everywhere now,” he said. “Most of the big brands are already getting away from it. Every broadline distributor carries recycled napkins and utensils made from cornstarch now.”

Pizza Fusion signed a deal last month with Mera Corp., which has included the chain in its bid for restaurants at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected] [5].
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN [6].