William Michael “Mike” O’Neal, at 72, is still the activist restaurateur he was in his youth. Today, however, the operator of three successful restaurants in New York City is most passionate about becoming more environmentally conscious both professionally and personally.
He recently began taking steps to have his businesses certified by the Green Restaurant Association  and says his devotion to the cause is as much about his family as it is anything. He wants to leave the planet a better place for his grandchildren.
What made you decide to make your restaurants more eco-friendly?
I’d been thinking about it for a couple of years, and at the last NRA board meeting—I’m no longer an active member, but I still go to a lot of meetings—I noticed they had a green task force and it was interesting.
I came back to New York, where I have concessions in Riverside and Central parks, besides running the restaurant [O’Neals’] across from Lincoln Center, and got a letter from the Parks Department commissioner and said she wanted all the concessionaires to get involved with the Green Restaurant Association out of Boston. I went to a seminar and it turned out the founder, Michael Oshman, and I had met years before. At that moment my partner and I decided to take all three operations—the two concessions and the restaurant—green. So we started the process.
So what are you doing to be more environmentally friendly?
In order to be certified by the GRA, you have to sign up for three years and there is a cost involved. You have to do at least 12 things during the three years. You can do all 12 in the first year or four each year. Now we’re switching over at the Boat Basin restaurant to paper plates and everything will be compostible and environmentally sustainable. We’re installing low-flow faucet aerators and low-flow spray valves they say will save half the [amount of] water we use. We’re talking about eliminating all bottled water and serving water in reusable carafes at O’Neals’ and at the Boat Basin. Our paper towels and toilet paper will also be 100-percent recyclable. Also, all of the paper products we use in the office will be 100-percent recyclable. We said we’d have it done by the first of May, but we didn’t quite make it.
Why is the green movement so important to you?
I went to a seminar recently to hear Ted Turner speak when he was in town. He said that for the amount of space restaurants take up they use about five times as much energy as, say, the retail space next door. So we’ve got a long way to go because we’re using so much energy—gas for stoves and electricity.
Listen, we want to save the planet for our grandkids. I’m hoping they’ll be able to enjoy it. We’ve screwed it up by using so many chemicals. I’m almost 72 years old and have been in the restaurant business for 50 years. I’ve burned a lot of grease, a lot of burgers. Maybe by us doing this, more people will become aware. I don’t think it will increase business, that they’ll pile into my restaurants because of it, and that’s not the reason to do it anyway. It’s to try and make the world a better place.