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Experts: Find a green strategy that's right for your restaurant

Starting small is key for a sustainable business, experts say

This is the second story of a four-part series about how restaurants can improve sustainability practices. Click here for part one.

When it comes to going green, many restaurants are spooked by the prospect of shelling out thousands of dollars to make their businesses more eco-friendly.

Industry experts, however, advise restaurants to start small and develop a green strategy that fits their business.

Some investments, like installing more energy-efficient light bulbs and fixing leaky faucets, are quick and easy. Other projects require bigger commitments, but in the long run, any sustainable change is good for the planet as well as the bottom line, experts say.

Little changes can mean big savings when it comes to water and power efficiency, said sustainability expert Chris Moyer, manager of the National Restaurant Association’s Conserve initiative.

“There are so many things that you can do… quick, easy, no-cost or low-cost things, that you can realize some savings while reducing impact, then you can reinvest for future savings,” Moyer said.

“I think the first step is just to be honest and forthcoming and assess everything and take it step by step," he added. "Don’t try and do too much too quick. Being a sustainable operation is an ongoing journey. There is no finish line you can always improve.”

Start small, by making sure your faucets are tight, he said. A faucet that drips once per second can waste hundreds of gallons of water a year.

Other water-saving solutions include low-flow, pre-rinse spray valves for dishwashers. “It will save over $1,000 a year for that operator when switching from a regular-flow,” Moyer said.

When it comes to cutting power consumption and costs, adding a timer to adjust the temperature in the dining room can help a restaurant save money. “One degree difference in your temperature can add up to a thousand dollars of HVAC costs in a year,” he said.

Refrigeration can eat up 6 percent of operations energy costs, so restaurants can save money and reduce power usage by making sure walk-in doors close properly or by adding air curtains.

“Lighting probably takes up about 18 percent of your energy bill, so that’s a huge opportunity,” Moyer said.

Keep dining-room lights off when customers aren’t in the restaurant, he advised. Switch out incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescent bulbs.

“In the back of the house it makes no sense to have incandescent light bulbs anymore," Moyer said. "There are really opportunities everywhere, you just have to open up your eyes.”

Last year about 60 percent of full-service operators and 43 percent of quick-service operators invested in energy-saving light fixtures, the NRA said in its 2010 forecast.

Exit signs are one unexpected place where operators can save money, the NRA said. A 40-watt incandescent exit sign can cost about $30 to install and lasts between 750 and 1,000 hours, averaging about $53 to power for a year in New York City.  A 5-watt LED sign, however, costs $40 and will last about 10 times as long and cost about $7 a year to power.

When it comes to making bigger changes, restaurants first need to take a look at where they stand, said Michael Oshman, CEO of the Green Restaurant Association.

“Where are you? What kind of restaurant are you? Fast food? Fine dining? What’s going green for fine dining is a bit different that going green for a quick service restaurant,” he said.

The Green Restaurant Association, founded in 1990 to help restaurants reduce their impact on the environment, issues green certification to restaurants, giving them a point value for a variety of practices.

Its standards for certification take into account water efficiency, waste reduction and recycling, sustainable furnishings and building materials, sustainable food, energy use, disposables and chemical and pollution reduction.

The GRA does an environmental assessment, figuring out where a restaurant stands in terms of its standards, and then develops a plan to help restaurants become certified. Certification requires 100 points. Low-flow pre-rinse spray valves are worth 5.75 points, for example. On-site wastewater treatment is worth 25.

“One of the things that restaurants can do that has the largest impact is having meat-free options,” Oshman said.

Using recycled products and having an in-house recycling program are also ways to be more sustainable.

For operators who want to make dramatic changes and have the money to invest, starting with green building practices can help a restaurant be more green from the get-go.

The NRA’s Conserve initiative has a list of 10 tips for restaurants that includes eco-friendly building components, such as low-VOC or no-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints, recycled flooring, reflective roofing and energy-efficient windows. Click here for the full list.

But not all green improvements cost money. Training your employees on green practices and energy conservation efforts can make a big difference.

“Some of the stuff we do is actually behavioral and those are great opportunities also,” Oshman said.

Jennifer Lawinski is a contributor to Nation's Restaurant News. Contact editor Molly Gise at [email protected].

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