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Going green to save

Operators cut down on wasted energy to stop ballooning utility bills

It was an ever-increasing utility bill rather than environmental consciousness that prompted Wendy’s franchisee Raul Dominguez to find better ways to conserve energy in his restaurants.

With the help of a monitoring system, Dominguez cut his energy costs 17 percent at one of his Miami restaurants. He was so impressed, he rolled the system out to his other 11 units, five more in Miami and six in Orlando, Fla. Employees can no longer manipulate the thermostat, and if someone props open the door to the walk-in, letting precious cold air escape, Dominguez gets an alert.

“We were up to $5,000 a month on the electrical [bill],” he said. “To save just 10 percent is $500. That not only pays for the system, it’s putting money in my pocket.”

Dominguez is not the only operator to discover that conservation and profits increasingly are linked, especially as margins are squeezed and energy costs spike.

Restaurants, with their ovens, fryers, hoods, refrigeration units, dishwashers and dining rooms to heat, cool and light, use five times more energy per square foot than other commercial buildings — and five times more energy in the kitchen than the rest of the unit, according to the National Restaurant Association. The NRA’s Conserve, an environmental initiative, also reports that energy costs account for 30 percent of a typical building’s annual budget and have been increasing at a rate of 6 percent to 8 percent per year. 

“To become energy-efficient will become critical to profitability in the future,” said Tom Williams, director of design services for Culver’s, the 410-unit family-dining chain based in Prairie Du Sac, Wis.

Culver’s energy-consciousness begins with building design. Its stand-alone units have been built with thicker walls and glass windows for better insulation. The company also requires high-
efficiency rooftop heating, venting and air conditioning units. LED lights have replaced the neon in outdoor decorative lighting and, indoors, Culver’s franchisees have swapped out regular light bulbs for compact fluorescent lights.

But the biggest energy saver was achieved through changes in the oven hoods, Williams said. The chain switched from traditional canopy hoods to back-shelf-type ventilation hoods that blow 3,000 cubic feet of air per minute, compared with 4,500.

“It’s tremendously reduced our exhaust air volume, and every cubic foot of air removed from the buildings is less air to heat or cool,” Williams said. “It’s been a tremendous energy savings.”

Culver’s, which has been around since 1984, began pursuing more energy-efficient equipment in earnest eight years ago, but other operators started focusing on energy savings with their first unit.

The goal of Pizza Fusion, a 22-unit organic pizza chain based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has been to be as environmentally responsible as possible, said president and founder Vaughan Lazar. 

Pizza Fusion began using LED lights and compact fluorescents four years ago. That focus on conservation led to more cost-saving ideas.

“We don’t have grills and fryers, and we require a lot less energy than other restaurants may have,” Lazar said. “But we do have ovens, and they are on all the time. Our big ‘aha’ moment came when I was standing next to the oven one day and realized how much heat it was putting off. We wondered if there was a way to capture that heat and use it for energy savings elsewhere.”

Pizza Fusion worked with a local engineering firm to capture the oven heat and funnel it to the water heaters. The gourmet-pizza chain has started benchmarking its energy data for comparisons, and Lazar estimated the energy savings are about 20 percent higher in its newest stores.

“What we’ve done now is try to monitor and track energy use on a weekly and monthly basis to understand the savings a lot better,” Lazar said. 

Pizza Fusion is working with the NRA’s Conserve in Washington, D.C., and the Food Services Technology Center in Los Angeles, which rates and tests equipment and appliances.

The goal of the NRA’s Conserve is to encourage restaurateurs to make eco-friendly changes in their restaurants that will save energy, water and waste, said project manager Chris Moyer, a former Outback Steakhouse restaurant manager. It is also piloting a Greener Restaurants program for operators to join. It is not a certification program.

Operators need to see how much energy they are using and how that impacts costs, so monitoring is critical in reducing energy and saving money, Moyer said. 

“When you know what you are doing, you are able to save and you are more focused,” he said. “It’s like with a diet. How can you lose weight if you don’t have a scale to track your progress?” 

Some operators monitor by hand, creating their own spreadsheets and tracking systems, while others, like Wendy’s franchisee Dominguez, purchase 
energy-monitoring systems, such as GridPoint.

The system has allowed Dominguez to keep the restaurants’ thermostats at 74 degrees Fahrenheit instead of 70, turn interior and exterior lights on and off automatically, control refrigeration units, and maintain separate temperature zones for the dining room and kitchen. 

“Florida Power and Light kept raising the bill — something had to give,” Dominguez said. “You can only raise prices so much.”

Culver’s Williams agreed. 

“If you increase sales by a dollar, only a small portion goes to the bottom line,” he said. “When you save a dollar it goes directly to the bottom line.” n

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