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Operators tread carefully when promoting eco efforts

For operators seeking to make their restaurants more ecofriendly, one of the new challenges they face is how to market their efforts, if they promote them at all.

Experts say the key to selling green is an honest message that's consistent with the restaurant's image, rather than trumped up claims that are aimed solely at driving traffic.

“The number one thing to keep in mind before doing any marketing around it is to ensure the efforts are real and produce results rather than using the term ‘green’ for things that aren’t necessarily so,” says Annika Stensson, director of media relations for the National Restaurant Association.

Restaurateurs say customers' reception to ecofriendly initiatives will be stronger if the efforts are perceived as being consistent with the overall character of a brand. Subway, for instance, has built a reputation for fresh, healthful fare, and officials for the Milford, Conn.-based chain say its green efforts are a natural extension of that perception.

Subway late last year debuted its first store designed with ecofriendly business practices in mind, such energy-efficient equipment, skylights and recycled building equipment. The unit, located in Kissimmee, Fla., is one of three that the chain hopes will qualify for the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design designation.

“We have a good reputation and it’s not a large stretch of the imagination to think of us as doing other good things,” says Les Winograd, spokesman for the 28,000-unit chain. “So I think what’s happening is our reputation is preceding us and we’re trying to live up to that.”

For independent operator Donna Maltz, environmentalism has been a part of the business message since she opened Fresh Sourdough Express in Homer, Alaska, 26 years ago. The restaurant has always recycled and composted, Maltz says. More recently, it has added low-flow spray nozzles and toilets, replaced old seals and gaskets, and switched to compact fluorescent light bulbs, full-spectrum lighting and energy-efficient ballasts and hand dryers.

Fresh Sourdough Express' status as the first restaurant in Alaska to receive certification from the Green Restaurant Association is promoted prominently on the restaurant's website, as is its support of organic and local foods. Maltz says the goal is spreading the word about environmental responsibility, and not just promoting the restaurant.

“It’s not marketing,” she said. “It’s about a movement. It’s about education. It’s about the truth … It’s about being honest and it’s about being right and it’s got nothing to do about being righteous.”

Experts say that acting righteous may in fact hurt some restaurants' marketing efforts. There is a fine line between boasting and legitimately spreading the word about good deeds, says consultant and columnist Bill Roth, who specializes in green issues.

“Right now I think there is more value in being truthful than boastful,” he says.

Restaurants that are employing green initiatives to boost the bottom line probably shouldn’t even bother mentioning them, he adds.

“Going green can save green. Great,” he says. “But a business shouldn’t brag about going green if the only green initiatives undertaken are ones that either increase revenues or reduce costs. [There is] nothing wrong with going green to make money. Just don’t claim a higher moral ground that really isn’t there.”

Because of what some say is a societal backlash against unfounded claims of being green by businesses in all trades, some restaurants are reluctant to crow about their ecologically minded actions.

Culver’s, a Prairie du Sac, Wis.-based burger and custard chain, said it has put plenty of ecofriendly actions in place, but it chooses not to tout them. Among the new projects at work or in progress: new exhaust fans that cut exhaust air by 35 percent, a more materially efficient building prototype, and hybrid fleet vehicles. Culver's also has won kudos from the NRA after one unit converted its hot-water heater to run on fryer oil.

“We don’t really market them per se,” says Chris Contino, vice president of marketing for the 376-unit chain. “Culver’s has always tried to do the right thing for the community, the environment and for other people.”

Marketing green efforts represents a new frontier, and restaurants should make education for both employees and customers an important part of it, consultant Roth says.

“To capture the real marketing value there needs to be an educational component to the messaging because you are introducing something new to the customer,” he says. “Equipping your message and associates with background information ‘sound bites’ will help customers put into context the value a restaurant is creating on behalf of the customer and environment.”

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