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For restaurants, going green can pay off quickly

Eco-friendly efforts can cut costs and draw customers, experts say

This is the third story of a four-part series about how restaurants can improve sustainability practices. Part one discussed why restaurants are going green, and part two focused on how operators can find the right eco-friendly strategy for their business.

For restaurants looking to go green, the investment of time and money can often pay off quickly in the form of cost savings, improved employee morale and increased traffic from eco-conscious customers, experts say.

From a cost perspective, return on green investments can be significant and gains can be seen quickly, said Chris Moyer, manager of the National Restaurant Association’s Conserve Initiative.

Small investments in energy-saving lighting, more energy-efficient kitchen appliances and water-limiting devices can save thousands and generate quick returns, he said.

“Lighting sees a huge, quick turnaround on return on investment because lighting takes up a great portion of your energy usage,” Moyer said. “You’re going to see a payback within one to three years tops [when switching to] LED technology… it does depend on the size of your units, but typically the more lighting you require the greater your payback.”

Energy cost savings can be anywhere from 15 to 25 percent, he said.

But it’s a $75 piece of hardware that’s used by the dishwashers that can show the biggest returns — the pre-rinse spray valve.

“If you use that particular piece of equipment three to four hours a day… you’ll save anywhere from $900 to $1,200 in the first year of using that equipment," Moyer said. "When you talk about costs operationally and figure out how much sales you have to bring in… it’s the same as generating $20,000 in new business.”

Faucet aerators also can help reduce water use and cost. Fixing gaps in refrigeration unit doors and installing automatic door closers are other quick-return investments, Moyer said.

“One of the tangible things is operating costs. You can’t control the weather… but you can control operating costs,” he said.

Restaurants like fast-casual chain Chipotle Mexican Grill — which plans to install solar panels on about 75 of its restaurants to cut energy costs — say that going green is just the right thing to do.

"Chipotle does these things because we think they are the right things to do rather than for purposes of saving costs," spokesman Chris Arnold said.

And doing the right thing can pay. Restaurants that can show that they’ve made these investments can draw customers concerned about sustainability and green living.

According to a survey of 500 consumers conducted in May by the Green Restaurant Association and Technomic, 79 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to dine at a certified green restaurant over a non-certified green restaurant.

The study also found that, when given the choice of their three favorite restaurants, 64 percent of people said they’d choose the certified green eatery more often over the other two.

To become Certified Green, restaurants have to make often-significant changes, but they are worth it, said Michael Oshman, CEO of the GRA.

“We have restaurants literally that come back to us and save anywhere from $1,200 to $4,800 just by cutting back, waste reduction and recycling and composting," he said. "The ROI on that is one day. There is no major investment there. Literally on Day 1 you start saving on your waste hauling bills."

Jim Solomon, owner of the Fireplace restaurant in Brookline, Mass., joined the Green Restaurant Association in 2004 and saw a 45-percent return on the investments he made in one year and slashed $1,200 from operating costs, according to GRA data.

Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s dining empire has 11 “Certified Green” restaurants in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York City.

Getting those certifications meant changes big and small for the group’s fine-dining restaurants, from composting to installing energy-efficient hand dryers and lighting in the kitchen at New York City’s Otto Enoteca Pizzeria.

The return, often, comes through good PR, said Elizabeth Meltz, director of food safety and sustainability for Batali and Bastianich’s restaurants.

“A lot of the things we do I feel like pay for themselves in PR and in good press," she said. "You really can’t measure some of them. We spent a lot of money changing over to 100 percent recycled menu paper.”

Many things they do don’t generate financial returns, but pay off by keeping employees happy and motivated to do better.

“Like anything else, having a certification to strive for with the staff and managers is very helpful,” she said. “It gives them something to work for, they’re proud of it and it’s a morale booster.”

And while other green efforts at Batali and Bastianich’s restaurants do show financial gains, it’s that feeling that makes it worth it, she added

“As much as they would love to make money on these initiatives, they’re really doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” Meltz said.

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

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