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Ted's Montana Grill takes green message on the road

NEW YORK Ted Turner and George McKerrow Jr., brought their green tour to New York in early April, recounting the ecological steps they’ve taken at their Ted’s Montana Grill chain to several hundred restaurateurs, educators and reporters in the morning and then detailing the moves to a theater of college students in the afternoon.

The New York stop was a repeat of the appearances they had already made in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, and hope to repeat at any eastern locale where operators, culinary schools or even consumers are interested in learning the small changes a restaurant can make to be more environmentally responsible.

By raising awareness of what can be done, McKerrow explained, more restaurants might turn their attention to such basic endeavors as recycling, conserving energy and water, and switching to renewable sources.

“I hope there’ll be a snowball effect,” he told the audience of New York University students in Greenwich Village. “The more people who do it, the more the costs will come down,” luring more converts and making the moves more economically feasible to confirmed believers, like the 55-unit Ted’s chain.

Ted’s is already projecting a $120,000 savings over the next four years from the use of energy-saving light bulbs in place of the conventional incandescent bulbs, said McKerrow, a lifelong restaurateur perhaps best known as the founder of the LongHorn Steakhouse chain.

The more extraordinary step of installing solar-energy panels atop a Ted’s in Florida reduced that store’s utility purchases by 5 percent, McKerrow said. However, he told the NYU students, ecological undertakings of that scale may not yet be economically feasible without government incentives like tax breaks. He championed carrots of that sort as preferable alternatives to laws mandating environmental changes from businesses.

Even the less-ambitious initiatives undertaken by Ted’s, an Atlanta-based casual chain specializing in bison meat, are costlier than the conventional operating procedures, McKerrow acknowledged. The recycled paper used for the chain’s menus and tabletop covers — sheets that go over a vinyl tablecloth — cost more than the virgin variety, he explained. Energy-saving light bulbs also are typically more expensive.

Ted’s is investigating such bolder steps as installing extractors that remove water from kitchen refuse, leaving behind dehydrated organic waste that takes up less landfill space. The growing chain is also shifting to the use of natural flooring materials, such as bamboo.

But restaurateurs needn’t think they have to undertake initiatives of that scope, McKerrow stressed throughout the duo’s New York appearance. “Just look at something like recycling” or swapping out light bulbs, he said.

“What we really want to do is get a conversation started,” he said in an interview before taking the microphone with Turner, the media mogul turned restaurateur and bison rancher. “If people start talking, the conversation gets small things started, and those will turn into big things.”

Turner said people could make a difference just by picking up litter, something he professed to do outside the New York unit.

“I’ll pick up a couple pieces of trash if someone’s looking because that has double the impact,” he said. “Someone’ll say, ‘If Ted Turner can pick up trash, so can I.’”

Turner and McKerrow readily revealed that they haven’t taken ecological concerns to an extreme, in their business or in their personal lives. A questioner chastised Ted’s for using vinyl tablecloths, a no-no to hardcore greenies. McKerrow acknowledged that he had chosen the cover for performance, without thinking about the ecological implications. “Your point is well taken,” he said.

Turner drew guffaws when he chastised fellow billionaires for the wasteful indulgence of buying commercial airliners and converting them into private crafts.

“I have a more moderately sized plane,” he observed.

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