DALLAS When Chris Dahlander was a Boy Scout, he went on a camping trip that would change his thinking about the environment, and ultimately how restaurants should operate. It started with a campfire and a penny.
The guide threw the penny into the fire, explaining to Dahlander and his fellow scouts that they’d see why in the morning. The next day, before breaking camp, the guide asked the boys to retrieve the penny. Digging through the ashes, they first discovered a can top, a bootlace and even a retainer — junk carelessly left behind by previous campers. Only when the penny was found and pocketed did the guide say the troop was ready to leave.
"If we had not looked for the penny, we wouldn't have found all those other items that were left in a pristine environment," says Dahlander, now proprietor and operator of the two-year-old, two-store Snappy Salads concept in Dallas. The exercise, he says, was a profound lesson in leaving the environment the way you found it, if not in better condition. It stayed with him throughout the years, and led him to pack his salad venture with ecologically responsible practices and design features long before the green movement became the major force it is today.
"I’d love to say I was a pioneer doing a much better job," says Dahlander, who notes that he does not advertise the ecofriendly aspects of Snappy Salads. "But I would like to say that I’m certainly on the forefront."
Dahlander says he didn’t start out with the idea of a creating a green restaurant concept. An eight-year veteran of Brinker International Inc., parent of the Chili’s Grill & Bar chain, he was simply a traveler who couldn't find the food he wanted to eat while on the road.
"I thought 'Well, this is silly. There should be a place [where I can get] something fresh, something made to order,'" Dahlander says.
As he began jotting down what he found lacking in the dining scene, the idea for Snappy Salads was born. Dahlander realized he wanted the restaurant not only to feature what he craved, but also to match his values and beliefs.
"I didn’t start it to be part of a trend. I didn’t start it to be a marketing ploy,” he says. “It’s truly an outgrowth of what I am as a person."
It all goes back to that camping trip, he says. He started researching ways to "be more ecofriendly, lessen our impact on the environment, and be better stewards of our resources."
Dahlander proceeded under the assumption that even small steps could make a difference, and that small differences could mount into big ones. He also learned that approach did not necessarily conflict with the practical considerations of running a business.
"Once you start, you realize how easy it is to bring more and more into an environmentally friendly focus," he says.
The biodegradable cups and containers used at Snappy Salads are made from corn, the utensils from potato starch. The tables are made from reclaimed rather than virgin wood. A chemically safe, milk-based paint is used on the walls. The bathroom uses infrared touchless on-off switches to cut down on waste. The employees reuse items, such as large mayonnaise tubs to hold the salad dressing. Even the shirts worn by employees are spun from natural materials: corn, hemp and organic cotton.
Supplies like the biodegradable disposables do cost more than conventional versions, Dahlander says. But, he asserts, a restaurant can temper the financial impact if it delivers a good experience, with the green aspects thrown in as a plus. A few customers might try a place because it’s helping the environment, but ultimately the food will determine a restaurant’s popularity and flexibility on prices.
"Businesses can pass all those costs along to consumers if in fact you're bold enough to do so,” Dahlander says. “If your product is not good, then no, you can’t."
Dahlander has also learned that you have to keep ecological considerations within reason. When the first Snappy Salads opened, Dahlander's mother hand-sewed six dozen hemp aprons for employees. It quickly became apparent that more were needed because of spills and soiling, yet Dahlander's mother couldn't meet the demand for replacements and spares. Snappy Salads switched to a local linen company for its aprons, which would no longer be made of hemp.
Some consumer education may also be necessary, he says. After the first Snappy Salads opened, some customers complained about the forks, which they found harder to use than plastic disposables. Dahlander says he had to explain why he had picked those utensils. Once customers understood why he used the biodegradable version, most patrons went along with it and the others started bringing in metal forks from home.
When he started conceptualizing Snappy Salads, Dahlander recalls, he had fewer green supplies available to him than what is around today. "We're the only restaurant in the area that I know of that used this corn-based packaging,” he says. “When I first opened the restaurant I had to convince the distributor to carry it exclusively for me.
"It was a tough sell,” he says. “We couldn't have done it without them."
Today, "it's exciting for me to see that we have more and more options," he says. "We've got a long way to go, but the future is catching up really quick."
For a future location, Dahlander is looking to incorporate more ecofriendly features, such as a floor that’s made from recycled roofing material. The material is more expensive than typical flooring, he says, but the recycled tiles last longer and cause fewer slips and falls.
He also plans on using a material for hard surfaces that's made from husks of sunflower seeds and environmentally friendly resin.
"It's little things here and there that will not necessarily blow you away but will make a difference," he says.
Editor’s note: This story begins a new NRN Online feature called Going Green, a look at restaurateurs who have adopted ecologically responsible practices and what results they’ve experienced. Readers are invited to send their ideas and feedback to [email protected].