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Chicago operators find that together it’s easy and profitable being green

Helen Cameron, owner of the two-unit locavore concept Uncommon Ground in Chicago, has always been environmentally conscious. Still, she has a loggerhead turtle to thank for the tens of thousands of dollars she now saves annually on goods, water and energy.

Uncommon Ground is a member of the Green Chicago Restaurant Co-op, or GCRC, a nearly four-year-old group dedicated to helping restaurateurs cost-effectively procure sustainable goods and services. In its relatively short life, GCRC has grown to nearly 400 members, including 260 restaurant members and 150 affiliate members such as suppliers, nonprofits and business owners.

The idea for the co-op came to Chicago restaurateur Dan Rosenthal as he sat on the beach in St. Martin in 2007, and a dead loggerhead turtle washed ashore. The turtle had ingested a plastic bag it had mistaken for a jellyfish. And the plastic bag was like the thousands Rosenthal used each year in his seven Chicago restaurants.

While the experience raised Rosenthal’s eco-consciousness, he quickly discovered that switching from plastic to eco-friendly disposables was cost prohibitive. 

“It gave me the push to get started,” said Rosenthal of the turtle experience. “In order to make the switch I needed to get together with others and get more buying power.”

After gathering guidance 
from several environmental groups, Rosenthal partnered with his friend and fellow restaurateur Ina Pinkney, also known as “The Breakfast Queen” and owner of Ina’s. They founded GCRC with the goals of identifying and providing information about local sustainable products and services, as well as helping to make it easier for members to purchase those products and services at cost-competitive prices. GCRC has no membership fee.

“We recognize that restaurateurs don’t have the time, energy and resources to do research to separate out the products that are green and those that are pretending to be green,” said Rosenthal.

Today GCRC makes more than 63 different sustainable disposables available to its members, as well a handful of sustainable, cost-saving equipment such as spray valves and Xlerator dryers. 

In addition to giving members buying power, the co-op markets its members’ green status to consumers and serves as a green policy advocate. For example, members who gain green certification from national groups such as the Green Restaurant Association and Green Seal become part of GCRC’s Guaranteed Green program, which promotes their greenness to consumers through signage and by distributing marketing materials to more than 40 hotel concierges and various tourism sites.

And, GCRC recently was instrumental in passing new legislation that supports Chicago restaurants’ ability to compost food waste, which was not previously possible. 

GCRC’s ranks are growing through word-of-mouth as members realize significant business benefits by improving their sustainability practices. 

Bleeding Heart Bakery, a punk-rock pastry shop with sustainability as its mission, is housed in a sustainable building, locally sources 90 percent of its products, uses biodegradable packaging and is Green Restaurant Association certified. But it took being a member of GCRC to make sustainability feasible and the business more profitable. 

“When I first started I was buying everything retail,” said Bleeding Heart owner Michelle Garcia. “Because I was so small, [manufacturers] would tell me there was some huge minimum. Now people talk to me. By having buying power [through GCRC], I was able to get my prices down enough to make it palatable for people.”

By lowering her costs, Garcia said she went from selling 50 cupcakes a day to more than 100 a day and increased total profits by 15 percent.

Similarly, Uncommon Ground’s Cameron said that joining GCRC not only resulted in significant savings, but also has furthered her green education. 

Cameron was spending $2,000 a month on paper towels for her two restaurants and had no idea how much she’d save by installing the Xlerator hand dryers that GCRC sells to its members. Cameron ditched the paper and replaced it with six of the dryers at a cost of just $2,400 and a minimal increase in her electric bill. 

“It’s been extremely helpful for us,” said Cameron of being a part of GCRC. “Getting involved saved me money on paper goods, water, energy. But the education, ... it’s a whole other level of enlightenment.”

Glenn Keefer, co-owner and general manager of Keefer’s Restaurant, is also pleased with GCRC. 

“The biggest thing is being good citizens, and that’s a reward in and of itself,” he said. 

However, Keefer is quick to note that by joining GCRC he has been able to save 25 percent on his waste hauling because the restaurant doesn’t have to pay some of the taxes on certain dumpsters that are committed to recycling. He’s also been able to save about 3 percent on water use by installing low restrictors on the restaurant’s hand sinks. 

While GCRC is unique in that it’s a cooperative, it’s by no means the only group trying to educate, inform and convince restaurateurs to make their businesses eco-friendly. Given so-called greenwashing, or misinformation concerning environmental efforts, and the time-consuming nature of conducting green research, a number of other groups have been established in recent years to help restaurateurs.

Among them are the Arkansas Green Restaurant Association, a division of the University of Arkansas’ agricultural department that encourages sustainable practices in the foodservice industry; the Green Foodservice Alliance, part of the Georgia Restaurant Association that supports sustainable best practices through education, awareness and industry collaboration; and the Green Restaurant Alliance Sacramento, which consults with and educates restaurants on sustainable practices and offers programs to help operators put them to use. 

“I am a businessman first and a do-gooder second,” said Rosenthal. “[GCRC’s] goal for 2011-2012 is to prove to the hospitality industry not only that it’s good for your business to go green, but you can actually save money.”

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