Ian Olson, director of sustainability for Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants, the parent of casual-dining chains Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Long-Horn Steakhouse, among others, is spearheading the company’s efforts to become more eco-friendly. Recently, Olson discussed some of the practices being implemented at Darden’s more than 18,000 restaurants across the country.
Why is it important that restaurant companies assume a leadership role in practicing sustainability?
I think we’re looking at it with a resource focus approach. Things that come into the restaurants, whether it is seafood or energy or water or an agricultural product, what we’re trying to do is focus on those resources and make sure they’re still around for generations to come. That approach is a big driver for us from a business standpoint. Also our employees—we have about 180,000—we hear a lot from them about how important sustainability is. The way we look at it is how we can a build on this for Darden.
How are employees involved?
Basically, our employees are a source for a lot of information. If we do this right and communicate correctly, it’s going to lead to a better guest experience because the employee will have a better [attitude]. One of the things we’ve done is assemble green teams in all of our restaurants and use them as inspiration for ideas.
What kind of green practices has Darden implemented so far?
Right now, we’ve implemented a “Power Up, Power Down” schedule, which [monitors] the equipment used in the back-of-the-house. It makes sure the appliances are turned on and off at appropriate times so they’re not running when they don’t need to be. We’ve also installed more than 24,000 CFL light bulbs, which use 80 percent less electricity, and we’ve instituted a recycling program. One of our issues was the mercury [associated with the light bulbs]. We wanted to make sure we had a process in place to handle that. From a water standpoint, we’re going with low-flow, pre-rinse spraying that we estimate uses 50-percent less water. We’re also close to testing new [light] dimming technology in the dining areas.
Is there any wisdom you can share with other operators about why they should want to embrace sustainability?
One of the most important things is really to try to understand what your own impact is. Getting a good understanding of your energy and water usage or waste production is—those are really “Aha!” moments. I think we can all agree that energy prices will continue to go up, and water experts say water will become scarcer. The question is, how do you make sure your business is more efficient, more responsible so you can insulate yourself from the variable costs that are going on and make sure those resources will still be around in 20 years so that you’re still in business?
What are some of the biggest obstacles associated with going green?
If we’re talking about the restaurants themselves, not every one is built the same. Some of ours are older than others. The wiring and appliances are different, and so are the layouts. And then there’s the fact that technology is constantly changing. Do you make the decision now or wait a year and see if there is a better solution? We’re really trying to study all of the aspects of that. We’re getting a lot of great feedback from our employees. They’re really helping us through those complexities.
How far can a restaurant company go in practicing sustainability, especially during a slow economy?
Actually, I think it’s one of the best times to look at it. While you’re making the world a better place, you’re also making your business model more robust and more competitive going forward, [even though] some things require more capital up front or time.