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Restaurants adopt 'green' practices to help rein in customers and cut costs

This is the first story of a four-part series about how restaurants can improve sustainability practices.

Going green isn’t exactly an easy process for restaurants, but those that make the investment – from finding ways to reduce energy use to sourcing local or organic produce – can reap significant rewards with customers and in cost savings.

Greener operating practices are good for restaurants on both ends of the spectrum, from Mario Batali’s six restaurants in New York City that are “certified green” by the Green Restaurant Association, to sustainable, eco-friendly practices being adopted by fast-food chains like McDonald’s and Subway.

“Restaurateurs are absolutely concerned about environmental sustainability – because it's the right thing to do, because it can cut costs and save money, and because it appeals to consumers,” said Annika Stensson, spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association.

The association’s research shows that 4 out of 10 customers say they take a restaurant’s conservation efforts into consideration when choosing where to dine, Stensson said, “so it can be a factor when it comes to getting an edge on the competition.”

The Green Restaurant Association, founded in 1990 to help restaurants reduce their impact on the environment, issues green certification to restaurants, giving them a point-value for a variety of practices.

Its standards for certification take into account water efficiency, waste reduction and recycling, sustainable furnishings and building materials, sustainable food, energy use, disposables and chemical and pollution reduction.

And it matters to customers.

In a study with food industry consulting firm Technomic, the GRA found that 79 percent of customers would dine at a restaurant that was “certified green” by the organization over one that wasn’t.

In addition, going green is a good driver of publicity, the association finds.

“You can look far and wide and it will be difficult to find a restaurant that doesn’t want more publicity,” said Michael Oshman, CEO of the GRA. “Publicity drives customers in. It increases the loyalty of current customers. It makes employees feel good and it creates a stronger brand.”

Finding ways to reduce energy and water use can help restaurants go green while cutting costs.

The National Restaurant Association found that 4 of 10 full-service and 31 percent of quick-service operators plan to devote more resources to green initiatives in 2010 than they did the previous year, including using energy-saving light fixtures and energy-saving kitchen equipment.

For example, Darden Restaurants, Inc., which owns and operates Red Lobster, Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse, among others, has taken several steps toward being more eco-friendly and reducing power use.

“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,” said Ian Olson, the company’s director of sustainability. “We’ve also installed more than 24,000 CFL light bulbs, which use 80 percent less electricity, and we’ve instituted a recycling program.”

Darden is also testing new light-dimming technology in dining areas and incorporating Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, building standards in its new restaurants and when it remodels existing ones.

Sustainable, local and organic food can also help a restaurant become greener and gain favor with customers who make green eating a priority.

Pacific Northwest burger chain Burgerville, for example, uses sustainably raised beef from the region in its burgers and as much local, in-season produce on its menu as possible, said Jack Graves, the company’s chief cultural officer.

“It was actually going to be a real big differentiator for our company. There are enough people in this part of the country who really care where their food comes from,” Graves said.

Earlier this year, Burgerville served local asparagus spears and has taken advantage of the local onion season to make fresh onion rings.

“Who would have thought a quick-serve restaurant would be serving asparagus spears? We actually did that during the peak of asparagus season and it was a big hit,” Graves said. “Our guests really appreciate that we bring those things in for that short period of time.”

Other quick-service restaurants have also made a splash by going green. Chipotle, which has used local and organic produce on its menu, plans to install solar panels on about 75 of its restaurants to cut energy costs, and Quiznos now uses more eco-friendly packaging, including compostable paper cups, 100-percent recycled salad bowls and 100-percent recycled napkins.

While it’s not clear how restaurants can measure ROI in terms of each green investment, according to a study by Nation’s Restaurant News and Retail Systems Research, going green helps drive business.

“The bottom line is that implementing sustainability practices can boost profits by reducing operating costs and drive traffic,” said Stensson of the National Restaurant Association.

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