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Restaurants making strides with green efforts

As the nation celebrates Earth Day on Thursday, restaurants continue to further their efforts to incorporate eco-friendly practices into their business.

A variety of factors are driving these moves, ranging from a desire to reduce their carbon footprint to the belief that going green will appeal to their customers.

The latter appears to have the most sway over restaurant operators, according to a recent study by Retail Systems Research. In the study, 66 percent of respondents said they believed going green would strike a positive chord with customers. By comparison, only 47 percent cited cost savings as an important motivation.

"The best performing restaurateurs believe green-minded consumers care enough about a brand's environmental positioning to factor it in to 'where to dine' decisions," said Steve Rowen, managing partner of RSR and co-author of the study, which was conducted in partnership with Nation's Restaurant News. "The hard part still is measuring ROI in terms of new revenue. The direct correlation is not clear, yet."

Restaurants face other challenges as they set out to meet their sustainability goals. Starbucks Corp. has pledged to have 100 percent of its paper coffee cups either recyclable or reusable by 2015, but the company said this week that efforts to reduce waste from its cups have been hampered by variances in recycling laws.

The National Restaurant Association is looking to help operators navigate the challenges of going green -- and recognize them for their efforts -- with a new pilot program, called Greener Restaurants. The program features a checklist of action items, from small steps to big undertakings, and instructional videos.

Regardless of the obstacles, many restaurants have made strides over the past year to make their businesses more environmentally friendly:

- Darden Restaurants Inc. said Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, building standards will be incorporated at all new restaurants and some remodels at its chains, which include Red Lobster, Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse. In an interview with NRN, the company's director of sustainability, Ian Olson, discussed how Darden will reach its goals.

- The Quiznos sandwich chain began using environmentally responsible packaging, including compostable, wax-coated paper cups, salad bowls made from 100-percent recycled paperboard, and napkins made from 100-percent recycled materials. The chain also said it would introduce eco-friendly uniform items for employees, such as hats made from recycled soda bottles.

- Responding to a challenge from President Obama to improve the health of federal employees, the General Services Administration is requiring on-site foodservice providers at government buildings to offer wellness and sustainability programs.

- Moe's Southwest Grill said it was looking to open its first LEED-certified restaurant. The 400-unit chain's president said he was educating franchisees about sustainability and looking into composting.

- A Denny's franchisee reported significant cost savings from the eco-friendly features and energy-efficient equipment at his restaurant, which was expected to become the family-dining chain's first LEED-certified location.

- Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. said it plans to install solar panels on about 75 of its restaurants this year with hopes of reducing energy consumption during peak operating hours. The solar panels generate an estimated 500 kilowatt-hours of electricity.

- Celebrity chef Rick Bayless designed his new street-food restaurant XOCO with eco-friendly features, such as low-VOC paint, recycled wood, Energy Star roofing and appliances, and fluorescent and LED lighting.

- Kimpton Hotels has replaced most of the bottled water used at conferences with pitchers of filtered water and worked to ensure that 30 percent of the wines offered at its restaurants are eco-friendly.

Contact Molly Gise at [email protected].

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