Everywhere we look, we see green. Every day, the green movement influences the way more Americans drive, eat, shop and live. Whether businesses and other organizations are responding to Americans' interest and demand for greener products and practices, or if it's Hollywood, the media, politicians and other opinion leaders that are driving the green movement, the reality is that green talk is everywhere, and more of your customers care about their — and your — impact on the environment. Data from the National Restaurant Association shows that 6 out of 10 U.S. consumers say they are “likely to choose a restaurant based on its level of environmental friendliness.”
“Consciousness” is the buzzword of the day among green-loving consumers. The term refers to their awareness when it comes to what they're ingesting and the ethics and practices of the businesses they're supporting. Aaron Allen, c.e.o. of restaurant consulting firm Quantified Marketing Group, gives the example of shade-grown coffee (where growers resist the temptation to level trees to grow their beans). Of course, most Americans care little about their beans' level of shadiness. For a small but free-spending minority, however, such things matter. Upscale consumers have shown a willingness to pay more for this better-for-the environment option. It meets their “Is it good for me and is it good for the environment?” criteria, says Allen.
A survey by the industry experts at Technomic recently asked restaurant patrons about their views when it comes to corporate social responsibility in foodservice. While health insurance, living wages and animal welfare were the three topics of greatest concern, the environment came in fourth, with 52 percent of respondents saying this was the issue they cared about most.
Michael Oshman is executive director of the Boston-based Green Restaurant Association (www.dinegreen.com), which acts as an advisor and bestows Green Restaurant certifications on restaurants that have implemented green initiatives. He says many consumers are most worried about global warming. For others, it's the energy crisis and dependence on foreign oil. Other times, it's sustainable building materials or waste disposal. Perhaps the biggest concern of the environmentally aware, when it comes to restaurant patronage, is the food itself, with organic, sustainable and local being the operative buzzwords.
“Is this fish on the brink of extinction? Is this meat filled with pesticides and hormones?” These are the questions your guests might be asking in the near future, says Oshman, who explains that today's environmentalism can be traced back to the formation of the EPA 30 years ago. “It's taken awhile for the information to penetrate the mass market,” he says, but now, “it is clear to businesses that this isn't just a nicety.” Quantified Marketing's Allen concurs, pointing out, “If you see a celebrity driving a Prius, that's one thing, but when you look at companies like Toyota or General Electric pointing out their environmental initiatives in national ad campaigns, then you know this is coming to the restaurant industry, too.”
Allen adds, “Environmentalism, as it pertains to restaurants, has been bubbling for a couple of years now,” particularly in the top markets — L.A., New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Miami. “It has just hit the tipping point, where it's about to find mass adoption throughout the industry. If you picture the bell-shaped curve for adoption, I don't think we've even started to hit the upward part of the slope yet.”
He says that the American consumer hasn't fully bought into the environmentally conscious restaurant, but that may be changing. “They don't show up in focus groups as beating down the doors of green businesses, but they are thinking about it and they are easy to sway now,” he explains. “The question for the restaurant operator is: Do you want to wait until there are thousands of people offering it, or do you want to see the early signs and migrate in that direction?”
While many Americans see environmentalism and the green movement as yet another Hollywood whim, or worse, “the religion of the left” and yet another mandate from the politically correct, there is evidence that elements of the green movement will survive the initial fervor that accompanies every hot fad.
Allen mulls the trend versus fad question: When social movements “start to fizzle down, there is a consolidation and a fallout, but changes in business practices will not fall away. Some dominant leaders will take hold and we will be left with the remnants of the green movement for decades.”
He adds that one lasting impact of the green movement will be the desire for “authenticity,” another important buzzword in the green lexicon. “Consumers are tired of the contrived. They're looking for the authentic or genuine.” Already, this is having an impact in the mainstream, as evidenced in the recent struggles of casual chains. “Those at the lower end of the price spectrum — Chili's, IHOP, Bennigan's — have been showing negative same-store sales because they're divergent from the idea of authenticity in food and materials.” This has translated, he argues, into the emergence of more “natural” concepts, such as Darden Restaurants' Seasons 52, which emphasizes in-season menus and is reportedly hauling in $5 million in annual sales at test units.
Moreover, many customers want to believe they're doing good while they're eating out. “People are trying to do as much as they can,” says Dustin Summerville of Harney Sushi in San Diego. “Dining at an eco-friendly restaurant is a step in the right direction.”
Green Initiatives Vary
While many operators are choosing to “go green,” exactly what that means varies. Summerville talks about how green fits into his business plan. “Mostly being green fits in ethically. Being green is more expensive.”
Many operators are green from the ground up, choosing green building materials (see sidebar). When Summerville opened Harney Sushi eight years ago, the choices in green building materials were limited — and expensive. Now, however, as he is preparing to open a second unit, “we'll be doing it in a much greener fashion.”
His architect, Matthew Ellis of Blue Motif in San Diego has worked on several green restaurants. “Each time we create one, we take it a step further,” Ellis says, adding that one green choice can balance out the cost of another. While you might spend $14 per square foot on green flooring, versus $10 for conventional materials, the use of, say, salvaged furniture could offset those higher flooring costs.
Vehicles are another way restaurateurs are helping the environment. The 20-unit Pizza Fusion chain, based in Fort Lauderdale, FL, boasts a fleet of hybrids to deliver its pies. At Harney Sushi, Summerville is converting his delivery van to a biodiesel engine that will run on recycled vegetable oil. Although the cost of the conversion is about $1,200, it will quickly be recouped in gasoline savings.
Saving energy is another way restaurant operators are going green. At Pizza Fusion, founding partner Vaughan Lazar says that with choices like low-flow faucets, high-efficiency appliances and ovens that do double duty heating the air and water, “we're looking at 40 percent water savings and 15 percent power savings.”
At four-unit Tampa-based fast casual chain Evos, “the goal is to bring awareness and show you care by incorporating things that make a difference,” says founding partner Dino Lambridis. Green choices include Energy Star-rated equipment, low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints and jute floors bound by linseed oil.
When Sandy Lawrence opened Ubuntu in Napa, CA, last summer, she set out to be as earth-friendly as possible. Recycled shipping containers were used for the flooring. The restaurant's tables are made from reclaimed wood and wind-fallen trees. Guests sit in refurbished chairs from the 1940s. “Using something from the past” was important, says Lawrence. So was composting. Lawrence processes not only Ubuntu's waste, but that of nearby businesses as well.
On the container front, Pizza Fusion gives discounts to customers who bring back their pizza boxes for recycling. Earth-friendly containers are also the focus of some excitement. New items on the market include biodegradable to-go containers made from cornstarch and similar potato-based utensils. Such tableware breaks down in as little as 30 days.
The biggest impact of the green movement is happening on the plate. Demand for organic food has escalated, says Jason Brown of Seattle-based Organic To Go restaurants. “The reality is, if people can afford it and they're of a certain education level, they're interested in the opportunity to have clean food.”
Some high-end players have even started growing their own ingredients for better control, better quality and better environmentalism. In an unlikely location, downtown L,A., developer Bret Mosher's Blue Velvet restaurant is sporting a rooftop garden, where vegetables, herbs and even some fruits are being grown for the restaurant. Upstate in Napa, a sizable chunk of Ubuntu's produce comes from the biodynamic garden at owner Sandy Lawrence's own home. Biodynamic gardening takes organic one step further, adding special preparations to the land and emphasizing astrologically timed planting and sowing and the interrelationship of soil, plants and animals. “The taste of the food right from the garden is incredible, and the guest appreciates it,” says Lawrence.
Leveraging the “Greenness”
While some operations quietly operate in a green way, others are using their environmental initiatives as selling points to increasingly eco-conscious guest bases. This is particularly true when it comes to the green initiative guests most care about: organic food.
Catherine Lederer of Le Pain Quotidien in New York City and Los Angeles says, “We've always been really subtle in our communications approach,” using small stickers on the restaurant doors showing their Green Restaurant Association certification, small signs about their compostable utensils and noting their organic items on the menus. Even so, being green has been good PR. “We have gotten some press as a result of what we've been doing,” says Lederer.
Similarly, Organic To Go keeps it low-key. The chain's USDA Organic certification (they're the only fast casual operation in the country to have it) is on their menu, but “We don't do it to get the ‘groovy’ pin; it's who we are,” says founder Jason Brown.
Pizza Fusion sees their green initiatives as integral to their brand identity. The company advertises on the Internet and in local “green” magazines. Around the restaurants, there are “info-matoes,” tomato-shaped wall plaques that point out the company's green initiatives. Each dining room features one clear Plexiglas ceiling tile so that guests can see the restaurant's insulation, which is made of recycled denim. The company also reaches out to the community in the form of children's classes about organics and recycling.
Michael Oshman of the Green Restaurant Association says more restaurants are branding themselves as eco-friendly, taking advantage of their GRA certifications not only in their restaurants, but also on their websites, in print ads, guest checks, even with co-branded GRA brochures. GRA-certified restaurants are also benefiting from media attention the association is getting.
In the end, how green you go — if at all — is a personal decision. Lambridis of Evos says, “We've been operating this way since 1994. It's who we are; we're not responding to what's trendy or cool.” But from a personal standpoint, he adds, “it would be unconscionable” not to do anything environmentally friendly.
BUILDING FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
Restaurant operators have more choices than ever to help them design green buildings:
- LEED designs
Operations like Pizza Fusion and Wolfgang Puck's Springs Café in Las Vegas are building according to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) specifications using energy-efficient tactics and eco-friendly products. Puck's place boasts “sustainable, regional, durable, recyclable and low-maintenance materials,” such as native stone, weathered steel siding and energy-efficient glass.
- Using existing building elements
Matthew Ellis of Blue Motif Architects in San Diego has been refinishing rough concrete slabs in existing buildings with stains and sealant. It reduces waste and cost, and is a cool design feature.
- Innovative carpeting and upholstery
At Blue Velvet in Los Angeles, earth-friendly carpeting “tiles” can be removed and replaced when stained, plus the manufacturer can refurbish old pieces. Pizza Fusion's seat cushions are made from soybean oil, not petroleum-based foam.
- Sustainable woods
For structures, flooring and decorative finishes, the trend is toward responsibly harvested materials, such as bamboo plywood and cork, jute or coconut finished woods.
- Chic countertops
Some operations are purchasing Vetrazzo countertops, made of recycled bottles. At Pizza Fusion, the countertops are made from recycled detergent bottles. A fabricator is using the existing restaurant's sake bottles to create the countertops for Harney Sushi.
- Smarter lighting
Many operators opt for pricier LED lighting. A single bulb can last 25 years. Compact fluorescents are almost mainstream.
GREEN FOODS: ORGANIC, LOCAL, SUSTAINABLE
Organic, local and sustainable are more than buzzwords: Menuing these kinds of foods can be good for your bottom line.
Although purchasing organic is easier now than ever, some operators still face supply challenges. Le Pain Quotidien, which makes its own organic breads for its bakery cafes, says a strong relationship with a supplier got it through a recent organic flour shortage that left other operators high and dry.
Jason Brown of Organic To Go says purchasing volume has allowed it to get almost all of its organic products through major distributors. “It's a fallacy that we'll outstrip our supply, because it's a win-win for farmers,” who get to purchase fewer chemicals and can charge more for their products. Dustin Summerville at Harney Sushi concurs. “We are buying organic as much as we can.”
A growing number of your guests likely have an appreciation for locally grown products, as well. The bonus: Guests who have tasted locally grown produce will become spoiled and will pay a premium for superior flavor undiluted by weeks in transport. Ubuntu's Sandy Lawrence says, “I think the timing is right now and there is more appreciation for the way our grandparents ate. Our guests want to be more connected to their food source…Taking food from the garden and lightly managing it — this is the best way to eat. It is just delicious food.”
Sustainability is another concern to green consumers. Sustainable means that a current harvest — whether it's a plant or an animal — will not affect future harvests and future generations. Purchasing sustainably is still not easy, though. “It's still like the Wild West — how does it work and how do we do it?” says Aaron Allen. “We're still figuring that out. ‘Sustainable’ is a powerful word in your marketing arsenal, but no one has a real clear idea of where it's going.”
Some food manufacturers are offering more sustainable choices. Phillips Foods, for example, has created a division of aquaculture and sustainability to make sure their purchasing decisions are good for the environment and aren't jeopardizing future supplies. Phillips is also funding research and education on sustainable fishing practices both in the U.S. and abroad.
As a founding member of the Indonesian Crab Producers Association, for example, “we're working with universities and fisherman to teach them better, sustainable methods. Where we know we can make improvements, we're making investments to make that happen,” says Ed Rhodes, co-director of the Phillips division.