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Trend Watch: Restaurants go green

GRA makes environmental decisions easier, step by step

The Green Restaurant Association provides guidance on
    eco-friendly decisions. - Logos provided by Grille Zone, GRA. Photo courtesy
    George's at the Cove.
By Lauren Kramer
January 01, 2008

When the National Restaurant Association created a task force to implement its environmental initiative last May, the goal was to encourage the 935,000 U.S. restaurants to conserve natural resources. In an industry worth $537 billion, the initiative hopes to identify practices that conserve energy, water and other natural resources. The NRA says simple tasks like recycling along with more involved ones, like using sustainable materials and alternative energy sources, would also reduce restaurants' operational costs.

It's a positive step that the NRA is jumping on the eco-friendly bandwagon. But thanks in part to the assistance of the Green Restaurant Association, a few restaurants already have a solid foundation based on sustainability. The GRA, founded in 1990, works with some 330 restaurants in the United States, Canada and Ireland that agree to follow some of its 11 environmental guidelines.

"They all make a legal and contractual commitment to implement four changes a year," explains Michael Oshman, executive director of the GRA in Boston. "Unless they meet this commitment, their GRA certification gets cut off."

The GRA's guidance fee starts at $700 and can go as high as $4,250, depending on how much assistance a restaurant requires.

George's at the Cove in La Jolla, Calif., has worked with the GRA for the past seven years, implementing five steps a year.

"In the beginning it was the most obvious things we dealt with, like recycling plastic and glass," says owner George Hauer. Between breaking the old habits of his 180 employees, setting up recycling bins and creating procedures for this task, it was no easy feat in a restaurant that accommodates up to 395 diners, he says.

Hauer uses recycled paper products when possible, and has installed low-flow toilets and low-flow dishwasher heads to reduce water usage. Compressors attached to his restaurant equipment keep them running more efficiently, and the entire restaurant has been rewired to use low-voltage bulbs and to ensure that all lighting is on a timer or motion sensor.

These are among a variety of steps the restaurant has taken to be more eco-friendly. Has it cost Hauer more?

"I don't know," he confesses. "Yes, it's cost some money. But the reason we do this is so we know ourselves that we're doing the right thing. It's not a marketing device at all."

Other restaurants are more vocal about their environmentally friendly efforts. At the Bayside Restaurant in Westport, Mass., owner Bob Carroll Sr. is serious about recycling and even touts the program on his menu.

"We have a great big composter onsite, and we recycle everything - glass, cardboard, plastic and tin," says Carroll. "To do this, we need separate dumpsters for cardboard and glass, which adds $200 a month to our removal costs. But we do it to save the environment - it's a moral thing."

The restaurant uses solar lighting on the outdoor pathways and energy-efficient light bulbs, mostly compact fluorescents, inside the restaurant. Bottled water has been eliminated at Bayside, and all take-out paper products are biodegradable.

"It used to be difficult to source green suppliers, but it's getting easier," says Carroll. "I just sat down one day and realized the tremendous amount of waste that a restaurant generates. We thought if we could get it recycled, it would be far better for everyone."

Carroll believes the program may attract more diners.

"A lot of people came in to applaud our green efforts, and we had several articles in local papers that generated a lot of interest," he says. "Yes, it cuts into the profit margin a little bit, but it's something that should be done for the planet."

Reducing or eliminating waste is an ideal some restaurants aspire to, but at Grille Zone in Boston, owner Ben Prentice has almost achieved it since the opening last July.

"We throw out less than a 55-gallon garbage bag of trash a day," he says proudly. "Most days, it's half or three quarters of that, comprised of items we take in that just aren't compostable yet, such as plastic wrapping straps, food-handling gloves and Saran wrap. And we have no dumpster out back."

Prentice, 48, says he has always been environmentally aware, but that initially when he planned his quick-casual restaurant, eco-friendliness was not his goal.

"We wanted high-quality food at a very affordable price point, and the best way to do that was to ensure the food was never frozen and therefore local," he says.

As he found those local suppliers, he began exploring green equipment and ultimately decided not to purchase a dishwasher, and instead to serve his food on compostable disposable products.

"That's how we realized we could have almost zero waste," he explains. "We've dramatically reduced our carbon footprint, our energy usage and our waste chain, and today we have as low a waste stream as is possible."

Grille Zone's cutlery is made from potato starch, and its plates from sugarcane pulp. Three recycled brandy barrels in the restaurant inform customers where to dispose of their items.

"It's not as expensive, difficult or time-consuming to be green as most people think it is, particularly with a resource like the GRA, which has done so much legwork already," says Prentice. "They've been a terrific partner, and I would hope that other restaurants, and our guests, would look at our accomplishments, learn from them and be encouraged to follow suit."

The reality is that for a restaurant just opening, it makes sense to go green from the get-go, because they have so much work to do anyway, says the GRA's Oshman. "If a restaurant is already open, it can be really challenging to take on these new behaviors. Four a year doesn't sound like a lot, but it is."


Contributing Editor Lauren Kra m er lives in British Columbia


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