Restaurants will have to do more than change light bulbs; they need to grow their own food on site
Last month I spoke at the CHART Conference. Also known as the Council for Hotel and Restaurant Trainers, their annual gathering includes restaurant operators from around the country. Their impressive list of members include every family chain restaurant you’ve ever heard of, including Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Rubio’s, Chuck E. Cheese, Perkins, et al. The room was packed with a “who’s who” of lifestyle eateries.
I have to admit I was skeptical as to what I could accomplish here. After all, these chains are part of the sprawl of Suburbia and help it to persist. In addition, these chains are typically not known for either award-winning design or healthy food (with the exception of Chipotle, which was the clear standout in the room). What amount of information could change this industry to the point of being noticeable? I was delightfully surprised by the results.
As we discussed strategies on how to save energy, I’d discover they’d already done (or at least tried) it. Most of these lifestyle brand restaurants have already grabbed all of the low hanging fruit in terms of energy efficiency and water savings. They were far ahead of the rather reluctant hotel industry, which is loosely related and connected to this group.
These restaurants have gone far and wide to reduce their overall environmental impact. The results?: millions of kilowatt hours of electricity, BTUs of energy and gallons of water saved each year. Most of these companies presented to me an impressive list of energy efficiency measures. Of course, with that comes an equally impressive cost savings.
Some of the innovative strategies currently in use include:
• Equipment Power-Up Program: Appliances are turned on when needed rather than simply turning everything on at opening. This saves up to 20% of their electricity bill.
• Energy-Efficient Bulbs: Light fixtures are upgraded with compact fluorescent (CFL) and efficient bulbs; old bulbs are recycled. Another potential 15% savings on electricity.
• Low-Flow Dishwasher Sprayers: Low-flow sprayers use 50% less water, saving an average restaurant tens of thousands of gallons of heated water per year.
• Green Teams: Restaurants are supported with a green team who review checklists and inspect for opportunities to save energy, water and, of course, money.
• Add a “No Print” key: Servers are able to check orders and clock in without having to print a slip, saving thousands of trees a year.
While these measures are a wonderful beginning, it seems almost foolish to not be doing these things. Sitting in a roundtable, we batted around other ideas that fell into three main categories of sustainability:
In an average restaurant, a third of the food is wasted. Some from spoilage, some from preparation and some from the customers not finishing their plates. Since the average food item travels almost 1800 miles to get to their customers plates, this indirectly accounts for an incredible waste of energy and carbon emissions.
Restaurants should send their leftover (but not spoiled) food to local food banks to feed the poor. Many cities are lowering the liability to encourage this, but it still hasn’t become mainstream.
Food scraps that are unusable as food (coffee grounds, vegetable peels, etc.) can be composted. This compost can be used to fertilize the landscaping around the restaurant, beautify the neighborhood or sold for profit. San Francisco’s mandatory composting program not only removes thousands of tons from the landfills, but generates revenue for the city.
3. Growing food on site
Since food and fuel costs continue to rise, restaurants can explore growing certain foods on site. By growing their own food, a restaurant can use their compost, create local jobs and add local flavor to their dishes. Obviously, only certain fruits or vegetables can be grown, but it is a great start. Trellis products such as Greenscreen can be used to grow certain vegetables while also shading the building.
Lastly, I read a recent story of a hotel in Denmark that asks guests to pedal exercise bikes to generate electricityin exchange for free food. Ideas like this one are a great trend toward connecting customers with the impact of their decisions.
You can view the slides of my lecture here.
—Eric Corey Freed is author of the new book Green$ense for the Home: Rating the Real Payoff from 50 Green Home Projects