Ted Turner struts into one of his busiest restaurants at lunch hour and is ogled by startled customers. One overeager diner leaps in front of Turner for a handshake, then gushes, "Love your food, Ted. What's next?"
The short answer: green grub.
Turner, the media mogul turned philanthropist, now wants to be known as something of a different color: a green restaurant owner. In other words, a guy whose restaurants leave a smaller carbon footprint on the environment.
Which is why you won't find a plastic straw or cup in any of Ted's Montana Grills' 55 casual dining restaurants. The straws are made from biodegradable paper. The menus are printed on 100% recycled paper. Even the cups are cornstarch.
Turner is helping to fund a "green" restaurant initiative that the powerful National Restaurant Association (NRA) will unveil Monday at its annual convention in Chicago. The purpose: to nudge owners of the nation's 945,000 restaurants to think about controlling energy use and waste creation.
"Imagine the implications for global warming if we get the whole restaurant industry to go green," says Turner.
If the restaurant industry can dial down the enormous environmental damage it does daily even slightly, it would be huge. Restaurants are the retail world's largest energy user. They use almost five times more energy per square foot than any other type of commercial building, says Pacific Gas & Electric's Food Service Technology Center (FSTC).
Nearly 80% of the $10 billion dollars that the commercial food service sector spends annually for its energy use is lost in inefficient food cooking, holding and storage, says PG&E's tech division.
The average restaurant annually consumes roughly 500,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, 20,000 therms of natural gas and 800,000 gallons of water. Using the latest EPA carbon equivalents, that amounts to 490 tons of carbon dioxide produced per year per restaurant, PG&E estimates.
Then there's all that trash. Restaurants produce far more garbage on a daily basis than most other retail businesses. A typical restaurant generates 100,000 pounds of garbage per location per year, the Green Restaurant Association estimates.
There couldn't be a tougher time for the $558 billion restaurant industry to put on a green face. Consumers are eating out less due to the soft economy, and those who do eat out are spending less. The industry outlook, as measured by the NRA, fell in March to its lowest on record. Some 55% said sales fell at sites open a year or more.
But just six months into her job as the NRA's president, Dawn Sweeney is pushing the green button hard. "It's huge to me professionally and personally," she says. "We can do more, and we will."
The NRA has created a website that goes live Friday, conserve.restaurant.org, that offers tips on how restaurants can conserve water and energy and construct "greener" buildings, and gives restaurant owners a place to share ideas.
The industry didn't suddenly get a green heart. Chipotle has lived and breathed green since its founding 15 years ago. Starbucks has been an industry leader. But for the most part, the industry is responding to criticism and to new awareness that restaurants can save serious money by taking small steps:
•Placing low-flow valves in the sprayers that pre-rinse dishes can save a restaurant 73,000 gallons of water a year, estimates the FSTC.