Can restaurants go green, earn green?

ByBruce Horovitz, USA TODAY

ARLINGTON, Va. -- 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,, 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.

•Replacing a standard urinal with a waterless one can save 40,000 gallons of water per year, says the Environmental Protection Agency.

•If just 10% of restaurants replaced one incandescent light bulb with a compact fluorescent bulb, the energy savings would be $2.8 million, the EPA says.

"Everything that comes out of a restaurant could either be recycled or composted," says Charles Kubert, senior business specialist at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, among the largest environmental advocacy groups in the Midwest. "Yet, most restaurants don't do a good job of either."

Industry actions, not words, need to be watched, says Michael Oshman, founder of the Green Restaurant Association, which certifies green restaurants.

"It's great that everyone is hopping aboard the green bandwagon," says Oshman, who's lobbied for green restaurants since 1990. "But they need to hop on board more than the marketing."

The industry is late to the game. "The restaurant industry tends to follow, not lead," says Chris Muller, restaurant management professor at University of Central Florida.

But some chains, large and tiny, are trying:

Delivering eco-pizza

Pizza Fusion is little-known outside of South Florida, where the chain has four of its five units. But it's raising eyebrows not for pizza, but for its pizza delivery vehicles: hybrid cars.

"There's a powerful marketing message when people see these cars," says Vaughan Lazar, co-founder of the chain.

Each store leases up to four hybrid delivery cars. Its pizza is made with locally grown organic ingredients; menus are on paper made from sugar cane pulp; and its counters are made from recycled soft-drink bottles.

This comes at a price. A large pizza with one topping fetches nearly $20, about twice the price of the competition. Lazar knows that costs him some customers. But he insists it attracts others.

Turning grease to fuel

Burgerville, a 39-unit chain with locations in Oregon and Washington collects and recycles its oil and grease into biodiesel fuel.

It collects about 4,000 gallons per month, which makes about 3,300 gallons of biodiesel fuel, says CEO Jeff Harvey. About half its restaurants compost. All recycle their refuse. Employees collect and separate guest garbage.

The chain serves local, seasonal foods such as onion rings in the summer and sweet potato fries in the fall. But with an average ticket of $8, Harvey says food at his chain can cost about twice that of the competition. "People pay the extra money for better-quality food, not to save the environment," he says.

Building green units

By 2010, all new Starbucks sbux stores built in the USA will be green buildings certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, a non-profit independent group that certifies buildings that meet minimum green standards. Starbucks has one green-certified location in Hillsboro, Ore.

The chain, which sells 2.3 billion hot beverages and nearly 1 billion cold beverages globally each year, hopes by 2010 to serve most of its drinks to in-store customers in ceramic mugs, says Jim Hanna, environmental affairs manager.

McDonald's mcd is building its first company-owned green restaurant in Chicago. It opens this summer. The pavement in the parking lot is permeable to reduce storm water flowing to city sewers. The roof collects rain and distributes it to the landscape. The goal is to get the building certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, says Jim Carras, McDonald's restaurant development chief.

Scrapping some wrapping

Subway is testing a new way to serve subs to dine-in customers: with less wrapping. Unwrapped sandwiches are served on a thin paper sheet placed inside a basket made of 10% recycled material. The test will expand this summer to more markets, says Elizabeth Stewart, marketing chief.

But Subway's biggest green impact has been its napkins, made from 100% recycled paper. Subway figures its 4 billion recycled napkins save 147,000 trees annually.

Seeking paper straws

To go plastic-free, George McKerrow Jr., CEO at Ted's Montana Grill, searched for a paper straw maker six years ago. He couldn't find one.

Then, he located a firm that in 1888 had the first patent for paper straws. It stopped making them decades ago after plastic took off. McKerrow persuaded it to try again. Now, Aardvark Straws sells 5.6 million straws yearly to Ted's.

At 1.5 cents apiece, the straws cost five times more than plastic, concedes John Mangum, director of sales at Aardvark. "There's no hiding that. It is what it is."

Using worms to eat waste

Behind upscale Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Va., where a five-course dinner fetches $105, owner Cathal Armstrong raises hundreds of worms that eat some of the restaurant's organic waste. Each worm eats its weight in waste daily. Worm castings are used as fertilizer in the vegetable garden behind the restaurant.

Worms aside, the challenges that green restaurants face are many. Tops among them: eater apathy.

"If Morton's advertised that it was going green, it wouldn't make one bit of difference to me," says Ron Totin, a food distributor sales executive who eats out four times weekly. "Green is not a contributing factor in picking a restaurant." Only 29% of consumers polled last spring by Restaurants & Institutions said they would be more likely to patronize a green restaurant.

In a tough economy, many folks won't pay extra costs that some associate with green agendas. "If you ask somebody, they'd probably say green is good," says Malcolm Knapp, an industry consultant. "But in a more practical sense, you might have a couple of 20-year-old women who actually care."

Going green isn't always golden.

Ask Ben Prentice. Last year, he opened The Grille Zone across from Boston University. Among the green deeds it did was to use energy-efficient cooking equipment. The restaurant decomposed so much, it didn't need a dumpster. (It shared one with a nearby restaurant.) Its daily garbage fit into half a 55-gallon bag.

The restaurant got lots of PR. But "that publicity didn't sell many burgers," says Prentice. Within eight months, the restaurant closed.

Grille Zone's problem was a different color green — poor financing, says Prentice. Still, folks didn't beat down the doors for its $6 burgers.

Some are nudging Prentice to give the green restaurant business one more try. "I encourage it for others," he says. As for himself, "I'm not sure I have it in me right now."

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