Green Matters

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Restaurateurs are finding economical ways to sate the appetite of eco-savvy diners

It’s been seven years since the owners of Vancouver’s Rocky Mountain Flatbread decided to make their two casual family dining locations carbon neutral. Actually, it was second nature to co-founders Suzanne and Dominic Fielden who were sustainability specialists in the corporate world. Suzanne Fielden says a whole-hearted commitment to green is not just about the grand gestures.“We see green as going beyond energy efficiency. Yes, we buy green energy, Energy Star appliances, turn off lights, use compact fluorescent lighting and use low-flow taps and toilets, but we also look beyond that to zero-waste menus, composting, local sourcing of product and biodegradable takeout containers.”

She believes Rocky Mountain Flatbread is as carbon neutral as a restaurant can be. “Maybe we’re even carbon positive,” she suggests. “That’s where you need to be if you’re talking about long-term sustainability.”

Launching in Toronto in 2005, South St. Burger Co., is a little newer to the green game, but its founder is committed to the cause on a larger-than-average scale. The 13-unit chain is expanding across Alberta and B.C., with six more stores due in the coming months.

“We tried to go beyond just taking the right ingredients,” explains the chain’s founder, Jay Gould, the man behind New York Fries. “We asked ourselves what the market was really looking for, what was happening around us and what our calling card was going to be.”

That calling card was finding ways to “tread a little lighter on the planet,” he says. And, that’s just what South St. Burger has done. The company’s Shops at Don Mills, Ont., location won a 2011 Special Recognition Award for Innovation in Energy at the global A.R.E. Sustainability Awards, presented by the Association for Retail Environments, and this  year’s Green Leadership Award from Foodservice and Hospitality magazine (see pg. 39).

South St. Burger’s site investments amount to about $4,700 in energy savings a year. The green initiatives include a heat-exchange ventilation system with temperature-controlled variable speed fans to boost energy efficiency, air-cooled ice machines compared to water-cooled (which saves 240,000 gallons of water annually), LED lighting as well as low-flow toilets and taps. In the kitchen, high-efficiency fryers account for an annual reduction of 41,400 lbs. (18.6 tonnes) of CO2 emissions.

But, while green is a big topic of discussion for operators these days, few have given the all-out effort of the Rocky Mountain Flatbread and South St. Burgers of the world, says André LaRivière, executive director for the Vancouver-based Green Table Network. “There’s certainly an uptake in people looking for help making greener andmore sustainable choices,” he says. “There’s also an increase in the number of products and services coming to market, from packaging to chemicals to sustainable food.”

The fact that many products aren’t mainstream or difficult to source does create challenges at times. So does cost. Eric Boulden, principal and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green associate for Jump Branding & Design Inc., designers for South St. Burger, notes the casual and fast-food industry segments are perhaps the most reticent when it comes to going green on a bigger scale. It’s no surprise considering the industry’s notoriously low profit margins. “The mindset is there. But when it comes to action, many only go 10 per cent of the way,” he explains. “Definitely they’re on board when it comes to packaging and [eco-friendly] cleaning products. The tougher choices are equipment and lighting, because they cost more. LED lighting, for example, can be three times what you’re used to paying, but the cost-over-time analysis makes sense. Yet the initial reaction to paying for it is usually ‘no way.’”

Take South St. Burger’s heat-exchange ventilation system, for example. “It’s a cool technology that’s not widely available,” Gould says. The cost for the system was $40,000 compared to an average $25,000 for conventional systems, but there’s an estimated payback through energy savings of up to eight years.

Fielden admits going green has a premium attached to it. For instance, composting services at Rocky Mountain Flatbread add $3,000 to the bottom line each year. In short, green electricity costs approximately 20 per cent more than conventional sources.

To make up the difference, Flatbread owners implement cost-saving measures, such as eliminating paper-based marketing and keeping decor costs to a minimum. “We don’t spend a lot on the front-of-the house,” she says. “We just have basic furnishings — reclaimed wood and cement floors.

Then there’s the issue of winning supplier and landlord support, Gould adds. “The reality is a lot of suppliers talk about being green, but in many cases, it’s an unmonitored industry, so you have to be determined to ferret out all this stuff. In addition, a lot of landlords are not in tune with your ideas.” For example, not everyone is on board with solar panels or green roofs because of structural concerns. To date, the South St. founder has negotiated the installation of solar panels at two brand locations.

Buy-in from customers is even more critical, says Kevin Hogg, purchasing manager for Cactus Club Restaurants in Vancouver. “Consumers are very savvy and very interested. They ask our servers and managers a lot of questions about our programs.”

The problem is the majority of greening work—think energy consumption — is behind the scenes. “Customers don’t notice if you’re reducing your kilowatt hours, ”Hogg explains. Although educating staff is paramount, a turning point at Cactus Club took place when the restaurant became founding members of the Green Table Network and Vancouver’s Ocean Wise conservation programs. Introducing recyclable, reusable woven takeout bags, was another move towards transparency. “These have gone over very well and are key to showing people what we’re doing, ”Hogg says.

Research confirms restaurateurs who showcase their commitment will attract consumers. The NPD Group’s November 2010 Mega Trends Report indicates more than half of Canadians are ‘extremely’ or ‘very concerned’ about the environment; and 42 per cent are more likely to visit restaurants that address their concerns. Interestingly, only 26 per cent of diners can identify an eco-friendly restaurant.

That’s why operators need to be more forthcoming about their mandate, says Linda Strachan, industry analyst, Foodservice, for The NPD Group, Inc., in Toronto. “Operators need to make sure they’re transparent and communicate to consumers. Consumers are a bit jaded. If you are doing it, be genuine and talk about it. It’s about engaging with your customers about something that’s important to them.”

Cactus Club’s Hogg admits putting your green stamp on things is a strong selling proposition. “That’s where consumers can see you’re making a difference.”

At the end of the day, Hogg admits sustainability decisions have to make good business sense. “A lot of that is putting in the research and working with partners to get the knowledge you need.”

For the most part, operators still need help following the green trail, Green Table’s LaRivière adds. A large part of that is convincing them of the payback. “The fact is Energy Star-rated equipment, for example, is 30 per cent more efficient than conventional technologies. Those kinds of savings are a no-brainer. But not every initiative has a payback, and operators can’t always pass the added costs along to the consumer. That’s why we’re seeing a lot of utilities and other companies adding incentives to the mix.”

The Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association (ORHMA) did its bit by partnering with Toronto Hydro and Enbridge. “We said to everyone, let’s take all the green incentives you offer for restaurants and foodservice establishments and put them in a package,” explains Fatima Finnegan, director of Corporate Marketing and Development for ORHMA. “In the three months we ran it, almost 200 restaurants participated, including everyone from corporate chains to independents. We were impressed by the level of interest and their willingness to make a difference. We’re looking forward to extending the program in 2011.”

For those operators who find clean living too much of a challenge, LaRivière encourages them to be selective. “From our perspective, the best way to go [green] is to find the spot that makes sense for you and your business.” And, it doesn’t have to be difficult. “Everybody assumes you have to do full retrofits but you don’t,” Finnegan adds.

Admittedly, the job is never done, notes Gould, who also firmly believes it’s worth the effort, especially since it’s what consumers want. “Do we have lots of work to do?,” he asks. “Absolutely. But the world is eventually coming to the party.”

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