Building a Green & Sustainable Restaurant

Green Made Easy

“Sustainability” may sound like a destination too far, but you get there the same way you get anywhere—one step at a time.

By: Mike Sherer

If you’re like many, when you think of “green” or “sustainable,” you probably think of much-publicized certification programs with strict definitions you either meet or don’t. But as concepts, green and sustainable are not like on-off switches. They’re more like dimmers. They’re gradated, and you achieve them to varying degrees in incremental steps. The important thing is to start moving and gain momentum as you go.

Most of you are already taking the early steps. You’ve changed some incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescents, and you recycle glass, metal and paper. You’ve installed low-flow pre-rinse valves. But what’s all this about “reducing your carbon footprint” and “becoming sustainable”? Can you do more?

What’s Green, What’s Sustainable?

Absolutely. Being green—by which we means being environmentally friendly—is getting easier. Greener products are more plentiful and less expensive, and greener practices are more widely understood these days. And becoming sustainable—which means you can sustain your activities long-term without going broke or using up the planet—is likewise more widely understood than ever before.

“Sustainability, from a big umbrella perspective, means running an operation that doesn’t negatively impact future generations’ ability to operate a restaurant,” says Don Fisher, president and CEO of Fisher-Nickel Inc., which runs Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon, Calif. “From a practical standpoint, sustainability means staying in business when the price of oil hits $100 a barrel.”

Getting Started

As with every other aspect of your business, becoming sustainable will never happen without committing to it. And you won’t know where you’re going unless you find out where you are.

“Audit where you are,” Fisher says. “And get top-down commitment. Assess your state of sustainability unit by unit, and commit long-term to solutions that will get you to your goals one step at a time.”

The first step is education. There’s growing recognition of consumers’ interest in buying green products and services. Consumers want to do business with companies that are environmentally responsible. That’s led to more resources you can turn to for information and guidance on how to go green.

A host of government and industry organizations now provide education and programs that encourage and show you how to act more sustainably. And they’re designed specifically for restaurants, not just business in general. In some cases, the sponsoring organizations offer certification for businesses that meet certain green criteria. Others focus on education and encouragement.

NRA’s Conserve Program Makes It Easy

One such program is Conserve, the National Restaurant Association’s green restaurant program. Now into its third year, the program keeps getting bigger and better.

“Operators’ perceptions of what sustainability means vary across a whole gamut,” says Chris Moyer, manager of Conserve. “Every business is different. So, we felt it was more important to educate our members and move them in the right direction with a prescriptive green-restaurant program,” as opposed to creating a formal certification. “Videos and training information make it easy for restaurants to get started, no matter where they are in terms of becoming sustainable.”

Rather than force restaurants to adhere to a specific certification track, Moyer says, Conserve provides the resources and tools for restaurants to set their own course toward sustainability.

“We take a holistic approach,” he says. “Sustainability is a journey, a constant reevaluation of what you’re doing and [next] action steps to improve. But it’s also a balance of the economics of doing business and being socially responsible.”

A restaurant isn’t sustainable if it can’t stay in business, in other words, so the Conserve program emphasizes green efforts that are economically viable for both short and long term, and it puts them in a meaningful business perspective.

Installing a low-flow pre-rinse valve, for example, costs about $60 or so and can save you as much as $1,000 a year in hot water. That’s economically motivating. On average, the water you’ll save yearly can fill one-and-a-third typical back-yard swimming pools. Multiply that by the number of stores in your company. That puts thing in perspective.

The program’s focus on education and tangible, easily implemented solutions, Moyer says, is designed to get as many restaurants to participate as possible. “If we can get half our members a third of the way toward a sustainable restaurant, that’s better than getting half a percent of them all the way to sustainability.”

That’s not to say the green programs that offer certification are any less valuable. For many operators already committed to sustainability and well on their way toward becoming green, certification offers a blueprint for improvement, validation of what they’ve already accomplished, and a means of promoting their achievements.

Conserve, in fact, recently launched an online program called Greener Restaurants that lets operators chart their progress toward sustainability and rewards participants with signage and other ways for environmentally aware consumers to find them. Restaurant operators can share what they’re doing to become greener with customers, and customers can post comments to encourage restaurants to do more. The site has how-to videos and best practices to help restaurants achieve their goals.

First Small Pieces, Then Big

The Greener Restaurants program offers an audit that will help you set a benchmark by which you can judge your progress. It also will help you identify all the areas where you can make your operation more sustainable. That can help you plan and set priorities.

“A lot of sustainability guidelines break up the issue into areas of focus like energy, water, food, supplies, waste reduction, the building itself, and so forth,” says David Zabrowski, FSTC’s director of engineering. “Those areas can be broken down further. For example, equipment, lighting, refrigeration, HVAC and hot water are all energy and water issues.”

A good approach, he says, is to look at each area of focus and develop a plan of attack. Take energy, for example. First, pick the low-hanging fruit. Focus on the no-cost, easy solutions that you can implement right now. Institute a turn-on/off schedule in all your stores.

Equipment and lights should only be on when they’re actually in use. And since most equipment pre-heats quickly, in 10 minutes or less, there’s no reason for staff to turn everything on the minute they walk in the door in the morning.

Next, look at low-cost ways of saving even more energy. Switch out incandescent bulbs for CFLs; install those low-flow pre-rinse valves; put electronically commutated motors, or ECMs, on your walk-ins; and use photo sensors on exterior lighting and motion sensors on storeroom and walk-in lights. Add side panels to your ventilation hood to capture more cooking effluent at lower fan speeds—your HVAC system won’t have to work as hard and your kitchen will be more comfortable.

Properly service all your equipment so it operates as efficiently as possible, and keep it clean and well maintained. Calibrate cooking equipment so it operates at the proper temperatures. Train staff on the correct way to operate equipment so it’s doing the job as efficiently as it was designed to.

Step up your investment in energy-saving technology by putting your ice machine on a timer if possible, buying an energy-efficient water heater or upgrading front-of-the-house lighting to LED fixtures.

“We know operators aren’t going to throw out a working piece of equipment just to get the latest, most efficient model,” Zabrowski says. “They should focus on the things they can do.” But when equipment does need replacing, invest in Energy Star qualified models. They may cost more up front, but usually they’ll pay for themselves quickly in their own reduced energy consumption, reduced HVAC load, etc.

Finally, consider more advanced approaches to energy savings that can lead to sustainability. These might include changing your cooking platform or the prep, cooking or assembly process. It may mean taking a look at purchasing specs to be sure you have the best product for the platform/process you’re using. In some cases, an energy monitoring system may help you take advantage of off-peak utility rates, maybe shifting some processes and staff to a different time of day.

What About Water?

To conserve water—not to mention cash—start by checking for leaky fixtures. Fixing a typical drippy faucet, for example, can often save you about 140 gallons of water a week, or 7,300 gallons per year. Bigger leaks are not uncommon, nor are faulty toilets that use enormous amounts of water, and don’t forget to work with your water utility to make sure you have no underground leaks. You’re paying for that water as it comes into your store and again as it goes out, and it’s not being used for anything.

Other no-cost ways to conserve water include serving water to guests only upon request, running the dish machine only when it’s full, and teaching employees to conserve by washing produce in a basin and thawing frozen food in the refrigerator instead of under running water. Sweep outside walkways and driveways instead of hosing them down.

Relatively inexpensive ways to conserve water include installing aerators or low-flow fixtures, putting irrigation systems on timers and using drip hoses instead of spray heads, and installing motion-sensing faucet actuators in the restrooms.

Again, replace equipment that uses water, such as old ice machines, dish machines and steamers, with more water-efficient Energy Star models. Other water-saving investments include low-flow toilets and waterless urinals and more water- and energy-efficient water heaters.

Outdoor strategies might include irrigation systems that monitor soil moisture or use satellite tracking to turn off when it’s raining, recycling “gray” water and/or rain water for irrigation, and monitoring systems that track water usage throughout your restaurant.

Waste Heat No More

And many operations are discovering savings or value in other “waste” products, too. Used frying oil is being recycled directly as fuel for generators or other modified engines, or processed as bio-diesel fuel for delivery vehicles, among other things.

Harnessing waste heat and waste chilling has enormous potential. Waste heat from refrigeration and HVAC systems is being diverted to preheat a store’s hot water supply. New warewashers are using waste heat from rinse water to preheat incoming water. Waste heat harvested from the kitchen hood is a potential goldmine of energy for heating all kinds of things. And by the same token, fluids and air already chilled once can be harnessed or routed to pre-chill other fluids and materials. Why let anything escape your building above or below ambient temps? You’ve paid for all of it.

Creating a more sustainable restaurant may lead you to rethink the way you purchase food and supplies, too. More restaurants, including chains, are sourcing products closer to stores, reducing the fuel required to transport it. And many are using natural or organic products whenever possible. Grass-fed beef, for example, contributes less CO2 to the atmosphere than grain-fed beef.

To reduce deliveries even further, organizations are using more sophisticated menu planning software to forecast their needs, ordering only what they can use. Just-in-time delivery cuts down on spoilage and food waste, reducing food costs in addition to deliveries.

Supply purchasing, too, is changing, as more operators turn to more environmentally friendly chemicals, cleaning supplies and other goods. Redesigning its shipping packaging has enabled one chain to cut out more than 97,000 pounds of plastic a year.

And The Building Itself

Last but not least on the list of areas you can make more sustainable is the physical structure of your stores. Buildings themselves not only can help save energy if properly designed and built, they also can be constructed in a way that reduces your carbon footprint and puts you closer to your sustainability goals.

When you remodel existing stores, think green. Use resources like the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program to help identify areas where you can make a store more energy- and water-efficient. LEED has a certification program now for existing buildings.

Use recycled building materials wherever possible, low VOC paints, low off-gassing and non-toxic products, sustainably harvested wood, and other green practices. Source materials as close as possible to the site, and contract with architects, consultants and builders who are LEED-certified or have green-building experience.

Plan and design new stores with green efficiencies in mind. Use alternative energy sources when possible. Some chains are incorporating wind turbines, solar panels and even geothermal systems into their buildings to offset the cost of energy. More chains are piloting LEED-certified stores, one of which has earned LEED’s platinum level certificate.

Green building techniques not only can save you money over the life of the building, they also qualify for tax incentives, tax credits, utility rebates and special offers in most locations. Online resources can help you locate state and federal assistance programs.

Sustainability, like becoming “carbon-neutral,” may seem an impossible task and too daunting to tackle. But have faith, and move forward.

“Sustainability is a life-long commitment,” says FSTC’s Fisher. “What you build today can be made more sustainable tomorrow.”


Here’s a sampling of the resources available online to help you become more sustainable:

Information And Education

National Restaurant Association Conserve program:
Conserve’s “Greener Restaurants” program:
Food Service Technology Center:
Environmental Law and Policy Center of the Midwest:
Energy Star:
Alliance To Save Energy:
LeanPath food waste tracking system:

Certification Programs

Green Restaurant Association:
Green Seal:
Virginia Green Restaurants:
U.S. Green Building Council (LEED program):

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