Eco-Dining: Can Restaurants Turn ‘Green’ Into Gold?

Incorporating environmental friendliness into your restaurant can pay off in an abundance of surprising ways.
November 09, 2011

Restaurants may embrace environmental trends to align themselves with the greater good of the planet, but savvy ones can benefit in more direct ways.

Whether it’s reduced power consumption and kitchen waste, enhanced customer loyalty or better PR, implementing eco-friendly techniques can cut operations costs and fill seats.

Founding Farmers, located just blocks away from the White House, is a farm-to-table restaurant that celebrates (and is owned by) the North Dakota Farmers Union. It has incorporated an environmentally friendly philosophy into all aspects of the business, from sustainably farmed food to architecture that is certified for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

Going green has given Founding Farmers an edge on competitors thanks to a base of patrons who share its environmental concerns, said Dan Simons, Founding Farmers concept developer and managing partner. “There is a lot of competition in the restaurant world, but not a lot within this subset of customers who care about the environment and about the food they put into their body,” he said. “I think for us, this has been a clear, strategic advantage.”

Its customers are also the restaurant’s best advocates, Simons said. “They understand there is toxic junk in the food supply and toxic junk destroying the planet. We are building a brand with trust.” Simons says. Since these highly motivated customers tend to be trendsetters among their friends, word-of-mouth referrals have propelled patronage.

Financial savings

If you ask Michael Oshman, CEO and founder of the Green Restaurant Association, for the reasons why a restaurant should go green, he counters that there’s no reason not to embrace its direct financial benefits. “You can’t justify not doing it. When you look at a restaurant saving thousands a year on waste costs, that’s just good business decisions,” Oshman said.

At Founding Farmers, Simons said that while the upfront investment in energy-efficient lighting, heating and cooling was significant, the restaurant has reaped the benefits with electric bills a mere quarter of the average restaurant. By hiring ecologically committed staff, the restaurant also enjoys a lower turnover rate than most restaurants. “Employees are working for a business they are culturally aligned with. When you can do things to inspire a staff to stay, you recoup that investment,” he said.

A loyal clientele

Marilyn Schlossbach heads the New Jersey-based restaurant group Kitschens and the catering company Kitschens Catering. Both have integrated green practices, from an eco-catch of the day to reclaimed décor to recycled to-go containers.

While Schlossbach has been practicing sustainability since entering the industry in 1985, she hasn’t been so vocal about it until recently. Now she’s making an effort to communicate green practices to her customer base, especially in terms of awareness around sustainability. “There is an audience now that has an elevated awareness of environmental issues, where their food is coming from, and who they want to support in both the business and non-profit world,” she said. Environmental enthusiasm has helped her companies establish strong community alliances, along with stronger relationships with supportive vendors. She said, “I truly believe that our venues gain loyal, like-minded customers that support us through thick and thin because of our commitment to the environment and our community.”

PR buzz

Oshman of the Green Restaurant Association identified another business advantage of the green movement: With legislative and media interest in eco-friendly options on the rise, so is positive publicity for companies that practice it.

This became a reality for St. Louis-based Onesto Pizzeria & Trattoria and Mad Tomato: The restaurants’ decision to compost all food waste from the prep area and guests’ plates, in addition to recycling all cardboard, bottles and plastics from the restaurant, generated plenty of positive press. “It’s great to see media taking an interest in this topic,” said co-owner Michele Coen Racanelli. She added that the restaurants now gets more local interview requests about their green techniques than the menu. “It has definitely translated into more awareness for our efforts. The restaurants have been featured in local broadcasts to talk about the initiatives, so indirectly more people are coming into the establishments just because our name is out there,” she said. And, just as beneficial, the composting reduces the restaurants’ trash by 75 percent, a cost savings of 30 percent from its former disposal methods.

How to start

Oshman referred restaurants that want to implement greener strategies to the Green Restaurant Association's website, which offers product recommendations that allow businesses to make gradual changes. For those that a more comprehensive environmental overhaul, the association also offers free consultations. “Most restaurateurs don’t have an expertise in all these issues like energy, chemicals, packaging—it’s just too much to expect,” he said. “We will help them and make it easy for them.”

According to Founding Farmers’ Simons, restaurateurs also need to be willing to do a lot of research. “You have to dig deep” because the solutions aren’t always obvious. For example, “buying local isn’t always the thing with the lowest carbon footprint,” he said. Most important, business owners need to start with the decisions about which they are most passionate, whether it’s recycling or sustainability, and work from there.

“I sleep much better knowing that I can show my kids this business, and my kids can learn that we compost, we recycle, and we run the business with a culture that is respectful to employees,” Simons said. “When you can look at your kids and teach them things that are respectful and they can be proud of, it is really motivating.”

Andrea Lynn is a Southern-raised, NYC-based food writer and cookbook author.