Green is Good

Doing the right thing for the environment: all well and good, but — for many restaurant owners — kind of a yawner. Making a few tweaks that yield positive impact on the bottom line: Now we're talking.

The economic sense of trimming energy and water usage and reducing waste seems obvious, but it gets shunted aside in the bigger picture at many restaurants. “People know what they're paying for potatoes, coffee, aprons and labor, but they ignore their water and energy costs because they feel like ‘it's utilities; we can't do anything about it,'” observes Richard Young, senior engineer and director of education at the Food Service Technology Center, a utility-funded energy project in Northern California. Considering that energy costs represent 30 percent of a building's typical budget, and they've been growing 6-8 percent a year, you are ignoring them at your own peril.

But you can do something about utilities, trash and other costs. On the next few pages you'll find some (mostly) easy fixes that will produce meaningful results.

1. A very basic step, which Young says many restaurant operators avoid, is to track energy and water usage and be on the lookout for glitches. If water usage spikes by 3,000 gallons on one day, for instance, it would probably pay to figure out why. The high volume could be traced to a landscaper. If one month's utilities are noticeably higher than the last, it might be a leaky faucet, some exterior lights that are left on all day or a freezer door that isn't closing tightly. You won't know about it if you aren't on top of things.

2. The lowest-hanging fruit in any battle to trim energy usage is lighting. Switching from old-style incandescent and less-efficient fluorescent lamps and fixtures to newer compact fluorescent and LED lighting may involve higher up-front costs, but the new fixtures more than pay for themselves, in a variety of ways. CFLs reduce energy consumption by about 75 percent and last years, not months. They also emit less heat than more traditional light, which saves on air conditioning costs.

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers expects to shave more than $100,000 a year from its electric bill simply by installing LEDs in lobbies, entrances, over tables and along dining room perimeters. And because they will-last longer than the halogen and incandescent lights they replaced, they will also save money and labor. The seven-watt LEDs save an estimated $10 apiece per year in electricity.

Old-style fluorescent tubes are electricity guzzlers, too, but the good news is fixtures using them can be updated to accept smaller, more efficient tubes that don't buzz or hum and produce more flattering light. And a number of utilities offer rebates as an incentive to change over to the newer fluorescents.

To Young, more-efficient lighting is a no-brainer. But if you're worried guests will object, “put compact fluorescents in places where no one is going to argue about it,” he advises.

3. The higher gasoline prices go, the more valuable discarded cooking oil seems. These days, many restaurants are giving it away or, in some cases, selling it to companies that use the diesel/oil mixture called biodiesel. Either way, recyling is an environmentally sound decision that also eliminates the need to pay someone to haul it away.

At its first company unit, Elevation Burger posted an ad on craigslist.com offering any taker used cooking oil. Eventually the restaurant compiled a list of regulars who were happy to pick up the fat on a regular basis. The burger chain is looking at buying a generator that runs on waste oil to supply some of the power needed in the restaurants.

The Fair Deal Café in White Plains, NY, is saving an estimated $1,000 a year through a fryer oil recovery program sponsored by Westchester County. The county supplies a 55-gallon drum with a funnel; when it's full, an employee picks it up and replaces it with a new barrel. The program is a win-win for the local restaurants and the county, which runs 125 vehicles with it.

Burgerville’s goal is to divert 85 percent of its waste away from landfills; a green Denny’s near ?hicago (right) uses a white roof and skylights to work with the sun, not against it.

4. It doesn't cost anything to compost or recycle, but doing so can reduce trash removal charges. Burgerville, a 39-unit west coast chain, estimates that its goal of diverting 85 percent of waste from local landfills will save $100,000 annually in waste removal fees. The chain has been training employees to deposit refuse in color-coded internal containers as part of a broader commitment to the environment.

5. Consider alternative delivery vehicles. Pizza Fusion walks the green talk with its customized Toyota Priuses; why not borrow that idea and adapt it to your situation? Bella Bacino's in Chicago, Fuel in Washington, DC, Nonnie's in Concord, NH, and others transport meals on Segways, which run on batteries. The manufacturer figures that operating one costs about one-sixth of what a car would cost, or about a penny per mile. Besides slashing delivery costs, the units allow navigation of busy city streets more easily than cars or vans. And a bonus: They are attention magnets. The two Segways that Bella Bacino's operates are retrofitted with boxes to carry the pizzas and other menu items and customized with the restaurant's brand and color scheme.

6. Thinking outside the box in new construction and renovation can pay off. Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn't mean it makes sense to continue. Consider roofs. The typical dark-colored roof can heat up to more than 120 degrees on a sunny day, which is bound to affect the temperature inside the building. At an LEED-certified Denny's in Joliet, IL, owner Joey Terrell opted for a white roof, which does not increase the heat penetrating the building. And to keep the heat in during the winter, there's an extra layer of insulation on the roof and in the walls. The restaurant's heating bill during one of the colder months last winter was less than a third of a similar tab from an older Denny's Terrell runs in a nearby suburb.

Sunlight isn't always a bad thing. That green Denny's does let some sunlight in through the use of skylights, which provide natural light during the day and reduce the need to operate light fixtures. And some restaurants are experimenting with solar panels to produce energy. The Charlie Horse restaurant in Kingston, MA, spent $78,000 to install panels that are expected to pay for themselves in 3.5 years. Part of the installation cost was subsidized by a state grant and federal tax credits.

7. Water, water everywhere — the possibilities for wasting water in a restaurant are endless. Culver's Restaurants looked at its utility usage and found two easy fixes for waste: drips and rinses. “Fixing a drippy faucet can save a restaurant $1,200 a year,” says Tom Williams, the company's director of building services — often for the cost of a washer. The other culprit: traditional spray rinse valves. A low flow alternative, which might cost $40, can do the same job and save a busy restaurant 123,000 gallons of water a year.

Ted's Montana Grill has ventured where many fear to tread: the urinal. The company has installed waterless urinals in about two dozen locations. Instead of flusing, the units process urine in a filter. Each location saves an estimated 40,000 gallons of water per year, says Ed Bazor, the company's director of construction. For new builds, it's actually less expensive to install the newfangled urinals; retrofitting an existing bathroom is a bit trickier, but doable. And “we have not had one complaint about odors,” Bazor notes.

Ted's is also installing tankless water heaters, which solve another problem common to restaurants: the demand for hot water. Instead of having employees waste water by running the tap until it reaches the right temperature, tankless units provide heated water on demand. Doing so saves an estimated 25,000 gallons of water annually per restaurant. The newer units also save on space, and they don't emit as much heat, so they aren't adding to the HVAC load.

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