Breaking Down the Pros and Cons of an Eco-Friendly Restaurant

To go green, or not to go green? That is the question

Restaurant owners committed to running an environmentally conscious restaurant need to weigh a laundry list’s worth of decisions. Is it worth it to invest in low-flow spray nozzles for the kitchen? Are you sourcing great-tasting products that also support long-term soil fertility? Is the bathroom soap crafted from sustainable products? How are these investments communicated to customers?

One major question, however, seems to dominate all others: Is an eco-friendly restaurant worth the trouble and expense? The answer will vary depending on your goals and approach, but learning from green restaurant operators who’ve already embraced the challenge is a good place to start.

It’s a Process
No single set of guidelines define a “green restaurant.” A decade ago, simply nixing bottled water seemed progressive. Today, dozens of decisions must be considered, including how to reduce energy consumption, water usage and food waste. 

Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz wanted to incorporate as many sustainable elements as possible when they built their San Francisco restaurant, The Perennial. Their plans included the expected green elements: reclaimed materials, energy-efficient equipment, composting and locally sourced ingredients. But they waded much deeper into sustainable waters.

“When we first started thinking about things like energy and water conservation, using recycled materials and reducing food waste, we discovered the idea of regenerative agriculture. That was a paradigm shift for us,” says Leibowitz. 

Focusing on techniques that promoted biodiversity and general ecosystem health motivated them to bake bread using flour milled from kernza, a wheat grass that grows year-to-year, which results in healthier soil. They also sourced meats from carbon farming-savvy ranchers and set up a greenhouse, where they grow produce and fish for the restaurant. That “closed loop” approach to farming—raising fish that produce fertilizer for crops—has temporarily taken a back seat to getting the restaurant up and running over the past year, but Myint and Leibowitz have made gains elsewhere. 

They helped launch two nonprofit organizations: ZeroFoodprint, which measures a restaurant’s carbon footprint and reduces its ecological impact; and Perennial Farming Initiative, which helps farmers transition to regenerative agriculture and find markets for their crops.

Invest Now, Reap Later
Upfront costs can be hard to swallow, but potential ROI helps them go down easier. Energy Star-rated appliances cost an estimated 20 percent more, but the power they save helps erase that differential. Items like solar panels can be pricey, but advantageous in the long term. Coasterra in San Diego invested about $1.5 million on extensive solar panels that generate about a third of the restaurant’s energy needs. The owners, Cohn Restaurant Group, estimate it will take about seven years to pay for the panels but view the installation as a hedge against rising electric rates.

Tax breaks and other incentives can help. Kitchen Sync in Greenville, South Carolina, spent $40,000 on solar panels, but co-owner Kevin Feeny says tax breaks and rebates helped make them affordable. The restaurant uses all the energy now, but Feeny hopes some of it will eventually be sold back to the local power supplier.

Keith Arnold and Stephanie Bonin also learned that paying more upfront can cut hassles later. They outfitted their first Duo restaurant with soft pine floors that mimicked weathered wood. But after learning that the pine needed to be re-stained twice a year, the couple went with pricier reclaimed hardwood when it opened its second location in Brattleboro, Vermont, two years ago. The used planks—which score sustainability points—don’t require so much TLC.

Resourcefulness and Patience Required
Be prepared to do a lot of legwork finding the right sustainable items. After jumping through hoops to find local sources for Kitchen Sync, Feeny was pleased when he convinced his distributor to stock a sustainable hand soap, which led to the installation of special dispensers. But then without notice, the producer suddenly halted shipments, leaving him scrambling to find alternative cleaning supplies.

Duo’s owners faced similar constraints when asking unfamiliar contractors to install motion sensors in the bathrooms. Bonin had to revise the architectural drawings to include the sensors to prove they were serious. 

Even small wish-list items can be elusive. The eco-minded Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group is searching for optimal sustainable takeout containers that can stand up to hot food and bicycle delivery (popular in New York) without collapsing or letting the contents cool too much.

Messaging Can Be Tricky
For optimal buy-in, your staff needs to understand the restaurant’s sustainable practices as well as why they were adopted. Servers and bartenders need to be trained to respond to questions about ingredients and practices and deflect the occasional “I need my straw!” or “What do you mean you don’t have Pellegrino?” reaction. 

No one visits a restaurant to get a lecture, but when you’re being a good corporate citizen, you want to brag about it. Elizabeth Meltz, director of environmental health for Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group, says the group still debates how best to convey its impressive sustainability track record, most of which is now outlined on its website.

“Do you write all over your menu, ‘the chicken is from this farm; someone personally raised it,’ or do you rely on the server to tell the story? Some people just want to go out and have dinner,” Meltz says. “A lot of this stuff is not sexy, and a lot of it is behind the scenes. If I told you I have a low-flow spray head at our dish station, you might say, ‘Um, great, thanks for that.’”

Staff at The Perennial weigh diners’ interest before diving into their green spiel. Aside from a mission statement regarding the menu, any mention of the restaurant’s eco-efforts are subtle, such as the illustrated postcard tucked with the check that outlines individual initiatives. These notes educate guests and give servers openings to engage.

“Gauging people’s level of interest can be challenging when you first meet them; you need to get their order and they need to get to the theater,” Leibowitz says. “We might be more excited than the customers.”

Make Green To Be Green
A commitment to sustainability is only meaningful if the business is profitable. Sustainably sourced food and drink often come at a premium, which can mean steeper menu prices.

“Seventy-five percent of our guests understand and get it, but we always get feedback on the cost,” especially in social media comments, says David Stockwell, owner of Faun in Brooklyn, New York. In response, the staff points out the underlying value of sourcing locally and sustainably.

Owners also say a green business model means factoring all the elements that go into the profitability mix. “When you’re truly committed, you find ways to make it work and that means needing to schedule smarter, manage the staff better and purchasing smart,” says Leibowitz. “It’s all possible.” 


ESSENTIALS OF A GREEN RESTAURANT

FRONT AND BACK OF THE HOUSE
• Reclaimed building materials (wood, tile, glass)
• LED and compact fluorescent lighting
• Solar panels
• In-house garden to produce ingredients and generate discussions with diners
• Recycled paper products (cut up old menus for scrap paper)
• Cloth linens
• Awnings and shade trees to reduce/maximize air-conditioning
• Rooftop gardens

IN RESTROOMS
• Energy-efficient hand dryers instead of paper towels
• Motion sensors to control lighting
• Touchless low-flow faucets
• Low-flow toilets

IN THE KITCHEN
• Low-flow spray nozzles
• Compostable takeout containers
• Food waste and energy tracking technology
• Use of “ugly” or less-than perfect produce and scraps
• Composting (either manually or with machines that speed up the process)
• Energy-efficient appliances
• Water filtration/dispensing/ carbonation system to replace bottles
• Variable-speed hoods
• Locally sourced food and beverages


Photography by Frank Lawlor