When Michael Oshman started the Green Restaurant Association (GRA) in 1990, hardly anybody in the food service industry thought much about sustainability.
“The green business movement wasn’t something that really existed,” he says. “We were one of the first organizations that wanted to help businesses. We asked: ‘What if we went to businesses and provided tools that helped them directly?’ If we can make it convenient and easy then maybe we can get somewhere.”
The most powerful tool in the GRA’s arsenal of business solutions is information. The organization has built what they call “the world’s largest database of green solutions for the restaurant industry,” – a resource of information about almost every sustainable product and service available to a food service operation. Each one is rated on a point system, and each has gone through a certification process that evaluates sustainability – from water usage to energy consumption to waste reduction.
The more points a business accumulates, the closer it gets to becoming Green Restaurant Certified. Restaurants must attain at least 100 points, meet minimum requirements in certain categories, implement a recycling program, and get ongoing annual training in order to qualify.
“It’s really about the standards for us,” says Oshman. “The information we give restaurants – whether it’s compostable or energy efficient or whatever – they don’t have to wonder. They know because we’ve done the due diligence.”
Those standards have become the gold standard for consumers when they are choosing a sustainable dining option. The issue plays a much larger role in shopping decisions today than it did in the early days of the Green Restaurant Association, and that has only helped them make the case that sustainability makes sense for business.
As Oshman points out: “You better listen to your customer. If you’re not keeping up then someone else is. The difference with sustainability is that this isn’t some cool trend. This is a value. As people become more and more interested in sustainable values they start to act out those values as a consumer. What do they do? They buy green. They dine green.”
Increasingly, sustainability is a competitive advantage for restaurants. A Harris Interactive poll from 2010 indicated 17% of consumers would choose Restaurant A over Restaurant B even if it meant waiting in a longer line and an additional 21% would choose A if the wait time was the same.
Green Certified restaurants and the GRA have been featured in most major national news publications and networks, from The New York Times to CNN. This has led to a widespread recognition of the organization and its certification standards that provides an important advantage to certified restaurants.
Certified restaurants have also realized an unexpected benefit from making their operations more sustainable: improved employee morale. Oshman has heard restaurateurs report that 50% of their employees are there because of the sustainability efforts that resulted in a GRA certification.
Turnover is a constant source of frustration and cost in the food service industry. Anything that helps restaurateurs maintain a high level of service with well trained, experienced employees is vital to keeping a competitive edge. Connecting with employees on the values of sustainability is an important way to motivate the workplace with a culture built around causes those employees believe in.
Regardless of how food service operators feel about sustainability personally, the fact of the matter is this is a trend that isn’t going away any time soon. The National Restaurant Association’s Hot Menu Trends For 2012 include several sustainable and locally sourced food trends in their top ten, and sustainability has been in the top ten trends for food service operators for the past several years.
Making the transition to a sustainable operation can make business sense if executed properly, and ultimately that is the mission of the Green Restaurant Association: to give restaurants the tools that will make them want to make that change rather than forcing change through regulation.
The case for sustainability is compelling, and the tools are available. Says Oshman: “What we’re doing today is what inspired me 22 years ago – to make it easy for businesses to do the right thing. We’re still far from achieving that with every business but now the game is different, the consumer wants to see the change and that’s what keeps us going.”