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10 Tips For Commercial Water Conservation

leaky faucet Restaurants use a lot of water.  Between cooking, washing dishes, cleaning up, and serving guests, your water bill takes a good chunk out of your monthly budget on a consistent basis.  Commercial water conservation is also a big concern of a majority of your customers, especially if you operate in dry western states like California, Arizona, or Colorado.

This post is going to add to a common theme here on The Back Burner: finding ways to green your restaurant that not only give you serious street cred with your customers, but also add green to your bottom line.  The nice thing about commercial water conservation is that it takes minimal investment to realize some pretty serious savings.

Here’s 10 tips to help you save water in your restaurant:

  1. Serve filtered water on demand only. Don’t just assume your guests want water, and definitely don’t give them bottled water!  Not only is bottled water a needless expense, all that plastic is a landfill nightmare.  If you don’t serve water automatically, train your wait staff to let customers know they can have water free of charge at any time (after they get the drink order of course!).  And if you’re serving water, don’t just pull it from the tap.  Use a filtered glass filler to guarantee taste and water quality.
  2. Fix leaky faucets. That little dribble coming out of the faucets in your kitchen probably don’t seem like a big deal, especially since you’re probably working hellish hours as it is.  But looks can fool you.  That dribble can add up to thousands of gallons of water each month, and if it’s the hot side of the faucet that’s leaking, that’s hundreds of dollars in energy bills going down the drain as well.  Faucet parts are easy to replace and extremely inexpensive, and there’s really no excuse for letting those dollars leak down the drain.
  3. Low flow pre rinses. A low flow pre rinse can slash your water usage at one of its most wasteful points.  These pre rinses give you a heck of a lot more bang for your buck and still clean dishes effectively.
  4. Wash full racks only. This is a headsmacker tip.  The danger is in assuming your kitchen staff is following this rule religiously, because chances are they’re not.  Employ a constant education and enforcement program to make sure only full racks get put through your dishwasher.  Even conserving a small amount of water translates into big savings for you because that hot water is twice as expensive after you pay to heat it up.
  5. Retrofit kitchen and bathroom sinks. Aerators make both bathroom and kitchen faucets use less water and are easy to install.  In the kitchen, install a three compartment sink for washing dishes because the scrape, wash, rinse technique is much more efficient than doing it all in one compartment under a constantly running stream of water.  In the bathroom, install automatic faucets that shut off when not in use and retrofit old toilets and urinals with newer, more efficient ones.
  6. Train employees. In the end, all the best water-saving equipment in the world doesn’t do you a bit of good if your staff doesn’t take conservation seriously.  Make it an ongoing issue in staff meetings and during employee training.
  7. Use a foot pedal for handwashing sinks. Foot or knee pedals serve two purposes: they allow your staff to turn water on and off without contaminating their freshly washed hands, and they shut off automatically, which can save an astounding amount of water.
  8. Compost food waste. Instigating a compost program in your restaurant means staff must scrape food bits into your compost bin instead of washing it into the garbage disposal.  That means significant water savings.  A compost program has the added benefit of giving you additional green credentials for your customers as well.
  9. Landscape with conservation in mind. Many restaurants not only use water inside the restaurant but outside as well.  If you have any landscaping going on outside the restaurant, follow water conservation best practices to keep water usage down.
  10. Sweep and mop instead of spray. It may seem easier to just spray down kitchen floors and outside areas to keep them clean, but it’s certainly not cheaper.  Investing in some good old fashioned janitorial supplies like mops and brooms means some major water savings.  It might be a little more work for your staff, but those savings on the water bill will also help you pay their salary.

Finally, after you’ve put all the time into using the above tips to make your restaurant one lean, green, water-saving machine, make sure you tell your customers all about it!  You’ve worked hard to cut water usage, and perhaps the biggest reward you deserve is appreciation and increased loyalty from your customers.  Incorporate your efforts into your marketing campaigns.  It’ll surprise you just how effective a green message is in improving your name in the eyes of customers.

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How to be a Green Restaurant and Cut Costs

Through constant research as well as attending many industry programs, I have learned a great deal on what can be done in the “greening” of new restaurants.  Here’s a list of top ways your restaurant can go green:

  • The most obvious is to use high efficiency refrigeration, but there are many other ways to save on power costs.
  • Updated air-conditioning has given new and existing dining establishments a great way to save. A new system not only uses more “green” friendly refrigerants but the motor structures are much more energy efficient.
  • Lighting: New LED lighting uses a fraction of the power and can last many times longer than conventional illumination.  Today’s systems can be dimmed and have wider spectrum of color than the older, harsher lights of the past.
  • Using remote refrigeration instead of self-contained units can also increase the overall efficiency of all refrigeration.  Roof-top compressors can make a great savings in power usage.
  • Kitchen – make up air – new hoods using directed make up air – can save a great deal on the use of conditioned air being taken up by exhaust.  Well engineered kitchen layouts and air flow controls save a great deal on over usage.
  • Low-temp dishwashers can, depending on the local Health Department regulations, be possible to use these machines.  This equipment use a chemical disinfectant instead of high-temperature water to wash dishes and glassware.  They allow for much more efficient use of hot water thereby savings in both gas and electric.
  • On demand hot-water heaters and boosters has been the rage for the greening of new homes; however the use of on-demand appliances has been accepted more and more by local health and building municipal departments.   These units do not keep a tank of water hot for use but heats it as it is needed.  The savings here for the restaurant owner are incredible.  The booster units can work in locations where hot water is needed a distance from a hot water heater.  They can be placed under units in the restrooms or at the bar to keep the flow of under-heated water to a minimum or raise the temperature of cooler stored water to regulation temperature.
  • Low volumes flushing toilets and waterless urinals have become acceptable in many states and local areas and are very good at water savings.

All of these are, of course, easy to install on a new project.  When building a new operation everything is under review.  But most operations are already up and running.

As things age, we all need to do maintenance and equipment replacements.  When refrigeration needs repair it makes sense to evaluate whether repair or replacement is the right decision.   If a walk-in is of an older technology, it may be more cost effective to replace it with a better-insulated and more efficient model.  Most states have tax incentive programs to encourage operations to do just such a thing.  Operators should check with their local utilities to check on all programs available.

There are also many other ways to save on energy that are part of design.  Recently we were involved with a project that used prevailing air movements to save energy.  The designer used vented windows to take advantage of a prevailing breeze to direct air out of the dining room during the warm season thereby letting the management use less air conditioning.   We also insulated the ceiling and used ceiling fans to keep warm air in and recirculate it during cool times.    Design can have a great effect on operating costs and not just labor but energy.

The use of tints and filters on windows as well as shades and awnings, in the correct locations, and used as needed, continue to be useful for cost savings as well.

Every decision made in both the development and the maintenance of an operation has both an upfront expense as well as an ongoing cost.  It is important to research each one and to make sure suppliers and vendors also take these questions into consideration.  It is our duty to our investors and our guests to be as responsible as we  can, and in being responsible, it also makes good business sense.

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How To Become A LEED Certified Restaurant and Why You Should

Every year, your restaurant’s green credentials on the street gets more important.  According to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), it’s one of the hottest trends this year.  Companies across the board, in and out of the food service industry, have scrambled in recent years to label their brands as green, with varying degrees of success.

Some companies have taken advantage of the green mood consumers are in by “greenwashing” their business – trumping up a bunch of nominally “green” practices and selling it to customers as a genuine commitment to sustainability.  The problem with greenwashing is that as consumers place more importance on sustainability, they’re also becoming more savvy about how effective the strategies companies tell them about really are.

This has led to a growing effort by companies that are genuine about their sustainability commitment to seek official credentials to back up their claims.  In the food service industry, national chains like Chipotle have built flagship locations to showcase their efforts and build green cred.

One of the most respected programs out there is run by the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) and is a well recognized name among consumers: LEED.  The Leadership in Energy Efficient Design (LEED) certification process can be long and arduous, but it also carries an official respect that will completely wipe out any lingering customer suspicions about the true purpose of your intentions.

What is LEED and how do you become a LEED certified restaurant?  Good question.
The name of the game is to earn points when you build or remodel.  Out of a possible 110 points, there are 5 categories and 2 bonus categories in which you can earn points for sustainable building and design practices:

Sustainable sites. If you’re building a new location, you can earn points by selecting a site based upon sensitivity to several environmental factors including plants, wildlife, water, and air quality.  (21 points)

Water efficiency.
Technology and strategies that cut your restaurant’s water use by 20% over the baseline amount earn you points.  Earn even more points for cutting water use even further.  (11 points)

Energy and atmosphere. Maximizing your restaurant’s energy efficiency, managing ozone-depleting CFCs (usually found in refrigerants), and utilizing renewable energy are the three main areas that will earn you points in this category.  (37 points)

Materials and resources. Selecting sustainable resources for your building or remodel project (i.e. no redwood countertops) and developing an effective waste management strategy earn you points in this category. (14 points)
Indoor environmental quality.  Using sensors and controls to manage indoor temperature, humidity, and ventilation earn you points in this category.  (17 points)

Bonus points. These can be earned if you’re building or remodeling in a region that has been deemed a priority by the GBCI, or if your project shows exceptional innovation and leadership in design.  (10 points)

40 points are required for LEED certification; there are also three levels beyond a basic certification: Silver (50+), Gold (60+), and Platinum (80+).

Obviously, LEED certification isn’t for everyone.  That’s why it’s called a Leadership program.  But for those brave enough to try for certification, the payoff can be incalculable.

If you’re not quite ready to take the plunge into a LEED program, check out these going green tips.

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Stop Giving Fryer Oil Waste Away!

vegawatt used vegetable oil power generatorDisposing of used vegetable oil has always been a problem for restaurants.  In recent years it has gotten easier with the increasing demand for biodiesel.  Now many restaurants depend on free pickup services by biodiesel companies as a convenient and cheap way to dispose of their fryer oil waste.  Some even pay to have the stuff hauled away.

But what if you could take that oil and use it to save money, instead of just giving it away?  Enter Vegawatt power system that uses vegetable oil to generate electricity and pre-heat water going to your water heater.  It’s a self-contained unit that doesn’t require any special skills.  You pretty much just add oil and clean it out once in a while.

The savings on your restaurant’s electricity and hot water bills can be significant.  Vegawatt says the unit can save your business about $800 a month in electricity bills, although that does include a $100 per month renewable energy rebate from local government, which may or may not exist in your area.  Smaller operators probably don’t generate enough oil to take advantage of the Vegawatt power system, and the company recommends the machine for establishments that have 3 – 5 deep fryers and generate at least 50 gallons of waste oil a week.  If you do generate that much oil, however, you can realize a return on investment in 2 – 3 years.

Your used vegetable oil is now worth a lot more to you if you keep over giving it or selling it to a biodiesel company or paying to dispose of it.  It’s pretty amazing what a little ingenuity can do for a lifelong problem in the restaurant business.  Of course, there is some up-front investment required here, something that doesn’t sound very appealing, especially in a tight economy.  Vegawatt does offer a leasing program as well, and you’ll be saving more than the cost of the monthly lease.

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Becoming A “Zero Landfill Company” Is A Journey

Going GreenBeing completely trash-free is a daunting task.  Even a company in the business of “green” with highly educated Eco Patriots is challenged by this.  Last week, Eco-Products reviewed our waste diversion results from 2009.  We strive to divert 100% of our waste from landfills – everything is either composted or recycled.

Last year, we diverted 7 tons of compost/recyclable materials from the landfill out of total of 10.95 tons of waste – that’s a 64% diversion rate.  Honestly, it wasn’t as high as we had hoped.  We think some of the factors that may have contributed to our lower than expected % were:

  1. Moving to a larger building in which people were more spread out and couldn’t closely monitor each other’s disposal habits
  2. More employees which makes waste management more difficult
  3. Battling with illegal midnight dumping of construction debris in our dumpsters
  4. Bringing more waste into the building from the outside
  5. Not doing as much continual reinforcement and education with employees as in prior years.

In a company meeting, we reaffirmed our commitment towards waste diversion and set a goal of achieving at least 80% in 2010.  At the meeting, our CEO made a great comment about how he views our work environment.  Since starting at the company 8 months ago, he has viewed the building as a campsite in which he tries to leave no trace.  Whatever he packs in he packs out.  What a great philosophy to make you think twice about the packaging you use/buy.

Here are some steps we are going to take to achieve our goal this year:

  • Continue to only have trash bins in centralized locations, no bins in offices/cubes
  • Make a more conscious effort to treat the building as a leave-no-trace zone.  Pack-in-pack-out mentality.
  • Monitor our diversion rate quarterly instead of annually.
  • Search for solutions to products we currently don’t recycle or compost.  For example, the wrapping on reams of paper can’t be recycled or composted due to their lining.
  • Be more diligent about recycling hard to recycle items such as plastic bags and block styrofoam.  Drop them off at a local hard-to-recycle facility.
  • Install locks on our dumpsters.
  • Educate, educate, educate.  We are inviting in a representative from Eco-Cycle, a local recycler, who can answer our recycling questions.
  • Tour a Material Recovery Facility (MRF) – a recycling center – to see first hand what is considered a contaminant.  I’ll be doing this in the middle of March.
  • Hang up more signage near our recycling/compost/trash bins
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Can We Bring Bluefin Tuna Back From The Brink?

bluefin tunaBluefin tuna are one of the most prized catches in the world’s oceans, with some markets, especially in Asia, selling them for as much as $20,000 a fish.  For sushi lovers, the bluefin is the equivalent of a purebred Angus filet mignon, and it’s a mainstay of thousands of restaurants, including the internationally recognized chain Nobu.  The Japanese have long treasured bluefin, and they consume 80% of the world’s catch to this day.

As the popularity of sushi has risen in the past decade, so has the insatiable demand for bluefin tuna.  And because this large predatory fish travels as much as 17,000 miles to hunt food and spawn, many countries have active bluefin fishing fleets.  This, of course, makes it almost impossible to regulate the catch as each country elbows for higher quotas.

The consequence is that the bluefin is facing extinction as early as 2012.  However, this story is not all bad.  The member countries of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) plan to meet about the bluefin next March about saving bluefin tuna.  If two thirds of the 175 countries that are part of CITES vote in favor, all bluefin harvesting will come to a screeching halt.  Already several countries have voiced their support for adding the bluefin to the list of globally endangered species.

More exciting, however, is the work of a long-time fisherman in Australia.  Hagen Stehr became a millionaire harvesting bluefins in the vast Pacific to Australia’s east.  Now he is trying to save the species by breeding them in captivity, and he’s put up $48 million to make it happen.  Earlier this year his company, Clean Seas, successfully fertilized bluefin tuna eggs.  Now the fish have grown into fingerlings and are feeding in a huge indoor tank in southern Australia.

Many thought it wasn’t possible to breed the bluefin in captivity, especially since their predatory nature means they tend to eat their own young.  But Clean Seas has found a way, and they hope to be putting 250,000 bluefin fingerlings in the ocean by 2015.

The prospect of a sustainable bluefin tuna catch is good news for environmentalists and businesses alike.  If Clean Seas has its way, restaurants can serve delicious bluefin across the world, guilt-free.

Bluefin fingerlings feeding in a tank at Clean Seas, Port Lincoln, Australia.

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Why Chipotle’s Food With Integrity Is Good Business

Everybody in the food service industry is talking about locally sourced food these days.  The National Restaurant Association has called local,organic and sustainable ingredients one of the biggest trends of 2010, and consumers have defied logic by proving they are willing to pay more for better quality.

The Mexican-themed chain Chipotle has carved a niche out of the higher end of the fast-casual market by holding themselves to a higher standard the company calls “Food With Integrity.”  Fresh local produce has always been a focus for Chipotle, even before the concept had the widespread appeal it enjoys today. With 900 locations and 2.5 million customers a week, Chipotle’s commitment to quality, sustainable ingredients makes it a driving force in the organic food market.  But perhaps the most important contribution they’ve made to the organic movement in general is the education of consumers. The fruits of that education process can be seen in the loyalty of Chipotle’s customers to the brand, despite the menu’s noticeably higher price point.  The difference in taste and quality has shown consumers the value of high quality ingredients.

Now local fresh organic ingredients has turned into a major movement within the food service industry.  More and more restaurants have started responding to consumer demand, and that only reinforces Chipotle’s leadership role as one of the pioneers in organic ingredient sourcing. Many independent restaurants have marketed locally sourced, sustainable  ingredients on their menus with great success.  If you’re considering adding such ingredients to your restaurant’s menu, keep a couple things in mind:

Tell people about it! Chipotle has done a masterful job of associating their brand name with organic ingredients and local sourcing.  Their customers know before they ever walk through the door exactly how Chipotle sources their ingredients, and those customers don’t even flinch at the cash register. It’s vital that you get the word out about your menu’s organic and locally sourced ingredients.  More than likely those ingredients are going to force you into a higher price point, and when your customers see this they had better know exactly why.  Once they understand the quality of your ingredients (and taste the difference), they’ll accept your higher price point.

Take full advantage of better quality.
Better ingredients means a higher price, but it should also mean a much better taste.  Now is your opportunity to get really creative with your dishes and make sure your organic ingredients really shine. A great way to do this is to create dishes and recipes around a centerpiece organic ingredient.  For instance, if you’re sourcing organic chicken from a local farm, say so on the menu first, then create a dish that perfectly compliments that chicken breast and makes it the centerpiece of the entrée.

Give customers the option. Especially when you’re first venturing into the world of organic ingredients, give customers the option between more traditional fare and your exciting new entrees.  You don’t want to alienate your regulars with more expensive (albeit much better) dishes.  Instead, entice them into tasting the difference with some well placed specials and then watch them convert to your new approach.

The success of Chipotle has proven that customers will buy into the concept of better food for a higher price.  Independent operators can really take advantage of the education pioneers like Chipotle have provided consumers in general to enhance their menu with ingredients that are better tasting, better for the environment, and still great for the bottom line.

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Green Consumer Trend Still Going Strong

The Green EconomyEvery restaurant has had to deal with revenue and expense challenges over the last year.  And many have probably wondered whether green practices and products in their restaurants are worth their while, both in terms of cost to purchase and the time it takes to implement new products and procedures.

If a new Harris Interactive poll is any indication, the answer is a resounding “YES!”

Consider the following facts from the poll:

73% said they buy green products
8% have reduced their spending on green products
26% have increased spending on green products
67% are spending the same amount

Even more intriguing, when customers were given a choice between Restaurant A, which featured green practices and products, and Restaurant B, which did not, they responded this way:

17% would choose A over B even if it meant a longer line
21% on top of that would choose A if the wait time was the same

So it looks like you can definitely attract new customers by greening your restaurant.  But what if this forces your costs up?  This is a common concern about green products, although as the market for environmentally friendly items grows, their prices come down.  Even if you do have to raise prices, consider this:

30% expected to pay more for green products
13% would pay 5% more
11% would pay 10% more

These numbers reveal a lot of wiggle room for your restaurant to adopt and advertise green practices.  And when you have such a clear majority of green consumers, your restaurant clearly needs to get on the bandwagon if it hasn’t already.  Check out The Back Burner’s Green Restaurant Tips for more information on greening your restaurant.

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4 Steps For Building An Effective Sustainability Plan For Your Restaurant

Sustainable restaurantsMaking the decision to make your restaurant a more sustainable operation has gotten considerably easier in the last few years.  That’s because as consumer awareness grows there are more and more benefits associated with “green” restaurants.  If you’re in doubt, simply look at the National Restaurant Association’s sustainability efforts, or see how Chipotle has succeeded in a down economy without significantly lowering their prices.

If you’ve set a sustainability goal for yourself, then the next thing you need is a plan.  How are you going to make your operation more sustainable?  What are the areas that can provide the maximum benefit with the least amount of investment?  How do you plan to market your efforts to your customers?  All are good questions, and you’d better have answers before you start spending time and money.

Here’s four steps to get you started towards a greener, more profitable future:

Improve energy efficiency. In most restaurants, this is the easiest place to cut costs with minimal investment.  The added bonus is that you get to tell your customers how committed to sustainability you are after you’ve cut energy bills.  Simple improvements like training your staff to manage equipment efficiently, cutting heating and cooling bills, and investing in energy efficient water heating can make a huge difference.

Of course, every restaurant is different, and the strategies that work in your restaurant aren’t going to work somewhere else.  When you’re making your sustainability plan, identify where you can improve efficiency then estimate how much you’ll save on future bills versus how much it will cost you to implement your plan.

Come up with a program. Another key to a successful sustainability plan for your restaurant is figuring out ways to reduce waste.  Recycling and composting programs are the two most common ways to address this.  Unfortunately, unlike energy efficiency improvements these waste reduction programs are either cost neutral or increase your operating expenses.

That doesn’t mean they don’t provide benefits.  The public relations mileage you can get out of a good recycling or composting program can prove invaluable.  Remind customers you recycle or compost waste.  The local newspaper in your neighborhood is also another great way to get the word out about your program.  Newspapers run stories like this all the time, and it can be great free advertising.

Change your buying habits. You’re a consumer just like everybody else.  The purchasing decisions you make for your restaurant say a lot about how you run your business.  Making sustainable decisions will also make your operation a lot greener.

Some places to start:

Don’t be bashful – talk about yourself! Implementing a successful sustainability plan doesn’t do you a bit of good if no one knows about the hard work and money you’ve invested.  As you put this plan into action, don’t be afraid to tell everyone you can think of about what you’re doing.

This isn’t just a one-time announcement.  Your sustainability plan will likely take some time to implement, and you should turn that effort into an ongoing conversation with anyone who will listen, especially customers.  Use multiple channels ranging from banners in the front of the house to social media to announce your new, sustainable self to the world.

You’ll be amazed how interested people will be in what you’re doing.

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The Conflict Between Local Food And Local Government

Restaurants Using Urban GardensAs I have noted on The Back Burner before, more and more restaurants are sourcing their food locally.  And restaurants in urban areas are even turning vacant lots, empty roofs, and bare terraces into herb and vegetable gardens, yielding fresh produce for their customers.  The trend has taken off quickly, and, at least in Culver City, CA, the municipal government is grappling with how to regulate urban gardens.

The problem started when the owner of the Bluebird Café approached the owner of a long-vacant strip of land near the restaurant that was formerly part of a railroad spur.  The restaurateur soon convinced the developer to let him use the land to grow crops that would supply fresh produce for the restaurant, including 535 tomato plants and 40 fruit trees.

Everything was going fine until municipal officials caught wind of the operation and pointed out that city zoning laws prohibited the pair from selling any of the produce that came out of their impromptu garden.  Anything used for personal consumption was fine, but for sale was illegal.

As cities and suburbs have grown bigger they have covered more and more farmland, and as consumers demand locally sourced, organically grown produce, a conflict has arisen between antiquated zoning laws and the realities of the modern landscape.  The result is a growing need for more progressive municipal laws that allow both citizens and local businesses to maximize land use in their communities.  Such progressive thinking not only addresses the growing desire for locally sourced foods but improves the municipal scenery and helps the local economy.

Concerns over water use, toxins and pollutants in urban soil, and the taxation of sold produce are all things that can be readily addressed by revised zoning laws.  It’s merely a matter of pushing those changes through the bureaucracy of local government.

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