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Green Restaurant Tips: Looking Past Your Kitchen

Green Restaurant Tips: Looking Past Your KitchenWhile your kitchen may be by far the biggest energy user, it is by no means the only thing that racks up your monthly bills. Paying a little attention to some of the other energy drains in your business can help bring your overall energy use down considerably.

Some tips to help you manage those costs:

  • Use fans instead of the central unit. For every degree you adjust your thermostat, you can save 4% – 5% on heating or cooling bills.  Energy Star rated ceiling fans are a great way to circulate air and allow you to turn your thermostat up or down depending on the time of year. Use fans to bring in cooler outside air when you need to cool things down, or use them to circulate hot air from the kitchen when you need to heat things up.
  • Conduct regular maintenance on central air units. Clean the heat transfer coils on air conditioning every month.  Clean or replace air filters regularly.  A dirty air filter not only makes the unit work harder, but it can affect the air quality in your building as well.
  • Repair and seal ducting. Leaky ducts means the air you spent all that money heating or cooling is escaping before it gets to your customer.  Regularly check ducts for leaks and seal them as needed.
  • Set up a service contract with a local company to check and service ducts and the central air unit if you don’t have the time or energy for do-it-yourself.
  • Install an Energy Star thermostat. Programmable thermostats automatically reduce heating or cooling for non-business hours, saving you money and time over a manual thermostat.
  • Use windows to your advantage. Ideally, you should use Energy Star rated windows with the proper solar energy heat gain coefficient (SHGC). Low SHGC windows are used in places with long, hot summers to minimize solar heat and reduce cooling costs. High SHGC windows are used where there is a long, cold winter to maximize solar heat and reduce heating costs.  If you are remodeling or starting a new business, use Energy Star to help you select energy efficient windows.

Since budgets and buildings usually aren’t in sync, use the following tips to help you make do with what you have:

  • Use a UV-resistant window film, blinds, and curtains to insulate and reduce heat gain.  These techniques vary in cost and effectiveness, with the best solution probably being a combination according to your specific needs. No matter what, use something that allows you to block sunlight when it’s hot and add an extra layer or insulation when it’s cold.
  • Have new windows professionally installed. Framing and insulating new windows can make a huge difference in maintaining green heating or cooling.
  • Also caulk and seal existing windows annually to maintain an airtight barrier between your customers and outside weather.
  • Buy Energy Star skylights and doors. Just like with your windows, regularly check and seal doors and skylights to minimize air leaks and reduce your heating and cooling costs.
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Green Restaurant Tips: Restaurant Energy Management Systems

Green Restaurant Tips: Restaurant Energy Management SystemsSome chain restaurants have started using comprehensive, fully automated energy management systems (EMS) to help reduce energy usage in their restaurants.  Restaurant energy management systems have been around for a couple decades, but recent technological advances have really improved what an EMS can do.

An EMS system can control air conditioning, hood exhaust fans, and equipment power-ups automatically.  Why is that good?  Imagine an employee deciding it’s too hot and dropping the thermostat to 50 and leaving it on overnight.  Or idle cooking equipment getting well ventilated by a hood fan on full blast.  How about the morning shift manager arriving a little late and cranking up the lights and equipment all at the same time?

Little things can turn into big energy expenses, especially when you can’t be there to manage how energy is used all the time.  The energy savings alone from having an automatic thermostat that drops the heat in winter and the cool in summer during off-business hours is significant. But an EMS goes much further.  An alarm will sound if the door to the walk-in has been left open for more than 10 minutes.  Employees walk into work in the morning with the lights already on and the equipment powered up and ready to go.  These increased efficiencies not only reduce the headache factor, they can translate into some real savings.

Granted, most smaller restaurateurs probably cannot afford a comprehensive EMS yet.  But as the technology gets cheaper and energy expenses continue their inevitable rise, the day may not be far off when it makes sense for even a Mom-and-Pop place to have a comprehensive, automated system managing their energy consumption.

In the meantime, why not set up your own restaurant energy management system?  It may not have all the same cool computer-powered features of a modern EMS, but it can be just as effective.
Consider setting up some guidelines for your staff on how to power up equipment and turn on lights in sequence when opening your restaurant.

  • Train kitchen staff to dial back ovens, ranges, and broilers during downtimes and cut back the hood exhaust.
  • Post guidelines and expectations for energy usage like closing refrigerators, and hand out rewards for energy efficient practices.
  • And most importantly, buy an Energy Star rated automatic thermostat!  It’s much less expensive than a fancy EMS, and accomplishes the same goal: automatically adjusting the thermostat during non-business hours.

The point is energy management is an important way to cut costs and reduce the carbon footprint of your business at the same time.  Cutting costs means more profits, and running a green restaurant will earn you customer respect.  It’s a win-win situation.

Green Restaurant Tips: Restaurant Energy Management Systems

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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

Green Consumer Trend Still Going StrongEvery 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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Use Edible Scraps To Create Restaurant Family Meals

Use Edible Scraps To Create Restaurant Family MealsThe “restaurant family meal” is a central event in many well-run restaurants.  Just before the dinner rush front of house and back of house staff gather to enjoy a well-cooked meal prepared by the chef.  The family meal is a great way to foster positive interaction and a feeling of camaraderie among your employees.  It also gives you a chance to get on the soapbox and talk about issues and work on training.

During the year that I worked as a server in Indianapolis, I was never lucky enough to work in a restaurant that supported a family meal.  In terms of improving employee morale and retention, the family meal has some real benefits for your business.

While this may seem obvious, there’s another, less apparent benefit to the family meal: you can reduce your food waste by investing in them.  Smart restaurateurs take the perfectly edible leftovers that are inevitably created while preparing meals and save them for the family meal.  This means your investment is minimal and the benefits can be immediately realized.

Saving for the family meal also gives you a chance to get your line thinking about everything that can be saved while they cook.  In the process of getting creative for the next meal, kitchen staff will inevitably become better at reducing food waste in general.

Your restaurant’s family meal doesn’t have to be anything fancy: many restaurants, even fine dining establishments, keep the meal for staff firmly in the realm of comfort food: sloppy joe’s, casseroles, meatloaf, etc.

Nothing appeals to the basic human sense of community like sharing food.  And nothing you do for your employees will create as much goodwill for as cheap of a price as using your leftovers to create a hearty meal before the shift starts.

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Darden Group Driving Sustainable Seafood Practices

Darden Group Driving Sustainable Seafood PracticesThe Darden Group, which operates both Red Lobster and Olive Garden national chain restaurants, is understandably also the largest purchaser of seafood in the U.S.  As concern grows over the dwindling seafood supply in the world’s oceans, Darden has made every attempt to stay out in front of the situation and look for solutions to a growing problem.

Darden spends an estimated $800 million annually on seafood for its restaurant chains.  In order to keep their restaurants supplied with product, the company has gotten involved with several initiatives, primary among them the development of aquaculture, or fish farming.  The problem with fish farming is that, if done improperly, it can have just as detrimental effect on the environment as trawling.  Fish farms are water-intensive and produce a lot of waste, which often ends up in local water supplies.  There is also the danger of disease cross-contamination between farmed and wild populations.  The Global Aquaculture Alliance, which Darden helped found, has set guidelines and standards for global aquaculture.  The restaurant group began requiring that all farmed shrimp suppliers adhere to the Alliance’s standards in 2006.

But aquaculture can only satisfy part of America’s constant appetite for seafood.  When it comes to the harvesting of wild seafood, Darden has made moves to ensure the product they buy is coming from sustainable populations.  The company also heeds an advisory group that makes recommendations on problematic fish populations, like swordfish and orange roughy.Darden Group Driving Sustainable Seafood Practices

Perhaps the best known sea creature sold by Darden is lobster, and the crustacean is also unique in that it is almost entirely wild-caught.  Darden has made moves to block the unregulated import of Caribbean lobster that are not of reproductive age, a key requirement for lobster populations in U.S. waters that help sustain the population.

However, Darden does still struggle with sustainable seafood issues.  Swordfish, which Red Lobster stopped serving several years ago, is still on the menu at the Capital Grill, recent Darden acquisition.  And many fish species, like salmon and red snapper, are purchased from unregulated fish farms with questionable environmental practices.

But overall Darden’s mission to pursue sustainable seafood is recognized as industry-leading, which is an important role for the biggest kid on the block, and one that can be extremely influential.  With scientists predicting the collapse of the world’s fisheries by 2050 if they are harvested at today’s rates, Darden views their efforts to move towards sustainability as vital to their survival.

For more info on serving sustainable seafood in your restaurant, check out this Back Burner post.

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Greener and Cheaper: Restaurants Grow Their Own Food

Greener and Cheaper: Restaurants Grow Their Own FoodYou’ve heard about organic ingredients.  You’ve also heard about food miles and skyrocketing food costs.  Anybody in the restaurant business can tell you these issues have affected their customer’s tastes and their bottom line.  Stir in increasingly frugal customers and you’ve got a recipe for trouble in any restaurant.  That devilish combination of customers expecting better quality and also expecting to spend less is enough to make any restaurateur tear their hair out.

More and more chefs are turning to a simple solution that addresses both the quality and the cost on this two-headed monster.  Chefs are growing their own ingredients.  Of course, this is hardly a new concept, but as the demand for organic rises along with the prices on top quality greens and vegetables, the number of chefs turning to gardening during the day what they plan to cook that night has risen sharply.

Abandoned lots, small terraces, and modest urban gardens from San Francisco to Cincinnati are being converted into tiny organic farms by chefs passionate about finding the best ingredients possible without having to pay through the nose.  Many have discovered that being able to control the process, from seed to harvest to the walk-in, affords them a pride and a certainty in the quality of their ingredients.

Restaurants that source their food so locally (often in their own backyard) is also a great green practice, saving the thousands of miles ingredients typically travel through the traditional food supply network.  Those saved miles not only means less transportation emissions, it means less cost to the restaurant.  And any time a restaurant can bring better ingredients to their customers at a better price, they should take it.

Are you thinking about starting a garden for your restaurant?  The first three steps you should take:

Location.  Climate, water, and soil will all affect what you can grow well and what you can’t.  Research which plants and vegetables do well in the local climate and what their water and soil requirements are.

Organic.  If you’re going to garden your own herbs and vegetables, they might as well be organic.  Research organic practices and implement them in your garden from the beginning.Greener and Cheaper: Restaurants Grow Their Own Food

Time and alternative local sources.  Organic gardening takes time and effort.  Doing it successfully requires a passion and an investment of time that not every restaurant has.  If you are looking to source local ingredients, but don’t have the space, time, or climate to do so successfully, contact local farmers and build relationships that will still save you money on food costs and allow you to make your restaurant more sustainable.  You might also settle on a combination of both methods, growing herbs like basil or cilantro that are easy to tend while sourcing locally other ingredients that require more effort and space.

No matter which way you decide to go, local food sources are becoming a popular trend in the food service industry, and not only because it sounds good to customers.  There are some real economic incentives as well, and any restaurant looking to cut costs would do well to look into the local food network for some solutions.

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Restaurants and Farmers Work Together To Reduce Waste and Improve Crop Yields

Restaurants and Farmers Work Together To Reduce Waste and Improve Crop Yields

San Francisco’s food scrap collection program benefits farmers and restaurateurs

San Francisco restaurants are participating in a city-wide compost collection program that has collected over 105,000 tons of food scraps and yard trimmings in a single year.  All that waste used to end up in the landfill, where compostable waste makes up a full third of everything in the dump.  The all natural fertilizer created from composting all those restaurant food scraps has become so popular with nearby farmers and vintners that the program regularly sells out in the spring, when demand is highest for fertilizer.

Because the compost is so rich in organic matter, many food growers have seen significant increases in crop production and yield, which more than justifies the increased cost of using the San Francisco compost.  Even better, all natural compost is much more carbon neutral than petroleum based fertilizers, with the added benefit of relieving pressure on local landfills.

Restaurants and Farmers Work Together To Reduce Waste and Improve Crop Yields

Food scraps collected from San Francisco restaurants are improving crop yields on surrounding farms

The organic crops produced as a result of the compost program are then sold back to many of the restaurants that contribute in the first place, completing a cycle of sustainability that has become a model for other cities across the country looking to institute their own programs.

The biggest hurdle for most cities is food scrap collection and education.  Separating food waste properly requires attention to detail and some training to avoid mixing contaminants into the food scraps to be composted.  San Francisco’s program has been particularly successful because the majority of people participating are educated about what can and cannot be composted.

Check with your local government to see if a composting program exists near you.  Reducing food waste can help you save on trash hauling fees, but more importantly, it helps your restaurant’s green credibility, and that makes for loyal and happy customers.

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Understanding Green Restaurant Terms: Compostable, Biodegradable, and Recyclable

Any restaurateur interested in making their restaurant more green has encountered these terms before.  The problem is, just because a product claims it is compostable, biodegradable, or recyclable doesn’t make it so.

Making the right decisions to green your restaurant in a way that makes sense for your business means you need to know the difference between these terms and the impact they can have on your buying decisions.

The most common product used in restaurants that uses all three of these terms is plastics.  More than likely your restaurant uses small wares like cups and utensils, and many products your kitchen uses are packaged using plastics like condiments and other food products.

Here are some tips to understanding your options when it comes to plastic products:

Understanding Green Restaurant Terms: Compostable, Biodegradable, and RecyclableCompostable

Compostable plastic products have the highest green threshold to reach.  This means any product claiming to be compostable should be viewed with a certain skepticism because it really is hard to make a plastic that conforms to the definition of compostable.

Compostable products break down naturally into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass at the same rate as cellulose or paper (usually about 180 days) in an industrial or municipal composting facility.  Compostable materials do not leave a toxic residue and cannot be distinguished from the rest of the compost after full degradation.

The most important issues in this definition are where the plastic is put to compost and whether any toxic residue is left after degradation.

A municipal or industrial composting facility breaks down composting materials differently than a farm or in-house composting unit.  Plastics are given a compostable designation based on how they degrade in a larger industrial facility, which means they may not be compostable using other methods.

Since the availability of large scale composting facilities is limited, it’s important to know that a compostable plastic may degrade more slowly before deciding if it can be used in a smaller scale compost facility.

PLA and Master-Bi corn starch based plastics like corn cups are the two most common types of compostable plastics.  However, these resins are also sometimes mixed with inorganic substances to make them more heat resistant or for other purposes, meaning they do not always qualify as compostable.

Plant-based plastics have the added benefit of being “carbon neutral,” meaning that the carbon dioxide emitted to produce them is offset by the carbon dioxide absorbed by the plants used to make the plastic.

Any plastic that leaves a toxic residue after degrading is not compostable but can be designated biodegradable.

BiodegradableUnderstanding Green Restaurant Terms: Compostable, Biodegradable, and Recyclable

Biodegradable products break down over time into smaller and smaller chunks as a result of the action of agent enzymes produced by bacteria or fungi.  This process can leave behind toxic chemicals and still be designated as biodegradable.

The problem is, no standard exists for the amount of time a product takes to biodegrade.  And no requirement exists for the addition of agents like bacteria to aid the degradation process.

This means that most products are labeled “biodegradable” as a way to promote their supposed environmentally friendly capabilities when in fact most of these products do nothing to help reduce waste or emissions.  Biodegradable sounds good to the consumer but really doesn’t help green your restaurant at all.

If you are looking to improve the green practices of your restaurant, go for compostable products over biodegradable ones whenever you can.

Understanding Green Restaurant Terms: Compostable, Biodegradable, and RecyclableRecyclable

The truth is, just about anything can be recycled, and surely you have seen the little triangle with a number inside it on most plastic products claiming it’s recyclable.

The problem?  The company or local government agency that does your recycling limits what they recycle.

Check with your recycler to verify which types of plastics they accept.  Training staff and getting customers to recycle the right products can be very difficult, but many restaurants have had success with comprehensive recycling programs.

The main ingredient to success is creating a clear set of guidelines and communicating those guidelines to your staff and customers.

What Should Your Restaurant Do?

Compostable products are more expensive to buy.  But in many cases the extra expense can be at least partially recouped through reduced waste disposal.

Leftover food makes up 50% of the waste produced by a typical restaurant.  If this plus compostable plastics like cups were removed from the waste you produce and composted instead, significant savings can be realized.

Perhaps more importantly, a majority of consumers respond favorably to restaurants that engage in green practices.

Get feedback from customers before investing in more expensive compostable products.  If it looks like you can improve customer loyalty and branding by doing so, and the additional expense makes sense after accounting for marketing benefits and waste disposal savings, then there’s no reason why your business shouldn’t invest.

Chances are the products you use now are biodegradable, so there’s no real benefit in pursuing products that market this designation.  And as long as you’re reducing waste costs, implement a recycling program that saves the types of plastics local recyclers accept and gives you some real credibility when you say “green restaurant.”

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