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Eat your greens

Serving up sustainability in restaurants actually saves money



Celebrity chef Mario Batali is pitching hard for the Green Restaurant Association in a YouTube clip, slinging stats and leading by example. He's certified all of his eatery empire via the Boston-based nonprofit advocacy group, and he's not shy about sharing the sustainability efforts behind his salami.

At New York's Otto pizzeria, he's added meatless Mondays and incorporated less-resource-intensive vegan and vegetarian items into the menu; he's nixed bottled water service in favor of a house system and reusable glass bottles; food delivery is done via bicycle; grease is converted to biodiesel; everything from hand dryers to dishwasher gadgets and lighting has been overhauled; and composting and recycling plus avoiding foam to-go boxes are all musts.

That's to combat the 100,000 pounds of waste a typical restaurant sends to landfills annually and the 300,000 gallons of water it uses. The industry as a whole, says the GRA, consumes a third of the retail sector's energy in the U.S. Diners go through 3.2 million tons of food packaging, less than 1 percent of which is recycled.

If you want to bend it like Batali, you can actually save money by diverting 90,000 pounds of that trash, and trimming utility bills.

So why, in the GRA's 24 years, haven't more restaurants reached for certification? Why is Pizzeria Rustica one of only four spots in all of Colorado holding green stars?

Surely all the others making at least modest efforts aren't just greenwashing?

"I can't answer for others as to why they wouldn't do it," says Rustica's Dave Brackett, who got certified in fall 2009, a year after opening. "But it does take time and money."

Rustica was only the third three-star eatery in the nation, he says, and now there's scores of those; he also became the 11th four-star, out of just over 20 — it's a rigorous process.

He notes almost two weeks of work for a single staffer to assemble all the required documentation, from utility-usage charts and food purchasing receipts to proof of alternative energy credits and efficient appliances. And a contract fee that equates to $50 a month.

Much of what Batali has done physically, so has Brackett, who composts and pays for single-stream recycling through Bestway, and actually buys as much locally as possible: "Some local restaurants do one farm-to-table dinner a year and the rest of the time are Sysco-to-table," he says. "... the industry needs a shot in the arm. The big deal will be when a couple of big chains do it — there's not even a certified restaurant in Boulder, where you'd expect a dozen."

Brackett believes area greenhouse capacity is the big barrier between seasonal and year-round local food sourcing. Some have exclusive contracts with grocery outlets, and Brackett says he's pushing Colorado Springs Public Market organizers to address this gap when they finally cut their ribbon.

Green Restaurant Association CEO and founder Michael Oshman — now 43, but who launched the organization when he was 19 — says one important aspect of being certified by a points-based system is to remove the greenwashing doubt.

"It becomes very subjective, what a restaurant is claiming," he says, questioning whether a "we-buy-local" claim equates to 5 or 50 percent of purchasing. "It's difficult for consumers to know. We pride ourselves on transparency. ... The word green is just a color before you put standards behind it."

The GRA has created the world's largest database of green solutions for the restaurant industry, which an online tour easily reveals. Even if a restaurant didn't care to go for certification, which can take months to finalize, it could at least utilize that compendium to directly link to distributors of a bounty of best options.

Oshman defends the modest monthly fee by noting how if he weren't operating as a nonprofit, it'd be five to 10 times that amount considering "the amount of work and expertise we bring in."

All that info gathered by eateries must be audited and crunched, looking for every area for improvement, and the GRA will work with vendors directly for clients. "If you know the industry, you know how hard it is for them to do anything, because they're so busy ... you have to meet them where they are."

He shouldn't have to twist arms considering that he has savings figures on his side, with some sizable return-on-investments coming as early as a year out. Plus, having star chefs such as Batali, Eric Ripert and Rick Bayless in his corner doesn't hurt credibility.

"Those people don't do things that don't make business sense," he says. "Someone like Mario chose to make this video with us because he's authentically enthusiastic — my team has done wonderful work with his team over the years, he's responding to real data ... this is science, it's not pie-in-the-sky."

He points to low-hanging fruit such as low-flow sprayer valves for dishwashers, and LED lighting upgrades that can save 80 percent on lighting costs and the savings that come from not paying for so much garbage hauling. The ideal time to invest is upon opening, he says, where green equipment options are often price-competitive with or even cheaper than conventional ones, depending on local rebates. But upgrades on clunkers will still pay off in time.

"We make it easy to do the right thing," he says, pointing out the marketing potential of going green.

Brackett, who's received national press more than once, is well aware of the edge it gives him. He follows the same practices at his second eatery, TAPAteria, but hasn't certified it, he says, because "our customers know."

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