Tim Ballard: Green your plate

Green your plate

By Tim Ballard and Carly Reese on 03/06/2012

Food has long been a central element of social life. We all love to eat, whether it’s apple pie at mom’s house, a burger at a fast-food joint, Southern barbecue or farm-fresh vegetarian cuisine at an independent restaurant in the foodie heaven of Asheville. However, most people probably don’t know that restaurants exact hefty demands on the environment. The choices a restaurant makes around energy, water and food consumption can have great environmental implications.

Of course, wherever there is a sizable environmental footprint, there is also room for improvement. The Asheville Independent Restaurant Association and the Blue Ridge Sustainability Institute have teamed up to help 18 local, independent restaurateurs to green their businesses and achieve Green Restaurant certification through the national Green Restaurant Association. By Earth Day 2012, they hope Asheville will be crowned the “greenest dining destination in the country” with the highest per-capita density of GRA-certified restaurants anywhere in the nation.

So what’s the fuss all about?

To begin with, restaurants are the most energy intensive of all commercial buildings, consuming an average of 258,000 Btus per square foot, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. (A British thermal unit roughly equals the energy released by burning one kitchen match.) This is about two-and-a-half times more energy than the average commercial building. Some small Asheville restaurants use even more. One small, 2,400-square-foot Asheville independent restaurant consumes a shocking 2 billion Btus per year, which the Department of Energy equates to the energy consumed by about 19 homes of the same size. This adds up to an annual energy bill of $30,000. To say the least, there are many opportunities for energy and dollar savings.

So where is all the energy going? About half fits into the familiar categories of lighting, HVAC and water heating, while the other half is consumed in food preparation.

Solutions for the first half are transferable to all sectors: Install efficient lighting, high-efficiency water heaters and properly sized high-efficiency HVAC units. Measures such as efficient lighting do present slight challenges for ambiance-conscious restaurants, but advances in technology are finally providing no-compromise solutions. If you need to see it to believe it, drop by Green Sage South with its all-LED lighting. Other GRA-certified restaurants in town soon will follow suit with combinations of LED and compact-fluorescent lighting that will save hundreds of dollars per year. Solutions for food preparation are similar to those for the home kitchen: Purchase ENERGY STAR appliances, turn off appliances when not in use and put lids on pots.

Behavioral changes in the kitchen, as in most buildings, have an enormous impact and can reduce a restaurant’s energy consumption by up to 7 percent, according to the Illinois Smart Energy Design Assistance Center.

Restaurants also consume enormous quantities of water — both hot and cold — in food preparation and dishwashing. Prior to the certification process, the average Asheville restaurant pursuing GRA certification used a staggering 500,000 gallons of water per year, with consumption at some locations topping 1 million gallons each year. Simple fixes to reduce water use —such as installing low-flow pre-rinse spray nozzles for washing dishes and low-flow faucet aerators — can have a large impact. A $50 pre-rinse spray nozzle can save a restaurant $1,000 annually in water, sewer and water-heating costs with no loss in cleaning performance, according to the Food Service Technology Center.

Much of the water consumed in a restaurant is hot water for dishwashing, necessitating heavy energy inputs. Upgrading an old gas water heater in a typical restaurant to a 95-percent efficient gas condensing unit can save $1,000 per year. If natural gas is not an option, heat-pump water heaters now offer a more environmentally friendly and cost-effective electric solution. Other effective options that can save thousands on water-heating costs include solar-thermal installations — soon to be visible on eight AIR restaurants — and refrigeration heat-reclamation systems that also help to lower air conditioning costs.

Restaurants are prime examples of the business case for pursuing environmental and efficiency upgrades. Restaurants typically operate on very small profit margins, so any reduction in overhead can have a large impact. For instance, at a restaurant operating on a 5-percent profit margin, a $2,000 reduction in operating costs is equivalent to a $40,000 increase in sales.

While reducing energy and water consumption provide the most direct economic benefit, that’s certainly not the whole environmental story. GRA certification requires restaurants to achieve points in seven categories: water, waste, sustainable furnishings and building materials, sustainable food, energy, disposables and pollution and chemical reduction. One hundred points are required for two-star GRA certification, 175 points for three stars and 300 points for four stars.

While many of the specific details of GRA certification and environmental improvements in restaurants do not apply to other business types, the overall lessons do. For any business large or small, reducing resource consumption is an easy way to lower operating costs, reduce environmental impacts, improve employee-retention rates and increase profitability. It’s easy to start small with behavioral changes and low-cost improvements (faucet aerators, turning off unnecessary lights, etc.) and move on to large improvements. And if you need a little inspiration to get started on greening your business, just drop by one of Asheville’s GRA-certified restaurants for lunch!

AIR member restaurants currently GRA certified or pursuing GRA certification include: Bouchon, Bouchon Street Food, Burgermeister’s, Corner Kitchen, Fiore’s (downtown and south Asheville locations), Frankie Bones, French Broad Chocolate Lounge, The Green Sage Coffeehouse and Café (downtown and South Asheville locations), HomeGrown, Jack of the Wood, Laughing Seed Café, Luella’s Bar-B-Que, Neo Cantina, Posana Café, Rosetta’s Kitchen and Tupelo Honey Café (downtown and south Asheville locations).

For more information: https://www.airasheville.org andhttps://www.dinegreen.com,https://www.blueridgesustainability.org.

Carly Reese graduated from UNCA with a degree in environmental studies focused on pollution prevention. She heads up the green-certification process at both Fiore’s locations and is working with the Green Restaurant Association to help other Asheville restaurants through the certification process with a new, streamlined assessment approach she developed.

Tim Ballard is the Green Restaurant Initiative project manager for the Blue Ridge Sustainability Institute and a former board member and project manager for the Ecological Design and General Efficiency Fund, one of the first student-run revolving loan funds in the United States implementing energy efficiency on a college campus.