Now in its 20th year, Croc's 19th Street Bistro in Virginia Beach, Va., is a popular restaurant among tourists, locals and those visiting the nearby convention center. But it has also made huge strides as the first green-focused restaurant in the state, as recognized by the state's tourism department and its Virginia Green program, a self-certifying initiative geared toward conserving the state's natural resources through waste reduction, recycling and energy and water efficiency, among other sustainable efforts. Croc's earned this certification in 2008, a couple years after the restaurant had already set forth on a green plan of action.
As part of its rebranding and renovation efforts in 2006 and 2007, co-owner Laura Habr decided to incorporate more sustainable activities into Croc's operations, including a new recycling plan. The restaurant's commitment to conservation and local food sourcing only grew exponentially from there. In fact, in 2007, Habr decided to rebrand Croc's as Croc's 19th Street Eco-Bistro to communicate and showcase these efforts.
"Even before the Virginia Green certification, we turned our eyes on a green mission," says Habr. "The Virginia Green program was a way for us to expand our efforts by joining forces with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and help other hospitality businesses get on board with some basic activities."
Croc's is set only six blocks from the oceanfront and Virginia Beach's boardwalks and resorts, and a short distance from the Chesapeake Bay. The restaurant's menu focuses on the fish and other seafood sourced directly from these waters. The coal and uranium mining industries of Virginia have come under fire for allegations of toxic waste dumping in the Chesapeake Bay; as a result, several nonprofits have started up and banded together to help protect not only the drinking water, but also other natural resources like natural gas and coal.
"We have an amazing abundance of natural resources and it's hard not to acknowledge that," says Habr, calling the Chesapeake Bay the state's "crown joy." She adds, "Virginia Beach is the largest resort city in the state with an amazing tourism industry, and we have everything including beach cottages, wildlife sanctuaries, green hotels and an award-winning boardwalk."
The Virginia Green program has helped Habr and other businesses improve the sustainability and environmental consciousness of their operations and together they instituted a citywide recycling program to clean up and reduce waste along the boardwalk and other local public places. In fact, Habr is recognized as a "recycling ambassador" among her peers, both locally and nationally.
Part of Croc's renovation efforts included swapping out certain design elements and fixtures for more environmentally friendly materials, including the carpeting. "We worked with an architect and designer focused on sustainable design to replace our carpeting with a tiled version made out of 45 percent recycled material," she says.
When stains and damages occur, instead of replacing an entire sweep of carpeting, this type of carpeting allows a swapping out of small square-shaped cuts to avoid waste. "That's one way to reduce waste going to a landfill, and this type of carpeting lasts longer than other kinds," says Habr, who adds that it was designer Lawrence "Duff" Kliewer, Jr., of Cox Kliewer & Co., who opened her eyes to the idea of going green in the first place.
Going green "was a little more money upfront, but we are trying to look at the overall impact of our restaurant to ensure we make not only good business decisions but good environmental ones as well," says Habr. "It also improves morale for our staff and they get really into it. Customers have also responded well to what we are doing.
"Many people say you can't be profitable and green at the same time, but actually we have found it makes us more profitable because you become more acutely aware of the amount of energy and water you're using," Habr continues, noting that energy and water management does take some planning. "As a small restaurant sometimes we get really busy trying to service the customer so we have to make sure we take the time to go through our operations to check how we're doing. This helps us stay green, but it's also better business planning."
Just last year Croc's wrapped up its participation in an EPA-sponsored composting pilot program. The
restaurant partnered with the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center to receive a grant to fund the program, which was supposed to last 6 months but was extended an additional 6 months and included 11 participants.
With trash and hauling fees significantly lower in Virginia compared to other states and few available composters, there's little incentive for businesses to invest in this type of waste management. In fact, with landfill fees so low, many surrounding states choose to dump in Virginia rather than their own, says Habr. Still, as a restaurant owner, Habr is aware of the large amount of food waste her business generates daily and has made an effort to try to make composting more accessible and affordable for Croc's and other local businesses. Habr also sends off her shellfish shells to local producers for their oyster beds.
"Right now we need a critical mass to reduce the costs of composting, which are still high even after the pilot program," she says.
Without a sophisticated system in place, Habr worked with a local composter who came by in his own truck to haul away the food waste in bins set outside the back door. Habr also fought off local health department pressure against composting and had to deal with the challenge of expensive biodegradable bags to hold the waste. She has also worked to reduce portion sizes as a way to minimize waste before it happens, which led to the introduction of mini sandwiches and other smaller plates.
"When we started, we decided to keep the costs under $10,000 for 6 months — so either we would run out of money or the program would end first," she says. "I didn't know how many people could get into this but everyone did very well."
The composting efforts came on the heels of a recycling program started in 2007 that saved Croc's $200 month and led to smaller trashcans used throughout the restaurant. As part of that program, the restaurant swapped Styrofoam for recyclable, biodegradable cardboard boxes and began recycling packaging, paper, plastic and glass in the kitchen through a comingling program that allows these products to be tossed together.
Croc's recycles its frying oil as well. "By law we can't dump our grease in the water stream and need to have it picked up. We switched from someone who was trucking the grease across the country for dog food to a company that turns it into biodiesel for fueling busses and other vehicles in the area," Habr says.