Many foodservice companies are searching for innovative ideas but the easiest one to implement may be creating a greener operation.
Overall foodservice business activity still seems to be lagging, many companies report. But one aspect of the industry that has continued to gain momentum is the movement among operators to implement more-sustainable practices. From energy and water management to sourcing more products locally, the foodservice industry steadily has worked toward becoming more environmentally friendly.
During the past year, 18 percent of fine-dining restaurants said they plan to devote more of their resources toward going green, notes Chris Moyer, manager for the National Restaurant Association's Conserve Web site. Family-focused restaurants announcing similar plans to devote more of their resources to developing and implementing sustainable practices increased to 43 percent in 2009, up from just 23 percent in 2008. And, 27 percent of quick-service restaurants said they've devoted more resources to sustainable business practices in 2009, up from 21 percent in 2008. This "going green" business, thus, has reached not just a few but all segments of the foodservice industry.
So what has prompted this increased awareness among business leaders that greener is better? "At its core, green is about doing more with less," says Andrew Winston, author of "Green Recovery" (Harvard Business Press, 2009). "We are in a commodity world, and 'green' allows you to emerge from the pack. It is a tiebreaker, and it can even be a deal-breaker."
Another product of the challenging business environment is that consumers have expanded their definition of value, on which they continue to place an increased emphasis. "Quality is now being defined as a product that is sustainable and lasts longer," Winston adds.
As a result, many foodservice companies–operators, dealers, manufacturers and more – are looking within their businesses for innovative ideas. Solutions may be simpler than they realize. "When people talk about innovation, they are usually talking about developing products they can sell more of," Winston says. "Innovation can be about doing more with less and being greener."
Still, the prospect of becoming more environmentally friendly often prompts no small amount of anxiety. So where can foodservice operators, along with some assistance from their supply-chain partners, begin this process? It might make sense to start with one of operators' biggest ongoing expenses: energy.
Indeed, the amount of energy that kitchens consume per square foot is higher than most any other commercial operation. So any steps a foodservice operator can take to lower this expense will boost their bottom line.
The EPA's Energy Star program has tremendous cache among consumers, and it is making greater headway in the foodservice arena. Energy Star-rated equipment includes some of the most central pieces of equipment in a kitchen: convection ovens, fryers, griddles, steamers, hot-holding cabinets, dishwashers, ice machines, walk-in refrigerators and freezers and solid-door reach-ins. Last year, Energy Star expanded its refrigeration certification to include glass-door reach-in coolers and freezers.
"We're getting more excited about all this because for years, we've talked about wanting to work toward developing an energy-efficient kitchen, but we didn't have enough Energy Star-rated pieces to fill it out," says David Zabrowski, director of engineering at the Foodservice Technology Center in San Ramon, Calif. The FSTC works closely with Energy Star. "Now, we're closer to having the complete cook line in a kitchen covered."
Still, other key pieces of cooking equipment, such as ranges and broilers, are a ways away from earning Energy Star status, Zabrowski says. "The design for them really hasn't changed much in the last few years, and for the most part, there's an emphasis first on cost."
For foodservice operators looking for energy-saving options, induction ranges may be a good alternative, Zabrowski says. Induction cooking relies on powerful, high-frequency electromagnetism that concentrates heat on foods themselves in a pot rather than heating an entire cooking surface in order to then cook the pan's contents.. The result is faster cook times and less energy use. Induction technology in the last couple of years has grown in popularity in particular among high-volume institutions such as colleges and universities, heath-care facilities and hotels looking for bigger, more-efficient cooking surfaces.
In addition, foodservice manufacturers continue to explore other energy-saving features they can add to their product lines. For example, Zabrowski says, some manufacturers are testing pilot-less technology for gas burners. These units use an electrical spark-ignite system similar to that found in most residential units. Other foodservice-equipment manufacturers have worked to improve the design of their existing burners to allow for greater heat recovery, and one manufacturer, is experimenting with using burner lids to trap more heat, as happens with a barbecue grill.
Looking at conveyor ovens, one manufacturer plans to introduce a model that powers down when not in use. Zabrowski, who has seen the tests for this oven, says even restaurant chains that frequently use conveyor ovens to toast sandwiches can benefit by using this model because of its better heat recovery and ability to power up and get pretty hot pretty quickly.
Water costs have increased dramatically in the last couple of years. According to research from the NUS Consulting Group, the cost of water rose from $1.80 per cubic foot to $2 in 2008, and sewage costs have shown greater increases. In San Diego and San Francisco those rates are much higher, in the $8 to $9 range per cubic foot. So conserving water not only benefits the environment but it also helps a foodservice operator function more efficiently.
"I like to call water a three-headed monster," Moyer continues. "You pay for the water you consume but also for the treatment of the water. The third head comes from the need to heat the water. With water rates increasing throughout the country this impact will become a lot clearer."
Warewashers are one example of where energy and water savings can go hand-in-hand. Some updated models now use heat-recovery systems in which the unit converts condensation inside the cavity into usable water so that the unit doesn't have to draw exclusively from the building's hot-water supply. In essence, these machines need only to use cold-water hookups, saving a tremendous amount of energy that would otherwise be required by hot-water hookups and boiler tanks. Some units with scrapping technology on them also use recirculating rather than fresh water to scrape plates clean for added energy and water savings.
"We're pretty excited about this technology from an energy-saving standpoint because it's basically rethinking hot water and space," Zabrowski says. What's even more exciting to Zabrowksi is that the manufacturers using this heat-recovery technology are close to being able to incorporate it in small, door-type dish machines, not just flight-type ones, which will allow smaller restaurants to capitalize on the potential energy and water cost savings.
"These systems change the whole design of the kitchen because you can be doing other things with your hot-water hookups rather than using them for the dishmachine," he says.
Combi-ovens' water-saving capabilities continue to improve: As the controls work to reduce energy consumption, they also conserve water since the units use both. This energy-water coupling reflects what has been happening on a larger scale as well.
Aside from redesigning equipment to use less water, Moyer says, the majority of water-saving techniques stem from simple operational changes such as using a regular broom rather than a hose to clean sidewalksor planting natural vegetation for landscaping. "Once I even cut a hose in the kitchen that the workers were using to rinse off dishes so that it could only fit in a bucket and be used for that," Moyer says. One would think that by now it would be standard practice to presoak or install water-saving devices such as low-flow, prerinse spray valves and aerators for faucets, but that's not always the case, he adds.
Another simple operational change is to refrain from automatically serving water to guests, and instead asking if they would like water. "This sounds simple, but it costs nothing and it's often an overlooked solution to save water," Moyers says. "Think about it, every glass uses water, sometimes ice, and more water and energy when it's washed. According to our research, we found that if one in four guests said, 'No, thank you,' to water it could save the operator 25 million gallons per year.
One critical area that foodservice operators and designers can easily overlook is ventilation. "The most radical ideas in ventilation are not new at all, but they're still not mainstream in our industry," Zabrowski says. He's referring to demand-control ventilation, which powers down during idle periods. Variable-speed fans also help control the power of ventilation systems by not merely operating at full speed at all times.
"For mild climates, ventilation costs around $1 per cfm[?] per year, and it's around $2/cfm per year for 'difficult' climates in the Midwest and Northeast," Zabrowski says. "That means the most-efficient hood can cost a hotel, for example, anywhere between $1,000 and $50,000."
This is the case in which spending more money upfront rather than relying on old or existing hoods, can save a foodservice operator tremendous amounts of money in the long haul. And making simple adaptations such as attaching side barriers to the hoods to streamline the air that is drawn upward can also help reduce energy costs associated with ventilation.
Some operators have cooking stations that use ventless hoods, which suck up grease-laden air, filter it internally, and then release the air back into building. However, according to Zabrowski, this type of technology tends to work better in operations with pre-existing, strong HVAC systems – for example, a food court in a university or a large hospital. Strict municipal codes can also pose a problem with ventless hood use. Smaller foodservice operators, among them coffee shops and convenience stores, have sought to use cooking equipment such as panini grills or small portable cooktops that doesn't require any hood.
Ellyn Elson, founder of focusGreen, a green business consultancy, points to poor insulation as a silent cost-driver when it comes to ventilation-related energy use. "You'd be surprised at how many restaurants I visit that have cold air coming through their doors and windows and even in gaps around their electrical sockets and water hookups," she says. "By just putting towels along window crevices or using double-doors in the colder months, and if possible, upgrading inefficient doors and windows, these restaurants could save so much money."
Thanks to the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED for Retail pilot program, members of the foodservice industry now have a framework to operate within when trying to create greener operations. The program's Commercial Kitchen Appliance Prescriptive Measures and Baseline is essentially a checklist that outlines the ways LEED project managers can earn points toward certification based on the equipment they specify.
"What's changed is that for commercial interiors projects, which typically apply to restaurants in strip malls or kitchens that are part of larger buildings like in hotels, now having Energy Star-rated equipment is a requirement, not an option," says Suzanne Painter-Supplee, a LEED AP and director of Champion Industries' consulting services. "Now, you have to meet the 50-percent energy-saving baseline. But you can also earn more points for exceeding those levels than in the past."
LEED projects now can earn as many as 4 credits, or points, toward energy-efficiency versus a previous 2 for reaching at least 70 percent efficiency. And those that exceed 90 percent not only earn all 4 credits but also they can earn an extra credit in the Innovation and Design section, Painter-Supplee says. Projects with 97 percent energy-efficiency earn even more.
"The default for LEED rating systems is that building energy, considered regulated energy, counts for 75 percent of total credits in that section, and 25 percent is for process energy," Painter-Supplee says. "Kitchens fall into the process category, so in the past they didn't account for much in the grand scheme of things. Now, with LEED for Retail, process energy counts for 40 to 60 percent of the total credits in the energy and water sections."
In addition, LEED projects with major foodservice components can earn more credits in the Innovation and Design category than they have in the past. For example, Harvard University earned innovation credits through its waste-reducing pulping and composting program. "The is the category where the foodservice industry can really step up," Painter-Supplee says. It makes sense, then, for architects to work more with foodservice consultants and professionals to meet the overall requirements of a project. And the more that happens, the more sustainable—and cost-effective—foodservice businesses across markets can become.
Sources of alternative energy, also referred to as renewable energy, include wind, sun and even gases from within the earth. Investing in alternative energy helps prevent the depletion of precious natural resources and reduces the environmental strain associated with natural-resource cultivation. From a business perspective, it also helps save energy costs, and operators across different segments are taking notice.
Some restaurant chains, like Chipotle, have placed smaller wind turbines on store roofs to generate energy. And Burgerville, working with its electric company, allocates a portion of its monthly bill to fund alternative energy sourcing. Of course, exactly what an operator can do depends largely on municipal codes and regulations.
"Solar consultants can perform energy audits to help operators determine the cost-effectiveness of solar energy," Elson says. The Cache Creek Casino Resort in Brooks, Calif., she points out, uses solar panels affixed to a nearby mountain to supply the casino with almost all of its power.
Geothermal energy – power extracted from natural heat stored in the earth – is gaining steam in the foodservice community. Elson points out that Thomas Keller's The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., uses a unique geothermal heating system through a ground source heat pump (GSHP) to heat and cool the entire restaurant more sustainably.
Last year's recession hit the restaurant community hard, with many new and longtime operations closing. Now, as the U.S. economy and the foodservice industry have made a slight upturn, many new restaurants are moving into spaces vacated by their peers. The result is a tremendous savings on materials and design elements.
While many new construction projects look to reuse old materials, restaurants that are closing can also make back some of their money by selling their materials. For example, steel, an abundant metal in kitchens, pays big dollars, according to the Steel Recycling Institute.
Time for Green
The level of "greenness" varies from restaurant to restaurant and that's OK, consultants say. "There are so many no-cost things restaurants can do to help the environment and save dramatically on their costs," Elson says. Rather than getting overwhelmed with the process, taking "baby steps" is the best practice, she says. Start with these no-cost steps, and then look into hiring consultants for help in initiating larger sustainability efforts such as composting or investing in alternative energy.
"Even if you can't do everything, it's important to do what's right for your customers, your employees and the environment," Elson concludes. "Going green has to be a win-win for everyone."