When Americans re-embrace the environment, a green cleaning program could help your restaurant's business.

Today, protecting Mother Earth ranks near the bottom of the country's top concerns. Americans now say jobs, the economy, terrorism, health care, crime, tax cuts and moral decline are more important than green issues, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted early this year. Yet if recent history is a guide, the environment will again be front and center once the economic picture brightens. After 9/11, for example, environmental worries tanked before resurging as a priority in 2006.

That should be reason enough for forward-looking foodservice operators to launch a green cleaning initiative. Such programs typically use less abrasive chemicals and recycled materials to sanitize smallwares and to clean surfaces, including hoods, floors, windows and tables. These products, occasionally bearing green third-party certification, are often marketed as "bio-based, all-natural and biodegradable."

They are, for the most part, widely available. "Virtually every category of cleaning products has a good supply of green products and technologies," claims Bill Balek, director of legislative affairs for the International Sanitary Supply Association, a trade group representing manufacturers and distributors of cleaning products.

A Point of Difference

Savvy operators also understand that using earth-friendly products can help set their restaurants apart from slower moving competitors, particularly when it comes to recruiting workers. Human resource experts warn that the pool of workers less than 25 years old—which accounts for nearly half of all foodservice employees at the moment —is shrinking. Sixty-seven percent of this age group was in work force in the 1990s. That figure has now dropped to 57 percent, says People Report, a Dallas-based consultancy specializing in restaurants.

"We as an industry employ a lot of people in the 18- to 28-year-old age group, which is heavily invested in recycling and environment. Green cleaning shows something to them about your commit to the environment," declares former foodservice operator Chris Moyer, now manager of Conserve, the National Restaurant Association's environmental program.

"To the extent employees are spokespeople for our restaurant, the better off we are having our people telling guests that we are acting responsibly," says Larry Ryback, president and COO of Wayzata, Minn.-based Redstone American Grill.

Last year, Redstone, a five-unit chain, substituted an eco-friendly sanitizer from bleach and began buying soaps in concentrated form and wrapped in cellophane. Ryback estimates the company reduced plastic consumption by 80 percent and shrank the restaurants footprint. "We tried to become more eco-friendly and reduce our carbon footprint," he adds.

Following Suit

Of course, using environmentally preferable products that help improve the water supply and carbon emission – all the while protecting the customers' and employees' health – is simply the right thing to do. Yet when it comes to green chemicals, there is a perception they may not be as effective conventional products.

Moyers says when he worked in a Bridgeport, West Va.-based restaurant, the municipality mandated the use of bleach because green chemicals didn't kill enough pathogens. The portion of the city's Website that describes sanitation requirements, however, makes no mention of the mandate.

"If restaurants have a green product that can do the same thing as quaternary chlorine bleach, that's fine. If that product can get approval from the EPA, then no problem," says Willie Best, environmental health commissioner for the city of Cleveland.

"There is a robust supply of cleaning products that have to have preferred safety profile. The cleaning products industry is pretty far along its path of environmental improvement," Balek says.

But even the most diehard green restaurants sometimes resort to conventional sanitizers and cleaners for heavy duty jobs. Fort Lauderdale-based Pizza Fusion, positioned as an environmentally conscious chain, still uses a bleach mixture to sanitize. It also uses a conventional product to clean pizza ovens because purchasing executive Angela Rathgeber hasn't found an earth-friendly degreaser that easily removes heavy soot build-up in the pizza ovens.

Pizza Fusion nonetheless requires its franchisees to purchase biodegradable chemicals for all other cleaning tasks. The products include smallwares detergent, non-toxic glass cleaner, non-toxic floor and tabletop cleaner, and hand soap.

When Chris Dahlander, founder of two-unit Snappy Salads, based in Dallas, opened his first restaurant, he used recycled wood in tables, biodegradable milk-based paint, plant-based utensils and disposables and automated lighting and water systems.

Yet only recently did he switch to green cleaning products, all at once. This was a mistake, he concedes. At first, workers used too much soap concentrate in the sink. They also griped that stainless steel bowls and tongs – the primary smallwares in the fast-casual concept – didn't feel squeaky clean after washing.

Lately, they requested that Snappy Salads switch back to a conventional degreaser to clean hoods because the green product demands more elbow grease. Dahlander acknowledges the hoods aren't as clean as they used to be. "My biggest piece of advice to the industry is don't try to do everything green at once. It's overwhelming," he warns.

In other words, take baby steps. It's likely that most restaurants are doing just that when it comes to green cleaning. Ted's Montana Grill CEO George McKerrow Jr., who speaks frequently to industry audiences about green efforts at his company, declined to be interviewed for this article. Says a spokeswoman for the 57-unit chain: "He didn't feel like Ted's was the best example of a company with green cleaning products. He thinks there are company's with stronger programs out there."