Big chains embrace initiative; smaller operators pressured
By Mike Hughlett Tribune reporter
The restaurant industry unveiled a big push to go green Monday, and it couldn't have come at a better time. Or a worse time, depending on your perspective.
At its annual convention in Chicago, the National Restaurant Association launched an initiative to lessen the industry's environmental impact—cutting energy use, reducing waste and so on. While clad in feel-good green, such an initiative could also have long-term economic benefits for restaurants.
But in the short term, many restaurants are hurting, battling a soft economy and soaring ingredient and labor costs. The upshot: Restaurant chains with deep pockets, like McDonald's Corp., are likely to seize the moment and sink money into going green. And small operators with shrinking cash flows are more likely to hold back.
"They just don't have the reserves to invest," said Chris Muller, restaurant management professor at the University of Central Florida.
"The richer companies, typically significant chains, they can pounce in times of economic adversity and use [going green] as a competitive advantage," he said. "In a down market, you invest capital because you know the market will come back."
Going green is a term that can easily become mere marketing babble.
In the restaurant business, "we really don't know how to define what green really means," Muller said.
Still, green practices generally would decrease energy and water use, while increasing recycling and cutting back on waste.
The National Restaurant Association is trying to spread the green word through a program called "Conserve: Solutions for Sustainability." It features a Web site with tips ranging from inexpensive advice to information on major projects.
Major investments can have long-term paybacks, said Richard Young, senior engineer at Fisher Nickel, a California-based food-service research firm. For instance, a restaurant can choose to buy a new fryer for $800, or shell out $3,400 for a more energy-efficient model. The latter would likely last twice as long and save an operator more than $2,000 in energy costs in an eight-year period, Young said.
Most restaurant operations are full of cost-saving and energy-saving opportunities, he said. And restaurant companies are looking even harder at them now as their other costs, from ingredients to labor, are rising at a fast clip, Young said.
Oak Brook-based restaurant giant McDonald's began paying attention to conservation during the 1970s energy crisis and has bolstered its efforts in recent years. Its strategy is based on purchasing the most energy-efficient equipment—from grills and fryers to heating systems—coupled with everyday energy-saving practices, such as running equipment only when necessary.
Last year, McDonald's said it cut carbon dioxide emissions by 200,000 tons and made a 3.75 percent reduction in energy use at company-owned stores. Those energy-saving measures saved the company $30 million, said Jill Scandridge, a McDonald's spokeswoman.McDonald's is building its first full-scale "green restaurant" on Chicago's South Side. It will include low-flow toilets and skylights that allow for natural light during the day.
"It's really our learning lab for sustainable tactics," said Max Carmona, McDonald's senior director of U.S. restaurant design. "What works here we can take to a larger scale in the future."