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Restaurants get serious about warming planet


Tony Lamb, CEO of Kona Ice, on one of his trucks outfitted with solar panels.

A 5,000-square-foot restaurant with $1 million in annual sales produces 450 tons of carbon each year on average, according to UC Berkeley researchers—a big number that many chains are trying to reduce.

Nancy Bsales of consulting firm Terrapass said even if a business can’t spend a boatload of money on a fleet of electric vehicles and a new solar array, every company can do something to slim its own carbon footprint.

“If you look at the landscape of the businesses, most aren’t the Googles of the world, especially in the franchise space,” said Bsales, who advises companies on sustainability.  “But each of them are responsible for a piece of the carbon output.”

Cutting carbon outputs doesn’t mean a big capital expenditure or a drastic change to operations. Oftentimes, she said, major changes like alternative power or efficient HVAC systems aren’t even allowed under a lease. There are, however, a lot of “low-hanging” opportunities for businesses.

“A piece that I would think is easy for a franchise is waste,” said Bsales, adding it’s a significant cost-saving project. “If you reduce the weight of your waste, you’re reducing that cost at the end of every month and you’re having a very big impact. Landfills are a very big issue and the methane they spew, so you’re lowering emissions tremendously and you’re helping yourself.”

Another environmental adviser, Tilly Shaw with U.K.-based Sustain, said many changes wouldn’t materially alter the business experience at all.

“There’s a lot of wastage that wouldn’t affect anybody,” said Shaw. “I’m not saying that we can solve the world’s problems without anyone noticing, but there is an awful lot we can do by being a little more attentive.”

She suggested starting with simple changes like putting lights on a timer or a motion-sensor so little energy is wasted on lighting. Using cold water to mop up will also use a lot less energy; hot water uses 130 times more power than cold. And good freezer management can save tremendous amounts of energy.

“You might think the ovens would be the highest impact, but even the least energy-aware company is going to turn the ovens off overnight,” said Shaw.

“From the studies that I’ve done, freezers beat everything.”

To address that major power sponge, Shaw suggests smart freezer management like keeping the door shut as much as possible and drawing warm air out of the kitchen so the freezer doesn’t have to work as hard.

After addressing the various waste-creating practices, companies looking to expend less carbon need to invest a little and change processes further. At the five-unit salad and pizza franchise Crushed Red, founder and CEO Chris LaRocca said switching to composting was the first step to a material carbon reduction.

“We opened up with normal trash service, and then immediately switched to recyclable and compostable,” said LaRocca. “That’s really where it started.”

He said he strives to only buy recyclable and compostable goods for the business. He said it does cost more, but it’s worth the “one-third” higher trash removal cost on waste to be a more responsible business. He said if nothing else, it’s an affordable marketing piece. “Restaurant operators I think underestimate how observant guests are; they notice a lot more than we give them credit for,” said LaRocca. “We don’t spend a lot of money on marketing so by doing this thing, it’s really a marketing opportunity for us and they gravitate to restaurants that care.”

And it’s not like Crushed Red restaurants are hurting with that extra service cost. The restaurants still pull in an average of $1.5 million in sales with a 20 percent EBITDA or gross earnings margin.

At Kona Ice, founder and CEO Tony Lamb said he doesn’t focus too much on the cost of being green. “Because we’re at the size we are now we’re selling as many franchises as we can handle; I don’t look at things as monetarily anymore,” said Lamb. “I look at what’s best for the brand.”

Lamb wrapped up 2015 with 685 trucks on the road offering shaved ice across the country. He said there were various events that helped shift the business toward a more carbon-light model. One such moment was on the streets of New York City when he found himself walking amid clouds of diesel fumes from various food trucks.

“Every corner smells like diesel because there is a truck running on the corner running a diesel generator,” said Lamb. “That’s kind of the road I was going down and I thought, ‘Can we do this without running generators?’”

Lamb invested in high-efficiency batteries and switched to low-power LED lighting despite the challenge of doing so 10 years ago. Now, that switch is much easier. Instead of $1,000 per solar panel, he’s paying $300, and instead of $4,000 for an LED upgrade in 2008, he’s installing the lights for $700.  

Now, the trucks run “99 percent” off batteries, meaning the only fuel costs are driving to and from the park or event where the franchisee is operating for the day. It’s also saving about $200 per truck on monthly energy bills.

Next up is all the carbon generated outside of the four walls of the business. “You may not be able to control your supply chain, but you can choose your supply chain and that’s where you can make a difference,” said Bsales, who has seen big companies putting pressure on the supply chain, making it easier for emerging brands to get a carbon-friendly supplier.

At Crushed Red, LaRocca said he has vendors looking for greener options for the restaurant, but each new supplier must also pass a test. “We have a whole checklist that they have to meet from our approval standpoint... and in that list is where is that product being sourced,” said LaRocca, noting the carbon footprint is always an early consideration. “If I have an addressing supplier on the East Coast and I can get a comparable product at price in Omaha, I’m going with Omaha because of the carbon footprint piece.”

While it may have been a novel business goal just a few years ago, businesses pondering a smaller carbon footprint should act now. “There’s a lot of action right now. It’s the perfect time to get involved, because if you don’t do it now, you may be left behind. Six years ago I wouldn’t have said that,” said Bsales.

“Now it’s different. It’s very acceptable. It’s expected. It’s business in a new climate.”

Six low-hanging energy savers

1. Lights.  Create a plan to turn off lights when they aren’t needed and upgrade switches to motion sensors for bathrooms and infrequently used places. Also take advantage of daylight by dimming interior lights where possible.

2. Wasted food. Between 25 and 40 percent of food is thrown away. Keeping it out of the trash can immediately shed emissions wasted on processing, transportation and refrigeration.

3. Refrigeration. Cooling equipment is a major energy drain in most restaurants. Stacking goods efficiently and keeping the surrounding area cooler can save a lot of energy. Just keeping the door shut when hauling stuff into the kitchen saves too. Consider a strip door to retain even more cooling energy.

4. HVAC. Keeping rooms warm or cool is a major but necessary energy sink. Dialing the heating or cooling back at night can save a lot of energy without anyone noticing (and reduces costly maintenance). One degree can save two to three percent in energy costs. Replacing filters monthly also ensures more efficient airflow and cleaner air.

5. Computers. Businesses run on computers, but turn them off at night where possible and ensure that power management features are in place. Same goes for printers, fax machines and copiers—simply using the power-saving features can save 50 percent in energy. And when upgrading, look into comparable laptops for an 80 to 90 percent power savings over desktops.

6. Water. Use cold water where possible for cleaning. Hot water uses 150 percent more energy and isn’t necessary for most cleaning purposes, especially when bleach or other chemicals are being used anyway. 

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