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Operations | By Karon Warren

Tried and True
Research is critical to knowing which green certifications are worth the effort.
Green certifications for food service

“Going green” continues to be a buzz phrase in the restaurant industry, especially in light of the National Restaurant Association’s recent 2009 Restaurant Industry Forecast.

According to the report, three in 10 quick-service restaurants say they plan to devote more of their 2009 budgets to green initiatives. This dovetails with restaurant patrons’ desires, with 44 percent of diners likely to make a restaurant choice based on an operation’s practices in the areas of energy and water conservation.

To capitalize on this choice preference and make customers aware of their participation in eco-friendly pursuits, there are a number of green certifications and affiliations available to restaurants based on their environmental efforts. Everything from building construction to produce suppliers can garner a green label of some sort. So, with such a variety of green designations available today, how do you know which one is best?

The answer is at once both easy and difficult. The easy answer is to go with one or more of the big players in the industry.

The gold standard according to many experts is LEED certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. Energy Star-related programs and leaders also garnered approval from the experts. Green Seal is another top player, as is the Green Restaurant Association's certification.

For Chris Lambert and Michael Berger, directors of restaurant development for Elevation Burger in Arlington, Virginia, LEED certification was the way to go for its stores, six of which are scheduled to open in April. Both men have a background in environmentally friendly building and wanted to continue that in their own business.

Although it’s not mandatory for franchisees to build green, all Elevation operators have embraced the model thus far. “Doing LEED takes a leap of faith and a financial commitment,” Lambert says. “It does have additional costs and work involved.”

While Nick Shaffer, retail sector coordinator for the U.S. Green Building Council, acknowledges the highter cost and work commitment of LEED certification, and says he has seen a huge increase in LEED certification applications, everything from mom and pop restaurants to large chains.

“There are different levels of steps restaurants can take to get involved, he says. “A lot of times they may already be doing these things.”

The result is a positive three times over, Shaffer says.

First, restaurant operators save money by reducing energy costs. Second, they draw in more consumers looking for businesses with green practices. And, third, they help save the environment.

At Green Seal, the goal is to seek out and identify products and services that are environmentally responsible. The organization also developed its own environmental standards for a variety of services.

New for this year is GS46, a standard specifically developed for restaurants. Participating restaurants will be rated on an assortment of issues, such as energy and water management, air quality, and waste management and will receive certification according to specific tiered levels.

To receive Green Seal certification, restaurants must submit applications and be personally audited by a Green Seal representative. There is transparency throughout the process, something every green program should have, says Linda Chipperfield, vice president of marketing and outreach for Green Seal Inc. “Certification is only as good as the standard it’s based on,” she says. “How was that standard developed? Who was involved in developing that standard?”

Restaurant operators should think twice about programs that offer only a membership, label, or directory listing in return for a monetary fee. “As a general rule, be leery of programs with an advertising-based platform,” says John Scaggs, director of HVS Eco Services in Boulder, Colorado. “Be wary of programs that don’t ask for evidence of what you’re doing and your progress.”

When researching green certifications and affiliations operators should beware of “greenwashing,” a term defined as a type of false advertising that misleads consumers regarding the environmental benefits of a company’s products or services. Examples include green-labeling programs that don’t require evidence or third-party certifications to verify claims or use vague wording with no valid meaning.

To determine if a program or certification is valid, look it up online for additional information or call members who boast that particular program and find out what was required to be included.

GenGreen developed its own certification program. Based on three levels of participation, the program seeks to help businesses to take steps in going green, says Charisse McAuliffe, founder and CEO.

“We do encourage all different industries to join an affiliated program,” McAuliffe says. “It helps grow their green arms and legs through their involvement.”

For reasons along these same lines, FoodServiceWarehouse.com developed the Certified Green Commercial Kitchen designation. “One of the cornerstones of our business is education,” says Steve Kurtz, vice president of FoodServiceWarehouse.com in Greenwood Village, Colorado. “We provide expertise and information on how best to use equipment.”

Since restaurant equipment wastes up to 80 percent of its energy—only about 20 percent goes to the food—FoodServiceWarehouse.com wants to make commercial kitchens more energy efficient, Kurtz says.

The program, which is free to anyone, covers five key areas: energy conservation, water conservation, waste reduction, green cleaning, and education. An oversight council with members from such groups as Energy Star and the Edison Electric Institute support the program's mission to support eco-responsible and financially affordable eco practices.

Participating restaurants with each program receive certifications, plaques, and/or labels to display on site so customers are aware of their green efforts.

Chris Moyer, manager of Conserve with the National Restaurant Association, cautions against basing participation and return on investment purely on the financial bottom line.

“Return on investment on certain things may not be financial,” he says. “If it meets their needs and provides value to them, they should be doing it. Return on investment is really in the eyes of the beholder.”