Anyone can talk the green talk, but it takes more than empty eco-labels to convince today’s savvy restaurant customers that you’re doing your part to save the environment. Participating in an environmental certification program is one way to show your customers you walk the walk.
“Basically, they are having you verifiably show that you’ve made [sustainable] improvements in what you do at your restaurant,” says Paul Smith, owner of GreenSmith Consulting, a California-based firm that helps businesses become more environmentally responsible.
Verification, it seems, is an increasingly important criterion for having your business’s claims of sustainability taken seriously. An April study by Massachusetts-based online media and technology company BurstMedia found that while more than a third of consumers say they frequently recall green messaging, more than one in five say they seldom or never believe green claims made in advertisements.
In response to that skepticism, more and more companies—including restaurants—are putting weight behind their words with certification. One organization, the Boston-based Green Restaurant Association (GRA), saw its membership triple last year.
“Restaurants want the legitimacy that comes with certification,” explains Michael Oshman, executive director of the association.
There are also other perks to getting certified. First of all, it can save your operation money. Restaurants use more energy per square foot than any other type of commercial building, according to Energy Trust of Oregon, a non-profit organization promoting energy efficiency. And with utility prices going nowhere but up, that puts a huge burden on the industry.
“A lot of people are struggling in the market to bring more money down to the bottom line, and one of the biggest opportunities to do that is purchase energy-efficient equipment,” says Steve Kurtz, vice president of FoodServiceWarehouse.com, a distributor of equipment and supplies to the restaurant industry.
FoodServiceWarehouse.com recently launched its own certification program, the Certified Green Commercial Kitchen Program, to help commercial kitchen operators make changes to help cut utility costs, conserve water, and reduce the environmental impact of their operations. The program covers five main areas: energy conservation, water conservation, waste reduction, green cleaning, and education. Participating restaurants get points in each category for making and providing proof of sustainable changes, such as using ENERGY STAR-qualified products or posting educational signage. Those who earn enough points to achieve certification can get rewards from the company, including discounts and extended warranties on products.
Certification can also help restaurants attract and retain customers.
“From what I’ve noticed, a broader and broader section of the public cares about the ingredients in food, and knowing that a restaurant has taken steps to improve what they offer, from what’s in the food to what it’s served on, matters,” Smith says.
Going green also has a tendency to create its own marketing, he says, adding that local media often pick up the story when restaurants achieve certification. Moreover, the GRA puts a list of certified restaurants on its web site for concerned customers to check out, and FoodServiceWarehouse.com plans to help restaurants that achieve its certification get the word out about their green accomplishments.
But while getting certified might seem like a can’t-lose proposition, the number of restaurants who have sought out the label seems to be relatively small. To date, fewer than 300 of the nation’s 945,000 restaurants have achieved certification from the GRA.
That is perhaps partly due to the fact that certification does involve some costs up front. The GRA charges consulting fees to help restaurant clients through the process, which takes an average of 2.5 months to complete, and while FoodServiceWarehouse.com provides certification at no charge, purchasing new energy-efficient equipment can cost more initially. In today’s tough market, many restaurateurs might simply feel they can’t afford the expenses of going green.
But making the investment now, Smith points out, can pay off down the road.
“I’ve been working with car dealerships to green them, and this is really an awful time for them,” he says. “If you take the time to differentiate yourself in this way now, when the economy is kind of fallow, when it gets stronger, you’re in that stronger position right then.”
And those initial costs, Smith says, can really be worth it.
“It would pay off both in short term and long term financially,” Smith says. “With energy efficiency, you’re saving money right away, and the use of things like greener napkins is becoming closer and par with regular napkins. Plus there’s just the draw of having more people come into the restaurant.”
In addition to national certification programs such as the GRA and distributor-sponsored programs like that of FoodServiceWarehouse.com, there are also local certification programs in some areas, such as Thimmakka, a non-profit group started in the San Francisco Bay Area that certifies restaurants there and in Los Angeles, Miami, and Vancouver, British Columbia.
When choosing a certifying body, there are a few things to consider. Market adoption says a lot about how prominent the certifier is in the industry, and endorsements from outside organizations can indicate its legitimacy. How long the organization has been around can also be a factor. A good rule of thumb might be to look at what your competitors are doing and see how it’s working for them. But ultimately there’s one final authority every restaurant is looking to please.
“I actually think who it really matters with is consumers,” Smith says. “What do they take as valid? It could be that the program is awesome, but if nobody knows about it, it might not work as effectively.”