Gotham Eateries Go Green, Industry Strives for Sustainable Standards

New York City’s restaurants now account for nearly a quarter of all Green Restaurant Association-certified eateries.

This week’s issue of Crain’s profiles a number of New York City restaurants that have implemented sustainable initiatives across their facilities and operations. It’s significant that as mainstream a publication as Crain’s is noting local eateries joining the green movement, but the press comes with good reason. According to Crain’s, the Boston-based Green Restaurant Association has certified 55 Gotham eateries to date, up from a mere 1 back in 2001; over a quarter of all the GRA-certified restaurants in the country can now be found here in New York City. As the high price of food cuts into restaurants’ profits, owners are finding ways to trim expenses through reduced energy costs, but Crain’s also reports that many consumers are demanding sustainable efforts when they dine out, leaving restaurants with little choice other than to comply.

Last June, in fact, we noted that B.R. Guest Restaurants completed the GRA certification program for all twelve of its New York City outposts (Atlantic Grill, Blue Fin, Blue Water Grill, Dos Caminos Park, Dos Caminos Soho, Dos Caminos Third, Fiamma Osteria, Vento Trattoria, Ruby Foo’s, Ruby Foo’s Times Square and Level V). B.R. Guest now calls itself the country’s first multi-concept-certified green restaurant group. Crain’s points to Gusto Grilled Organics at 519 Sixth Avenue (between 13th and 14th Streets), the first restaurant in all of New York State certified as entirely organic by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, as profiting from its patrons’ green awareness, despite the increased cost of food and corresponding organic premium.

According to Crain’s, Gusto spends 40 percent of its revenue on food costs, compared with an average of 25 percent for the restaurant industry at-large. Nevertheless, going green appears to have paid off for owner Alberto Gonzalez, who told Crain’s that “[t]he restaurant is doing phenomenally. We are turning tables three or four times a night.” Gusto, which opened back in January, didn’t skimp on green building practices, either; the restaurant’s floor and furniture was manufactured with recycled local timber and Gonzalez purchases the bulk of the eatery’s energy needs from wind power sources.

The GRA is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1990 and assists restaurants in becoming more sustainable. It confers Certified Green Restaurant status on eateries that sign its contract, replace all Styrofoam products and all products accepted by local waste management companies, and commit to completing four Environmental Steps each year. These Steps are recommended by a GRA consultant who visits the restaurant and completes an environmental assessment, recommending the Steps that the eatery execute during the pending contract year. GRA certification is a good deal for restaurants considering green initiatives, particularly in light of the market conditions that are making things extremely tight for local dining establishments. Crain’s reports that Tavern on the Green, in fact, considered hiring an outside consultant for its green efforts, but balked at what would have been a $40,000 tab and opted instead for the $5,000 GRA registration fee.

However, it’s interesting that USGBC has not rolled out a LEED product specific to the restaurant industry. As gbNYC discussed last summer, restaurants were invited to participate in the LEED for Retail Pilot Program, but only a handful registered; the turnout shouldn’t be surprising given the restaurant industry’s support for a LEED product specific to its unique needs, particularly with respect to energy consumption. BD+C’s 2006 Green Building White Paper articulated these thoughts, and it’s curious that the 2007 incarnation of the White Paper makes no mention of the industry’s attitudes towards its own tailored LEED product. Whether USGBC’s inability to extend LEED into the industry stems from the looming specter of LEED Version 3.0 or some other rationale is obviously purely speculative, but it seems like in the interim the GRA has happily stepped into the void and certified a large number of restaurants under an increasingly recognizable brand.

What the 2007 White Paper does tell us, though, is that an enormous opportunity still exists for the restaurant industry to more broadly embrace sustainable practices. 72 percent of industry respondents to the BD+C survey (which formed the basis of the White Paper) said that they were interested in green design, but only 34 percent had actually implemented green features on restaurant projects. 35 percent said that they planned on doing so on upcoming projects. 61 percent agreed or strongly agreed that green restaurants can “significantly reduce” energy costs. The catch? Stakeholders want to be convinced that green restaurants aren’t just another food industry fad (like the Atkins diet) and justify the increased initial costs that 60 percent of respondents said were the largest barrier to going green. Perhaps the GRA can be part of the solution to some of those concerns, particularly if restaurants are able to realize the costs savings that a green eatery on an energy diet should confer on cash-strapped owners.

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