Use these tips to create a strong environmental policy.

Use less water, switch to LED lights, keep the refrigerator doors closed —green tips like these may seem obvious to restaurant owners, but they are difficult to execute day in and day out, particularly across multiple restaurant locations. It’s also challenging to sift through the growing volume of data that’s available to restaurant owners today to know what will actually move the needle and drive increased energy efficiency and cost savings.

Fortunately, equipment and building sensors are cheaper than they’ve ever been, and data monitoring and analytics are more advanced. The real question for effective energy management and sustainability initiatives becomes, what’s the best starting point? A look at Shari’s Cafe & Pies located along the West Coast offers insight for sustainability-driven restaurants.

At Shari’s Cafe and Pies, the lights are always on. But even with its doors open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, this family-oriented restaurant wanted to find ways to be friendlier to Mother Nature. The restaurant chain embarked on a journey to cut down on energy consumption at nearly 100 locations and become a sustainable company. Here are three important lessons Shari’s learned from this initiative:

1. Look Beyond Food

Much of the focus on sustainability in the food industry is, naturally, on reducing food waste. For many restaurants, that is the place to start. Shari’s starting point, however, wasn’t with food waste, but with the water waste. Using data from energy audits, Shari’s realized the dipper wells used to clean ice cream scoops were wasting 8 million gallons of water every year. As a result, Shari’s decided to switch from a perpetual flow of water to a heated demand-based system that reduced water usage by 35 percent and led to 15-18 percent savings on natural gas usage. If the focus had remained on only reducing food waste, Shari’s could have missed key opportunities to cut down on water consumption.

2. Notice Local Differences

Recycling programs vary from state to state, and, as Shari’s learned, even from county to county. The company’s plastic pie clamshells, which composed a huge portion of its waste, were recyclable but only in certain counties. Shari’s recognized the advantage and began recycling the clamshells in those locations and also instituted a composting program at eight sites. For restaurants with multiple locations across the country, it’s critical to understand local policies to ensure sustainability practices align with those policies and staff at each location comply with them. If these nuances are overlooked, organizations aren’t maximizing their potential to recycle and reduce waste.

3. Encourage Transparency

For large organizations, something as simple as communicating sustainability goals can get complicated. Leaders at Shari’s decided to take on that challenge by sending a newsletter to internal stakeholders every other month with an update on how they progressed toward their energy and water reduction goals. Each newsletter also included tips on best energy management practices. This step helped raise awareness and demonstrated that installing more efficient equipment only gets you so far. The leaders, managers, and employees need to buy into the program to make the rest of it happen.

No restaurant owner can entirely eliminate the restaurant’s footprint, but she can plan, measure, and adjust her energy goals to reduce its energy consumption. Since beginning its green efforts in 2008, Shari’s has reduced its energy consumption by 9 percent and is on track to meet its 20 percent reduction goal by 2025. By looking beyond food, noticing local differences and encouraging transparency, owners at restaurants of all sizes will identify ways to save costs and help make the earth a little greener.

Expert Takes, Feature, Sustainability