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Studies show that 97 percent of respondents believe that sustainability is critical to their company’s success.

Scaling Restaurant Sustainability: 3 Steps for Green Growth

The correct sustainability efforts can improve your brand's bottom line.

In the restaurant industry, growing a business must go hand-in-hand with scaling sustainability. Most restaurants face a slim, 3 to 5 percent average profit margin, but sustainability efforts can lead to impactful cost savings that improve the bottom line.

Considering that 80 percent of the commercial food service sector’s $10 billion annual energy bill is attributed to inefficient food cooking, holding, and refrigeration, restaurants need to reevaluate resource consumption to stay competitive. These three sustainability best practices will help them achieve their sustainability goals:

Invest in sustainability up front

Whether opening a new restaurant site or making enhancements to those in a portfolio, implementing a sustainability strategy is best before you break ground. Restaurants use about 2.5 times more energy per square foot than other commercial buildings, so integrating energy efficiency into the design of the building from the start can set the stage for a greener business overall. Selecting LEDs or Energy Star equipment is relatively easy, but wrapping efficiency into the building itself can be more difficult. To understand opportunities in building systems that are often overlooked, restaurants can tap into resources like the Department of Energy’s 50 Percent Energy Savings for Quick-Service Restaurants guide and the Food Service Technology Center’s design guides. Getting in front of these opportunities with architects and designers will result in higher margins and more profit without limiting the design or construction process.

Arby’s, the quick-service sandwich chain, has seen extensive growth over the last few years and maintained sustainability success by establishing a package of energy efficiency measures for each new site. This package includes high-efficiency roof-top units, demand control kitchen ventilation and a new high-efficiency cooking system that reduces roast beef preparation’s energy use by 67 percent. As a result of Arby’s strategic environmental measures, the company has already achieved its Better Building Challenge goal of 20 percent energy reductionby 2020.

Operate as a cohesive organization

Unlike a standalone restaurant that may only require one project manager, everyone from the CEO down to the site manager should be engaged in a multi-site restaurant’s sustainability strategy—as a successful sustainability program will integrate key stakeholders from across the organization. Programs run by the one “green guy”are doomed to fail because of conflicting cross-organizational goals. For example, construction and operations teams often have differing needs: construction may have the mandate to build the restaurant quickly and at a low cost, but operations wants high-quality, long-life and energy efficient systems to keep long-term costs low. Engaging various stakeholders prior to budgeting helps align priorities upfront so that the construction team doesn’t feel pinched and the operations team can secure savings over the lifetime of the building.

This unified operational push is even more critical as restaurants add new departments and personnel. Engaging employees across the facility will be key to the success of the program. In fact, according to a NEEF survey, 97 percent of respondents believe that sustainability is critical to their company’s success and 90 percent indicated that sustainability work enhances their job satisfaction. As such, each new department—from operations to the executive team—should have an allocated team member involved in the sustainability program to ensure that the company moves forward collectively, especially during rapid growth.

Continuously improve the program

Creating a resilient sustainability program requires continuous assessment of its effectiveness and identification of opportunities for improvement across an organization. Programs built on capital projects alone tend to fade and die off when the next big project arises and money is allocated elsewhere. A program that focuses on continuous improvement will look at all aspects of the business. Whether it involves day-to-day operations or long-term strategic adjustments, a strong sustainability program will evolve with the organization.

Building in critical components, including a sustainability policy, long-term goals and executive team commitment and communication, will help build sustainability into the core of the business. This ensures the program is maintained throughout any business changes. Regular assessments of the program also ensure the program evolves as the organization does. For example, organizations that state a goal, then walk away from a program after achieving the goal are leaving money on the table. Every multi-site restaurant organization has old HVAC units that need to be upgraded, lighting systems that need adjustment, and operational processes that could be improved. Sustainability is a never-ending engagement, but it can and will continue to improve profits for organizations that fully embrace it as a business practice.

Restaurant chain Shari’s Café & Pies is a great example of a company that has developed a strong sustainability program. Annual goals, executive commitments, and a documented program have established a sustainability program that encompasses everything from energy and water efficiency to waste management, food sourcing and support of local charities. Shari’s program has reduced its total water usage by 35 percent and energy use by 10 percent, and has planned opportunities for the next 10 years.

Getting in early with a sustainability program, integrating it across all operations, and regularly fine-tuning the program provides a solid foundation for chain restaurants chasing sustainability success. At the end of the day, restaurants that embrace these opportunities and consistently strive for the next best thing will make the biggest difference to both the environment and the bottom line.

As a Senior Energy Manager with ENGIE Insight, Paul Kuck is responsible for providing strategic and tactical guidance to assist clients in managing their resource consumption and sustainability programs, and has led the development of a focus on the foodservice industry. Paul has been in the foodservice industry for over 20 years and his experience includes roles in design and construction, management and consultation.