Diners Give Restaurants the Green Light

EatWell DC, a group of five restaurants in Washington, D.C., owns a farm that produced a bountiful harvest last year.
EatWell DC, a group of five restaurants in Washington, D.C., owns a farm that produced a bountiful harvest last year. Erica Porch

More restaurants are going green as consumers focus on sustainability, and experts say this is perhaps more important for full-serves than any other restaurant segment. Some practices consumers say are important include the use of recycled materials, waste reduction, and use of local ingredients.

Kelly Weikel, senior research manager at Technomic, says full-service restaurants are adopting sustainable practices to reflect consumer desires, but also to keep up with other sectors. “So many fast-casual brands are focusing on the idea of sustainability and social responsibility, and that’s something for full service to respond to,” she says.

According to Technomic’s 2014 Generational Consumer Trend Report, an average of 29 percent of consumers say they are more likely to visit restaurants that make an effort to be sustainable. This number is higher among younger diners, with 35 percent of Millennials and 36 percent of Generation Z agreeing. 

A growing trend is the use of reclaimed materials in construction and design, and Technomic predicts more restaurants will seek recognitions such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and Green Restaurant Association certifications.

“It’s something we believe in,” says Josh Hahn, operating partner of EatWell DC, a group with five restaurants in the nation’s capital. EatWell purchases wind energy credits and uses only compostable candles and packing, as well as environmentally friendly cleaning supplies.

In a commitment to local and responsible farming, EatWell purchased a farm in Maryland in 2010 to grow produce for its restaurants. Last summer, the farm produced around 50 items, including eight varieties of lettuce, 500 pounds of carrots, 100 pounds of parsley, and 220 pounds of strawberries.

“We hope that if we promote sustainable actions people will support our restaurants,” Hahn explains, adding most guests praise the sustainability efforts, but ultimately customers choose a restaurant based on other factors. “We can do all these things, but it doesn’t matter if people don’t like the food, drink, or service,” he says.

The Chapel Hill Restaurant Group, which owns six restaurants in North Carolina, dove into sustainability in the late 1970s, buying local produce and collecting vegetable waste to give to area pig farms, says Greg Overbeck, co-owner of the group.

But in 2008 with the group’s fifth concept, Mez, the leaders made even greater strides, opening the first LEED-certified restaurant in North Carolina. The group also used recycled products in designing Mez, including concrete, wood, and fabrics for furniture. Finding these materials was challenging in the past, but today there is a competitive market for recycled design, Overbeck says.

The building took more than six months longer to design than anticipated and an additional $100,000 over budget to build, but Overbeck says the energy savings make up for the extra cost. He adds that Mez initially attracted local diners because of its LEED certification, but what keeps guests coming back are the corn soup and tacos.

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