Margins are tight and unforgiving in the restaurant business, but an obvious opportunity for savings comes in the form of energy efficiency, and numerous state-funded programs offer cost-cutting incentives to help businesses become more sustainable.
The United Illuminating Company (ui) in Connecticut handles 20 percent of that state’s energy supply and provides restaurants with a 36-month history of their energy consumption, including hours of the day and the days of the week, to show where savings can be earned. If restaurants join the program, incentives may include up to 50 percent of costs covered by the state and zero percent financing, for those businesses with strong credit. When the state-funded Energize Connecticut program started in 2000, it provided opportunities for restaurants to improve efficiency in the areas of refrigeration controls, HVAC, and lighting. More recently, innovations like heat-recovery grills and advanced LED lights that can match the color and tone of existing installed lights have come to market.
David Petrone, chef and owner of Riverview Bistro in Stratford, Connecticut, which opened in 2012, signed up with Energize Connecticut in March 2014. The state covers about 50 percent of the tab and allows him to pay the rest interest-free over three and a half years. Petrone opted to implement the entire efficiency package, from LED lighting to controlled thermostats and sustainable water faucets. The restaurant’s monthly payment is roughly $700, which is about half its monthly savings of around $1,300.
“Restaurants do not have the highest profit margin, so it’s a dollar-and-cents business,” Chef Petrone says. “You have to find every angle you can to save as much as you can. In my case, I had to look at the real operating costs that I could play with—gas, electric, water—because those are things you can control to a certain degree.”
For instance, he replaced the 400-watt lightbulbs used in the restaurant’s parking lot with a 60-watt LED panel that was brighter. In the kitchen, he transitioned from four 34-watt bulbs to two bulbs plus mirrors.
Another Connecticut operator who has worked with UI is Brian Faye, co-owner of Lenny and Joe’s, which has locations in New Haven, Madison, and Westbrook. The New Haven restaurant is the newest unit and the first to become energy efficient. “It’s a great thing to do to help out, and the cost [savings] are great, too,” Faye says, adding that UI “came in and redid all of our light bulbs. We also purchased an energy-efficient refrigerator/freezer, and we redid all of the parking lot lights. It’s been great.”
Since completing the UI–recommended efficiencies project in October 2013 (they started working on it that February), the 10,000-square-foot location has saved an estimated $10,000 to $11,000 a year. In a scenario that has been common for UI, Faye admits he ignored the program the first couple of times he was approached. “Then I met with them, they explained everything, and I decided to go forward,” Faye says. “If something seems too good to be true it probably is, but they said they’d pay for everything and redo it all.”
And they did. “I didn’t really have to do anything,” Faye says.
Similar programs to help restaurants conserve costs and operate more efficiently exist around the country, such as those from ComEd in the Chicago and northern Illinois markets. Exploring incentive programs to conserve energy is certainly a conversation worth having with local utility providers, and national programs are worth exploring as well, such as the Green Restaurant Association, a non-profit based in Boston that provides tools for restaurants to become more energy efficient and environmentally friendly. Similarly, the National Restaurant Association’s Conserve program provides do-it-yourself tips for operators and works with organizations including Energy Star, the Food Service Technology Center, and the Food Waste Reduction Alliance.