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Chefs are predicting that green restaurants will be more popular than ever in 2010, according to the National Restaurant Association's "What's Hot" survey. That means more restaurants will be crediting local farms on menus and claiming to cook sustainably.
But how are consumers to know which restaurants are actually communicating core principles and which are just saying what they think customers want to hear?
A handful of local restaurant owners believe that certification is part of the answer. The Cafe at Phipps Conservatory in Schenley Park and Bella Sera on the Square, Downtown, both recently received a two-star rating from the Green Restaurant Association, a Boston-based national nonprofit that has provided environmental consulting and certification to food service operations for 20 years.
Eat'n Park has broken ground on a new LEED-designed location in the Waterworks Mall, near Aspinwall. Once construction is complete, it hopes to be the first Pittsburgh restaurant with this LEED certification, a designation by the Green Building Rating System.
All three restaurants' actions emphasize that being a sustainable restaurant involves a lot more than just buying local food and recycling basic materials. The typical restaurant has a lot of barriers to following environmentally friendly practices. Large portions inevitably mean substantial waste, harsh chemicals are used to properly clean equipment and spaces, and vast quantities of cheap disposables such as paper towels and styrofoam to-go containers are used. But restaurants that want to, can make significant changes.
"We decided to go after LEED certification to make a statement about our commitment to being an environmentally responsible corporation," said Kevin O'Connell, senior vice president of marketing for the Eat'n Park Hospitality Group.
The new location will be more energy efficient by using Energy Star-rated equipment, taking advantage of natural light and maximizing efficiency in heating and cooling systems. They're also using environmentally friendly and recycled construction materials.
LEED certification involves the physical structure of the building, but Eat'n Park Hospitality group examines other ways to lessen its environmental impact with its EcoSteps Program. So far changes have included purchasing locally grown produce and dairy free of growth hormones, eliminating paper towels and place mats, recycling used fryer oil into biofuel and utilizing more energy-efficient light bulbs.
Six Penn Kitchen, the group's fine dining restaurant Downtown, is often a laboratory for initiatives that potentially will be applied to the whole group, depending on the feasibility and impact on customer enjoyment. Six Penn has a roof garden that provides herbs for the restaurant during warmer months, and this year it began composting pre-consumer waste such as vegetable peelings.
Phipps Conservatory also had developed an extensive environmental sustainability program. When Kelly Ogrodnik, Phipps' sustainable design and programs manager, learned about the Green Restaurant Association's certification program from the Missouri Botanic Garden, which had certified their cafe, she contacted the company to learn about its requirements and standards.
The association certifies restaurants based on a comprehensive evaluation of seven environmental categories, including water efficiency, sustainable furnishings and building materials, disposables, and sustainable food. Restaurants must achieve a minimum of 100 points overall, as well as a minimum of points in each category. They also must have a full-scale recycling program, be free of styrofoam and must improve their score each year to maintain certification.
We've been taking all of these steps and really incorporating a lot of green strategies in our restaurant," Ms. Ogrodnik said, "We just needed them to verify it for us."
The opportunity to communicate its achievements was one motivation for getting certified, she said.
"We wanted to be able to showcase it to the community. We're also hoping to reach out to another area of the community, someone who looks for local organic foods but has maybe never been to the Phipps Cafe before."
The level of detail and the strict standards discourage some restaurants that don't have Phipps' experience with green initiatives, but the substantive nature of the evaluation was appealing to Jason Capps. Mr. Capps owns Bella Sera in the Square as well as an event site and catering company in Canonsburg, which is also certified by the Green Restaurant Association.
"If we were going to have someone's sticker on our door, we wanted it to be something valid and something that's taken seriously," he said.
Many restaurant owners probably believe they can't afford to make changes in favor of sustainability, much less pay a consulting company to advise and certify them. But Mr. Capps was pleasantly surprised by the overall low cost.
"The savings absolutely offset the costs associated with it. Just in terms of utilities, less waste overall and the fact that some of the green products are going down in price," he said.
Similarly, building to LEED-standards costs more, but some of those costs are offset by savings in energy bills. Eat'n Park's Kevin O'Connell believes there are other long-term benefits as well, such as having natural light in the kitchen that will improve the work environment for the kitchen staff at the Waterworks location.
While certification can be a great way for consumers to know that their values are being taken seriously by a restaurant, that doesn't mean that they need to avoid all restaurants that aren't certified.
Although it's been around since 1990, the Green Restaurant Association has certified only 263 restaurants in the United States and Canada. Currently, it is working with 600 restaurants to help them get certified or to maintain their certification.
Just as many small farms follow organic standards (or even stricter standards) but haven't chosen to spend the money and time to get certified, some restaurants, especially small, independent ones might choose to publicize their sustainable practices in other ways.
Dinette in East Liberty puts its commitment to sustainability on the main page of its Web site: "Dinette ... uses only energy-efficient equipment and supplies and has implemented programs to maximize reuse and recycling."
Chef and owner Sonja Finn buys as much as possible of her produce and other ingredients from local sources. The restaurant even filters, bottles and carbonates its own water rather than sell bottled water.
Ms. Finn also extends the idea of sustainability to restaurant staff. She pays her back-of-house employees a living wage and provides health insurance after six months of employment.
Just last month, Mother Nature Network selected Ms. Finn as one of 40 chefs under 40 who "link farms to forks and promote better health for people and the planet."
In Regent Square, Legume Bistro chef and owner Trevett Hooper sends out weekly "Notes from the kitchen" to its subscribers. He talks about sources for Legume's meat, fish and vegetables, often asking his customers for their opinions as he balances his desire to source ingredients that not only are the most sustainable but also the best tasting and have good value.
Restaurants that work toward environmental sustainability should market it to customers, but certification and communication can help customers determine whether a company is truly committed or if it is all talk and no action.