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National Restaurant Association - NRA, restaurateurs ramp up sustainability efforts

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NRA, restaurateurs ramp up sustainability efforts

For many restaurateurs, practicing sustainability is becoming a center-of-the-plate issue.

From mid- and large-sized chains to small independents, restaurants are investing in various conservation efforts, including energy and water efficiency, waste reduction and food donation, among other things. The reasons are varied: customers are interested in it, restaurateurs save money as they scale back utility use, and it’s just plain good for the environment.

“Most foodservice companies are putting sustainability as one of their key tenets,” said Linda Dunn, vice president of supply chain for HMSHost, a Bethesda, Md.-based company with foodservice operations at 100 airports around the world. “Even in the down economy, it’s held its ground because the next generation has been brought up to think of the world as an ecosystem. Businesses have had to adjust to that because it not only affects their workers, but also their customers and even stockholders in some cases.”

HMSHost donates extra food inventory, recycles as much of its waste as possible and composts where supporting infrastructure exists.

Twenty-three HMSHost locations are involved in composting initiatives, Dunn said.

The company’s efforts to reduce food waste have also led to increased food donation. “When we looked at our food waste and how [to] reduce it, we made a big push into food donation,” she said. “Last year we donated 1 million pieces of food,” she said.

Atlanta-based George McKerrow Jr., who co-founded the 44-unit Ted’s Montana Grill chain with entrepreneur and environmentalist Ted Turner in 2002, said sustainability has been part of the company’s corporate culture since its inception.

Ted’s Montana Grill operators take steps to share ideas beyond the company, McKerrow said.

“Whatever we introduce into our own culture, we try to share with the rest of the industry. For example, we use wooden stir sticks instead of plastic. We brought back the paper straw, which hadn’t been used since 1970. We use spudware [cutlery made from potato starch] for to-go [orders].”

At Ted’s, he noted, the conversion to LED lighting may be one of the company’s brightest ideas.

“We’ve replaced all of the light bulbs and use low-voltage lighting,” he said. “We invested $111,000 and save $250,000 a year in electricity. We had a two-year guarantee on the light bulbs so that netted us a wonderful return.”

At the National Restaurant Association, the effort to partner with restaurateurs on sustainability initiatives is well underway, president and CEO Dawn Sweeney said. Through its Conserve Sustainability Education Program, the NRA is committed to helping its members step up their conservation efforts.

The program includes an inventory of industry-tested best practices and educational videos from industry experts, and helps restaurateurs design a personalized action plan.

At a broader level, the Association is leading efforts to tackle a range of challenging issues, including reducing the volume of waste in restaurants, forging public-private partnerships to increase recycling, and working to recognize leaders in equipment efficiency.

“Many restaurant operators have been working on sustainable practices for years, finding it’s good for business by helping attract new guests, boosting communities, and driving savings as operations become more efficient,” Sweeney said. “With nearly 1 million locations, the U.S. industry is increasingly aware of the broad range of steps that fall under the ‘sustainability’ umbrella. The restaurant industry is proud to take a forward-looking approach to the issue.”

McKerrow said the NRA’s efforts signal the industry is serious about sustainability.

“The fact that the NRA, our most powerful association, has a dedicated effort under Conserve, and that sustainability is being talked about at the highest levels of the industry, is a major stride, period,” he said. “Just the conversation is a win. Behaviors are changing. There’s an effort being made. After a while, small things add up to a big difference.”

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