Eco Business

By Soll Sussman
Photography by Matthew Lynaugh

At the University of Texas Division of Housing and Food Service, where Executive Chef Robert Mayberry estimates that 25,000 to 27,000 meals are served each day, kitchen exhaust hoods are cleaned with a nonpolluting, nontoxic system instead of the chemicals commonly used in commercial kitchens. And at Berry Austin, Kathy Steele’s yogurt shop in a North Austin strip mall, dine-in customers can choose washable green bowls and metal spoons instead of disposable containers.

A sign in the shop explains the choice and cheerfully adds, “It’s Berry Good for the environment.” Beyond the food that they serve, operators of many eating establishments in Austin and throughout Texas, large and small, are seeking green alternatives to standard practices and looking for information to help them navigate the sometimes-daunting list of available options.

Along this road to green are new certification programs like Dine Green from the Boston-based Green Restaurant Association. Endorsed by the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others, the program not only provides information and advice to restaurant owners seeking to incorporate more sustainable practices, but also certifies the restaurants that complete the program. To earn enough points for each level of Dine Green certification, owners can choose from a wide and diverse list of options. Jennifer Fleck, communications manager for the association, explains that restaurant owners in different situations can pick the choices that make the most sense—renting instead of owning a building, for example, may mean lease restrictions, while setting out to build a new restaurant is different from operating an already-existing facility.

“That’s why we have a huge menu of choices,” Fleck says. The list of ways to earn points includes water efficiency, waste reduction and recycling, sustainable furnishings and building materials, sustainably grown food, energy, disposables and chemical and pollution reduction. After completing the certification process, restaurants are awarded stars based on points earned. For example, Barr Mansion has the highest certification in Austin, with three out of a possible four stars, and La Condesa downtown and Snap Kitchen at the Triangle each have a certification of two stars.

The voluntary Waste Reduction Assistance Program (WRAP) from the City of Austin also offers information and assistance to restaurant and cafeteria owners seeking to reduce waste and incorporate recycled products into their business processes. Program participants, known as WasteSMART Partners, get waste and recycling tips for the bar and the kitchen, as well as for janitorial supplies, produce, grocery items and much more, and are encouraged to let diners know about their efforts by posting signs or including information on their menus. Of course, properly trained employees are paramount to the program’s success.

“What we’re realizing is that you can have the best-designed program, but if your employees aren’t trained and not willing to change their behavior, then it will fall flat on its face,” says Aiden Cohen, sustainability program manager for the City. “There’s an outreach team, and we’re happy to provide on-site consulting.”

To move further toward more recycling, the Austin City Council adopted a Universal Recycling Ordinance last November for properties—including restaurants—larger than 25,000 square feet with requirements that will be phased in through October 2015. And a growing number of private services have cropped up to offer convenient composting and recycling services to restaurants, as well. Phil Gosh, a lifelong composter and owner and master nurseryman at Organics by Gosh, says that, “things are starting to change.” Gosh, whose company has created and provided compost, mulch and topsoil for many years, runs a pilot program with H-E-B—picking up produce and deli waste from 37 of the grocery chain’s stores in the Austin area. “Our goal is [to be] cost neutral,” he says, referring to the effort to make composting cost-effective for his customers.

At Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse, a sign on the door proudly touts an association with ToGoCo, a local company that specializes in compostable plates, bowls, cups and other products. “[Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse] gave me my first ‘yes’ when I started out,” recalls ToGoCo’s Neal Farnell—noting that promoting a restaurant’s use of his products is a key part of his plan, as is making customers aware of their benefits.

And at Hopdoddy, the burger bar on South Congress, the trash area near the counter is unavoidable and built with purpose; the wood-topped station features clear drops for recyclables and compostables. “We make recycling and composting easy,” says co-owner Chuck Smith. After diners do their job, Hopdoddy takes it from there. “We use Wandering River for recycling glass, plastic and aluminum,” Smith continues, “and Organics by Gosh for composting.” He estimates that using the trash services included in the restaurant’s lease would cost $300 to $400 a month, but he pays $900 a month for the two services—which he considers a worthwhile investment. Hopdoddy customers seem to be paying attention, too. “This is the first restaurant I’ve done in the post-social-networking age,” says Smith. “If you’re doing the right thing, be prepared for the response you’ll get. The word spreads.”

A different approach, with quieter promotion, is happening at FINO and ASTI. Both were the first restaurants in Austin to use the Natura filtered water system to provide still or sparkling water to diners. General manager Brian Stubbs says diners can have all the filtered water they can drink for $2 per person, served in refillable glass containers—saving not only the bottles of Acqua Panna or San Pellegrino that used to be offered at $6 each, but also the energy used to transport them from Italy and for the refrigeration to keep them cool. Alas, some green choices may just need more time to catch on, though. “It’s been a struggle to sell it,” Stubbs says frankly, and notes that even though the two restaurants are breaking even on the two-year-old water system, the imported waters used to bring in revenue. “Sometimes it’s tough to be an early adopter,” he says.

Green changes are also happening in other cities throughout the state. Green Vegetarian Cuisine and Coffee in San Antonio installed an energy-efficient thermal roof barrier and has plans for a cistern to capture rainwater for landscaping. And in El Paso, Val Verde Restaurant at a Fort Bliss shopping center built its green concept around high-efficiency appliances and cooktops. National chains also are paying attention—as a pilot project, a new Fort Worth Chick-fil-A was built to the standards of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.

Of course, green choices can extend into a restaurant’s dining area, as well. At Berry Austin, Steele drew on her experience as an artist and graphic designer for her first venture into the food business. She challenged herself to use as few new products as possible for the furniture and fixtures—much of it was procured from Craigslist. The mosaics on the walls are an eclectic mix of found objects—even old CDs once used by a Jazzercise instructor. “Eighty percent of this stuff in the mosaics is from Goodwill,” she says.

As the list of eatery owners with an interest in going green, or greener, in their kitchens and dining rooms continues to grow, an even broader menu of environmentally friendly choices and services may arise to meet the elevated demand.

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