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Green more than a buzzword for San Diego’s restaurant industry

Today’s purse strings may be tighter, but folks still dine out regularly. The key is where they’re dining. According to the National Restaurant Association, 62 percent of consumers are more likely to spend their dollars in a restaurant they know is green. Lucky for eco-conscious diners, “green” is no longer a buzzword for many of San Diego’s restaurateurs; it’s simply the way they do business.

“I can’t imagine focusing on local food, but then not caring about other environmental issues,” says Dennis Stein, co-owner of Sea Rocket Bistro in North Park. “They just go hand in hand for me.”

For the most part, Stein’s efforts go into sourcing fresh, seasonal fare from local farmers, fisherman and ranchers, the benefits of which include minimizing urban sprawl, reducing transportation costs and emissions, and serving food that is healthier due to its being wild-caught or raised on small-scale farms.

Additionally, Stein does whatever he can, from recycling cardboard, glass and wine corks to using green cleaning products and biodegradable to-go containers. He hires staff as close to home as possible to cut down on the amount of gas required for commuting and keeps an electric motorcycle on hand for restaurant-related errands. And, he extends his activism to the community by supporting groups such as Food Not Lawns — an organization that encourages people to plant food gardens instead of lawns in their yards — and donating the restaurant’s biodegradable food waste to schools for use in their gardens.

“As the restaurant matures, we’ll be able to do even more,” says a hopeful Stein, “possibly including solar energy.”

Collaborative effort

At least one organization would be happy to help Stein reach his goals. Founded by Michael Oshman in 1990, the Boston-based Green Restaurant Association (GRA) provides services in research, consulting, education, marketing and community organizing. Partnering with some of the largest distributors, manufacturers, restaurant corporations as well as top environmental experts, the non-profit’s collaborative model provides a means for all sectors of the restaurant industry to become more environmentally sustainable.

“People appreciate our program because it’s geared toward the restaurateur,” explains Oshman. “It’s not another program that morphed into a restaurant program; it was built from the ground up with restaurants in mind. We’re on the phone with the landlords and the property managers and the recyclers to make recycling happen. We’re on the phone with the food distributors to help get the products in there. We take the ‘hard’ out and put the ‘ease’ in.”

The user-friendly system works by rewarding existing restaurants, new builds and foodservice events with points in each of the GRA’s seven environmental categories: water efficiency, waste reduction and recycling, sustainable furnishings and building materials, sustainable food, energy, disposables, and chemical and pollution reduction. Under these standards, restaurants have the ability to reach one of three levels of certification.

According to Oshman, the value of being a certified green restaurant lies in the transparency. It’s the difference between a restaurant simply making a claim and being able to authenticate that claim, he says.

Currently, the GRA is working with 650 restaurants across the nation, half of which are already certified. Those include San Diego eateries such as Burger Lounge, Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar, Caffé Bella Italia, Claire’s on Cedros and George’s at the Cove, one of the organization’s longest-standing members.

A green pioneer

Back in 2001, George’s founder and principal partner, George Hauer, welcomed the opportunity to work with the GRA because he didn’t have any idea what green steps the restaurant could take beyond the obvious. Today, the three-level, oceanfront dining destination is outfitted with low-flow water systems, low-voltage lights, motion sensors, timing devices, compressors that reduce refrigeration expenses, reclaimed paper products and plenty of recycling bins. Last year, the restaurant recycled approximately 120,000 pounds of glass alone.

Also last year, the restaurant joined forces with one of its local produce suppliers.

“Like any other restaurant, we get tons of deliveries which means lots of cardboard,” explains executive chef and partner, Trey Foshee. “We used to have our boxes just go into the recycle bin, but now Specialty Produce picks them up and reuses the cardboard for packaging. It’s almost better than recycling because we get a double life or even a triple life out of the boxes.”

To keep pace with constant improvements in the green industry, the GRA requires that its members implement four green changes annually. While this may seem daunting, the George’s team takes it in stride.

“Some things are easier to implement than others,” admits Foshee, who says his biggest challenges usually are tied to costs and logistics. “But as the momentum toward sustainability comes to light, the technology, the support and the supplies are slowly coming on board and that allows us to continue handling things in a greener way.”

With 25 successful years under its belt, George’s is in the enviable position of having financial resources that many small restaurants don’t have. New establishments or those with lesser revenue streams often perceive going green as a major economic hurdle. But Oshman disputes that belief.

“That going green is too expensive is an old notion. It’s a relic from 10 or 20 years ago, from a time when things weren’t as available; when expertise wasn’t there; when systems weren’t there,” he says. “When people say it’s too expensive in any conversation, I challenge them, and our team challenges them respectively. In terms of this issue, standing still is actually the most expensive thing.”

Starting from scratch

Claire’s on Cedros in Solana Beach earned its GRA certification right out of the gate, primarily because the eco-friendly bakery and café was built green from the ground up.

“We started by making simple decisions that made sense, like recycling our demolition materials, and choosing building materials that were healthy and sustainable,” explains co-owner Terrie Boley. “Many of these decisions were just good decisions that involved no additional cost, or even cost savings.”

Later in the process, Boley and partner Claire Allison registered the project for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification through the U.S. Green Building Council — a decision that Boley says was inspired by their desire to educate others about what can be done if you think outside the normal construction box. If all goes according to plan, Claire’s will soon become the first LEED Platinum-certified freestanding restaurant in the nation, platinum being the highest level of certification attainable.

Among the items that makes Claire’s green: a dining room furnished with all re-purposed materials, recycled denim as insulation, a 90 percent edible garden, solar panels that provide 50 percent of the restaurant’s electricity, and a pervious parking lot, meaning water drains into it versus running into the streets — a feature the city, which doesn’t have storm drains, loves, says Boley.

Boley estimates they paid 10 percent over regular construction costs to make Claire’s green, but says the actual operation is cost effective.

“The solar panels save electricity. The natural light and ventilation means we save electricity and heating and cooling also. Our garden provides food, our plumbing fixtures are all low-water use, and our kitchen equipment is all Energy Star. We also got incentives from governments like the California Coastal Commission for being green.”

Ironically, Boley cites conflicts with city government as being the biggest challenge in building green, particularly planning and building codes that do not yet reflect green alternatives, and the health department, where high heat, heavy water use, and chemicals are the standard for sanitation.

Green pizza

Although not a member of the GRA, as the first ever LEED-certified pizzeria, Pizza Fusion is not unfamiliar with the trials and rewards of building green. But the fact that the Ft. Lauderdale-based restaurant chain is also a franchise operation makes for an interesting twist.

“All Pizza Fusion restaurants are required to be built to LEED standards with a LEED-accredited architect working on every project,” explains the company’s president and co-founder Vaughan Lazar. “However, none of them are required to be certified, despite the fact that any of them could be certified at any time. Certification can be expensive, so it’s an option to our franchisees.”

To date, there are 19 Pizza Fusion restaurants across the country. Of those, six are already LEED certified and a handful of other locations, including Hillcrest and Temecula, have registered for the certification process.

Rating systems aside, any effort is better than none, says Hauer.

“We’re not perfect. We don’t pretend to be perfect. But if everybody were to go green there would certainly be a cumulative effect in a positive way. Everything starts with one’s own value system. It begins with the notion that individually we need to do everything we can to lessen our impact on the world, and that obviously goes hand in hand with the work environment.”

And as far as how much the consumer cares, Boley says her clients tell her all the time about how the greenness of the restaurant is what brought them in initially. Of course, she adds, it’s also the good, fresh food that keeps them coming back.

Rebecca Chappell is an SDNN contributing writer.