A Profitable Helping of Sustainability A 5-step certification process can make restaurants greener and more appealing to target consumers.

By Bill Roth

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

I have two reasons why I'm dedicating a two-part series to green restaurants. The first is that restaurants account for one-third of electricity consumption within the retail market space, making them the largest single user. And each year the average restaurant generates 100,000 pounds of garbage while consuming approximately 300,000 gallons of water. Restaurants have an important role to help the United States achieve a cleaner environment, conserve water supplies and reduce our dependence on increasingly expensive fossil fuels.

The second reason is that business opportunities in today's "Green Economic Revolution" abound. It's a grass roots phenomenon with restaurants blazing a path of innovation in sustainability that produces cost savings and, most importantly, alignment with their customers' increasing desire to buy green. Most of the lessons learned apply to all businesses.

One of the leaders in the Green Economic Revolution is Michael Oshman, president of the non-profit Green Restaurant Association (GRA).

"There is a grass roots explosion of interest in sustainability among restaurant owners, suppliers and customers over the last two years," Oshman says. "In 2007, we tripled our memberships, and 2008 looks like we will triple in size yet again. We have individual restaurants and national chains calling us."

Thanks to 18 years of research on sustainable alternatives, the GRA can offer the technology and supply-chain expertise to craft an implementation plan for any restaurant, restaurant chain or its suppliers.

"The goal is to get the ball rolling," Oshman says. "Not every solution works for every restaurant. Some restaurants are in a position to be more aggressive implementing sustainability solutions, and some can't. Our association is here to help a restaurant get started and to grow their scale of effort every year."

The process used by the GRA has five steps:

  1. An initial audit. "This step achieves two goals," Oshman says. "It recognizes the actions a restaurant has already achieved in terms of sustainability, and it generates a list of additional actions."
  2. Getting started. In a collaborative manner the GRA assigns an expert to work with the restaurant to prioritize and implement the next steps. The goal is to find the "low-hanging fruit," meaningful actions of sustainability that the restaurant could immediately achieve. This creates a platform for green action items of increasing magnitude and significance.
  3. Performance audits. The GRA will then audit the restaurant to document successfully implemented green action items.
  4. Certification. A successful audit results in Certified Green Restaurant status. The restaurant can use the certificate in its advertising and display it in the facility to show customers they are dining in a "green restaurant."
  5. Continuous improvement. "There is no 'rest stop' in the path toward sustainability," Oshman says. "Sustainability is an ongoing process. There are always new products and ideas. The certification we offer must be earned annually by a restaurant based upon their ongoing implementation of increasing sustainable performance."

The GRA views sustainability as a path, not a destination. To move forward on this path requires ongoing outreach and engagement with customers, suppliers and associates.

"Our focus in working with restaurants is based upon achieving real world changes with actual vendors, employees and customers," Oshman says. "Some of our members have a strong sense of urgency and are driven to achieve Sustainability leadership in their market segment. Others are not ready for certification, but they do want to learn more, try some of the products or suppliers we recommend and begin the process."

This process is holistic. The GRA reaches beyond the restaurant to work with local vendors--such as a waste management company--and with regional/national suppliers. Its product reviews, endorsements and database of sustainability solutions encompass everything from napkins to appliances.

And what sustainability offers is increased cash flow and margins in a tough industry that averages 5 percent margins.

"These sustainability solutions hit the bottom line two ways," Oshman says. "They produce cost savings, and they increase revenues. My members are coming to me because their customers are looking to buy from green vendors and because they see how fuel, waste management and water prices continue to escalate. It is a win-win. They save money and make money."

So even if you're not a restaurant entrepreneur, take a look at the GRA's five-step process. It affords your business a path to saving money and selling more to customers looking for green businesses implementing sustainability as a core practice. This grass roots path is wide open to entrepreneurs looking to capture a piece of the emerging $4 trillion "Green Collar Economy."

Bill is President of NCCT , a consulting firm that helps companies grow green revenue. His newest book, The Secret Green Sauce , profiles best practices being used by successful green businesses. He has previously held roles as senior vice president of PG&E Energy Services, president of Cleantech America (a solar power plant development company) and COO of Texaco Ovonics Hydrogen Solutions (which launched the first hydrogen-fueled Prius).

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