The Dallas Morning News (MCT)
But its largest trade group, with prodding from a smaller, eco-driven one, is preparing to change the industry's stripes.
In January, the board of the National Restaurant Association voted to promote more ecologically friendly practices in the nation's 900,000-plus eating establishments.
At its annual restaurant and hospitality show, which was held last week in Chicago, pushing green tactics was on the menu.
Across the country, 300 restaurants have signed up to become certifiably green, under the Green Restaurant Association. And others are making changes on their own.
The much larger national association hoped to feed the movement as about 73,000 faithful gathered at the four-day show in McCormick Place.
With an expanded Green Restaurant Products Pavilion and educational sessions, the meeting showed how far the industry has come since 1990.
"It is unprecedented in the 17 years since the Green Restaurant Association was formed," said Michael Oshman, who founded the Boston-based nonprofit while still in college, referring to the green spirit moving up the food chain.
"What's happened this year is that this issue that we've been talking about for 17 years has finally made it to people's consciousness."
Beyond leafy greens on the plate, and crisp bills in the till, there's no official consensus on what should be part of a green restaurant.
The National Restaurant Association has no definition _ although it hopes to craft one through the green task force it launched at the conference.
For now, green is a catch phrase used to describe a wide range of Earth-friendly actions.
At the Green Restaurant Association, to earn a Certified Green Restaurant logo, restaurants must sign a contract agreeing to certain standards (lots of recycling, no polystyrene foam or Styrofoam, as examples) and to make four environmental improvements a year. They pay the association $560 to $3,000 per location for guidance and marketing.
Diners searching for the logo in the Dallas area have the Remington at the Southfork Hotel in Plano, Texas. The Remington features chicken fried steak and honey barbeque salmon. It won certification in 2004.
Environmental fixes, such as light switch timers and recycled paper products, were low-cost with a rapid payback, said Cheryl Fortner, a human resources executive who spends 60 percent of her time advising the restaurant and the hotel where it's located on environmental matters.
A few hotel guests have complimented the company on its efforts, Fortner said, but she's yet to see a swell of customers drawn to the diner because of its eco-policies.
Still, she said, this was a movement her company wanted to join.
"The whole industry eventually is going in the direction of environmental (protection)," Fortner said. "Either we're going to be the first out there to do it, or we're going to be followers. We want to be leaders."
So far, most of the restaurants that have taken the Green Restaurant Association's pledge are either small regional chains or independents.
This month, the group scored its biggest coup to date, when about 200 company-owned cafes in the Los Angeles-based Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf chain became certified (including 45 certified earlier that were re-examined). The addition helped triple the association's roster from the 100 or so on board 18 months ago.
But its 300 members still are barely a rounding error in the U.S. food service universe of 935,000 outlets (including hospital, school and office cafeterias, as well as military posts).
However, other restaurateurs say they also hew to a green theme _ just without the certification. Todd Mann, a senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association, said he's seen activity at all levels.
Dallas' new Central 214 restaurant is one. The hip, urban restaurant, which features entrees such as grilled lamb rubbed with herbs, is part of the San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels group, which prides itself on an environmental focus.
The Dallas outlet uses to-go containers made from recycled materials and condiments in bulk bins (vs. individual packets). And more than 75 percent of the produce and meat it serves is organic, produced without most conventional pesticides.
The to-go containers cost about 10 percent more than conventional polystyrene foam, and trash pickup is 10 percent to 15 percent more expensive because of the recycling, said Tom Fleming, Central 214's executive chef.
He calls it "a cost of doing business. ... We'll gladly incur the cost."
The restaurant does not advertise its green efforts, and Fleming said few guests seem to notice — a comment echoed by other restaurateurs.
But that could be because the restaurant movement is still new.
Hotel guests have encountered notes asking them to reuse towels to conserve water for years. Sixteen percent of Kimpton's hotel guests now say they are drawn by the company's environmental policy, said Nikki Leondakis, Kimpton's chief operating officer. "That tells me that restaurants will follow suit at some point."
The experts have trouble measuring the industry's environmental footprint. You can track energy and water use at individual restaurants, but that does not account for the impact of serving foods shipped from afar.
Still, looking at just direct energy use, restaurants are a hungry bunch.
The U.S. Department of Energy listed food service as the commercial activity with the greatest fuel consumption per square foot in 2003, the most recent figures available.
Restaurants consumed 258.3 thousand Btu (British thermal units) of major fuels per square foot — 30 percent more than the 200 thousand for food sales (mostly grocers), and more than double the 100 thousand Btu for lodging.
Restaurants are also among the highest generators of food waste and paper trash.
The national association hopes its new green task force will improve such statistics.
"The goal is to provide tips, (and) best practices that are manageable and affordable for operators ... at the same time trying to educate people that some of these environmental practices save them money," said Leondakis, who chairs the effort.
An educational Web site is planned by September.
At the Southfork Hotel, helping save the Earth spun off an extra bonus.
Between 2003 — when a change of ownership jump-started the agenda — and 2006, the Southfork saw a nearly 40 percent drop in energy used per hotel room. Fortner gives timers, energy efficient lighting, conservation and other green steps the credit.
The hiring director also thinks small.
Like the butter. The thought of it stopped Fortner in her tracks: thousands of pats of butter, each wrapped in silver slivers.
"Think of how many of those silver foil packets are going back into the landfill," she said with missionary zeal.
The restaurant now serves its butter unsheathed.
And it costs less: Butter bought in bulk costs about $340 a year. The foil-wrapped packets run $990.
Finding Earth-friendly supplies and equipment can be a challenge.
Brinker International Inc., the Dallas-based owner of Chili's Grill & Bar and three other chains, partnered with a maker of air conditioning units and over-the-stove exhaust systems to create a ventilation system that is less of an energy hog, said Rick McCaffrey, Brinker's vice president of architecture and design.
Installed in just 325 of the company's 1,765 restaurants, the system already has slashed costs by about $845,000, he said.
"We're seeing a 14 percent reduction in electrical energy usage."
Such savings eventually will grab the attention of the majority of restaurateurs who, so far, haven't seen a reason to change, the experts said.
"They're business people, they will want to see" the return on investment, Mann said. "The money will matter to them. ...
"But it's also the right thing to do."
(c) 2007, The Dallas Morning News.
Visit The Dallas Morning News on the World Wide Web at http://www.dallasnews.com/
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.