Nurturing 'Green' Restaurants

Grocery stores across the country are adding eco-friendly fare to their shelves. But when it comes to thinking green, what about the restaurant industry?

Americans spend more than $500 billion a year on restaurant food. The industry has an environmental footprint to match.

As WBUR's Meghna Chakrabarti reports, a Boston-based environmental consulting group is proving it takes more than serving pesticide-free vegetables and shade-grown coffee for a restaurant to call itself "green".

The audio for this story will be available on WBUR's web site after 10 a.m. on Monday.


MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: The kitchen is in full swing at "Upstairs on the Square" in Cambridge. Rachael Garrett ducks into the walk in refrigerator.

RACHAEL GARRETT: "I'm just looking to see if there's any thermostats, or frost timers or anything like that."

CHAKRABARTI: Garrett is a consultant with the Boston-based Green Restaurant Association, or GRA. And she's performing a top-to-bottom environmental assessment of the restaurant. If there's the white glove test for dust and dirt, then this is the green glove test. Because she examines everything. Fridge thermostats, spray valves, stoves, trash, lights, sinks, uniforms, to-go containers, furniture, fixtures, everything.

RACHAEL GARRETT: "Do you have any waterless urinals? Or regular urinals?"
EMPLOYEE:"You know what, I've never been in the men's room."

CHAKRABARTI: The owners of Upstairs on the Square have contracted with the non-profit GRA to become a "certified green restaurant". Meaning they've committed to make four changes every year that reduce the restaurant's energy, resource, or water use.

MICHAEL OSHMAN: "The average food service facility uses 300,000 gallons of water per year. And the water of a single appliance can be greater than that of a whole residential home."

CHAKRABARTI: Michael Oshman is the founder of the Green Restaurant Association. He says the nation's one million restaurants are the largest consumers of energy in the retail sector. The amount of garbage they produce every year is heavier than the combined weight of 17 million Toyota Priuses, or Prii. So, according to Oshman, you've got an industry that needs to learn how to dovetail profitability with sustainability.


MICHAEL OSHMAN: "Having said that, there are restauranteurs that not only see that it makes business sense, but also get the environmental piece. And for those particular restauranteurs, it's a win-win on the social, environmental and business side."

CHAKRABARTI: But in the food world, taste at time trumps business.

Sound of chefs in Lumiere kitchen.

CHAKRABARTI: Baby monkfish and wild mushrooms are the specials on a recent light at Lumiere, another GRA client. Chef Michael Leviton says he happily installed low-flow spray valves in the kitchen. He sends old fryer oil to a biofuel company. And uses non-toxic cleaning chemicals. But there's on thing he wouldn't change.

MICHAEL LEVITON: "When we turn these lights on at night there's this wonderful sort of peachy, amber glow, which makes everybody look good. You can't do that with fluorescents."

CHAKRABARTI: The owner of Lumiere adds:

MICHAEL LEVITON: "Especially in a restaurant that means light in French.

CHAKRABARTI: Still, going green is good for business, says another GRA client. Tami Clark is vice president of marketing for the California-based chain, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.

TAMI CLARK: "Wow! Look what we could save!"

CHAKRABARTI: Three-quarters of a million dollars over five years, to be precise, Clark says. And she believes the green certification will pull more customers into the chain's 200 stores.

TAMI CLARK: "People want to feel good about a purchase. As a customer, I want to think that it has some value overall globally. So, I see that as being probably the main driver of all this."

JAMES GOLDSTEIN: "In some ways, there are incompatibilities with a quote-unquote consumer society and sustainability."

CHAKRABARTI: Says James Goldstein of the Tellus Institute, an environmental research group. He supports green restaurants, but believes a truly sustainable world needs more than low-flows and LEDs. Goldstein says people just have to consume less.

JAMES GOLDSTEIN: "There are real limits. And it's not only a technology issue, it's a lifestyle issue and that's what so often missing in the sustainability discussions."

CHAKRABARTI: Missing, too, was the restaurant industry. Until now. A thousand restaurants across the country are already green certified. Upstairs on the Square co-owner Mary-Catherine Deibel tells GRA consultant Rachael Garrett she hopes they'll b next.

MARY-CATHERINE DEIBEL: "It is great, and little by little, we're going to get there." (laffs)
RACHAEL GARRETT: "My favorite quote of all time is be the change you want to see in the world."

CHAKRABARTI: For WBUR, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.

This program aired on March 12, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.


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