Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Post-Ice Age green

I've spent much of the past week getting reacquainted with that one-time staple of a restaurant writer's life, the announcement of a chain's newest addition. Once the gnats of my in-box, those media alerts all but disappeared during the credit freeze, following conventions like fully staffed restaurants into cryogenic suspension.

They've just recently come back in a flurry, signaling that the glacial ice is finally cracking. It’s no coincidence that the industry had its first IPO in ages during the same week, or that the expanding brands include such woolly mammoths as Arthur Treacher's and Houlihan’s. Money is being invested in restaurants again, and not just the fetching young darlings.

Strangely, most of the announcements could have begun with “Here ye! Hear ye!,” because they read like antiquities in one key respect. I’ve scouted them thoroughly, and rare was the release that cited green touches to the newly opened stores.

I’d taken that as a huge positive at first. Eco-friendly features had become so common that publicists no longer bothered to point them out! Yeah, that must be it! It’d be like bragging that the new place used forks.

But, sadly, that’s not the case. Rather, restaurants had been so hard-pressed for expansion funds that many were loath to expend precious dollars on green features.

You can’t blame them. A starving person isn’t going to ensure that his first relief meal is heart-healthy.

Sadly, they’re going to learn how shortsighted that approach is. Conserving energy and water can have an appreciable impact on profits, while efforts like using recycled construction materials, or recycling and composting garbage, can profoundly raise the top line. We’re fast approaching the point where customers and staff are going to demand a commitment to the environment as the price of their entry.

The operator of Houlihan’s newest store certainly appreciates how the world has changed. The unit features a full composting program, as well as a geothermal HVAC system.

Ditto for the latest Carl’s Jr./Green Burrito combo store, in Anaheim, Calif. It sports an extensive array of energy and water-saving features and equipment.

Certainly not all new restaurants can afford those sorts of green enhancements. But there are plenty of steps that require neither loaned dollars, time or adjustments to a design—actions like using low-flow pre-rinse valves, or posting a local bus schedule in the employee break room, so staffers have the option of taking public transportation instead of relying on a car.

No doubt a new unit has an easier time of being green than one dating back to less eco-conscious times. Opportunities will soon abound for the industry to exercise its commitment to the environment. But first it has to melt its Ice Age attitudes.

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