Sunday, May 20, 2007

Who's turning green?

Is one of the big national chains about to market itself as "green"? During a seminar this afternoon at the National Restaurant Association's mega-convention in Chicago, Michael Oshman, executive director of the Green Restaurant Association, said he'd met with the CEO of a chain that ranks among the industry's 10 largest. Oshman didn't reveal the name, but cited it as an example of how restaurant operations big and small are looking to become more ecologically responsible. "The restaurant industry was not at the forefront" of the green movement, Oshman said, "But it's happening," and not just to land green-sensitive customers. "It's also about employees," he said.

His contention was amply supported by other developments during the first day and a half of the show. The NRA, for instance, revealed that its board is forming a new green task force, to look at what operators can do to address ecological concerns. Oshman's seminar on the marketing benefits of going green drew a healthy turnout; the session held simultaneously in the room next door, on sustainability and organics, had a standing-room-only crowd. The content of the two programs were almost interchangeable at times.

Meanwhile, a number of suppliers used words like "sustainable," "recyclable" or "ecologically responsible" to tout new products. Coke, for instance, unveiled a new bag-in-box concentrated syrup that yields more cups of soft drinks per container, which saves on cardboard and the fuel needed for shipping.

Oshman was guarded about what chains or independents have sought out the services of his non-profit organization, which helps operations develop the basis to market themselves as green. But he noted that Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a Southern California beverage chain with a cult-like following, is now the Green Restaurant Association's biggest collaborator.

He also addressed fears that going green can carry a prohibitive price, suggesting there may be some justification for the concern. But, he indicated, operators can push back on suppliers more effectively than they might think. Or such was the case with the $1,000 toilet.

Oshman explained that an operation looking to earn the GRA's green designation had been advised by the group to install toilets that use less water than standard models. The restaurant was quoted a price of $1,000, versus what Oshman said is a price of about $300 for a conventional toilet. It was a no-go. But, Oshman said, the GRA was able to convince the supplier to knock 70 percent off the price. Unfortunately, he didn't reveal why the vendor was cooperative.

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