This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: A new way to help Chicago restaurants go green

More local restaurant owners may consider seeking green certification after one group makes its application more Chicago-friendly.

The nonprofit Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition is inviting Chicago-area restaurants, caterers and cafeterias to participate in a pilot study just launched by Green Seal to make its sustainability certification process more relevant to the realities of running a food-service operation in Chicago, says Eloise Karlatiras, president and CEO of GCRC.

The goal is to update the requirements while continuing to maintain tough criteria for a high level of credibility, she says. Green Seal, a nonprofit based in Washington, is one of two independent third-party auditing organizations that already certifies Chicago food purveyors and is part of GCRC’s Guaranteed Green label program.

Eloise Karlatiras

GCRC has awarded 37 Guaranteed Green labels to restaurants and other eateries in the area that have already been certified by Green Seal or the Green Restaurant Association, based in Boston. The coalition, which also offers group purchasing for sustainable kitchen and dining products and other services, has been looking to boost enrollment in its Guaranteed Green program, says Ms. Karlatiras. The group wants to inspire more area restaurants to be more eco-friendly while saving money at the same time.

Eateries of all kinds typically use enormous amounts of water and energy, which can be reduced with more efficient methods. The certification programs also encourage restaurants to purchase local and organic food, which cuts down on carbon emissions if owners are buying closer to the source. Those foods also are healthier for diners, and they invest in the local economy, Ms. Karlatiras says.

The pilot was launched after GCRC asked the University of Chicago’s Environment, Agriculture and Food Working Group to examine the city’s existing food-service certification standards and to come up with suggestions for changes that could encourage more food purveyors to seek certification, she says. Researchers there found some of the criteria in the certification process wasn’t reflective of local practices and availability for Chicago-area food establishments, such as composting expectations. Also, the required documentation for some of the applications were considered too time-consuming, she adds.

So far, seven local restaurants and other food-service purveyors are participating in the pilot, but there’s room for a few more establishments to join. Participants include Sandwich Me In, Autre Monde, the school cafeteria at the Academy for Global Citizenship and the catering arm of McCormick Place. Green Seal is running the pilot through the end of the year. The organization hopes to collect data in a two-month period that will help determine how to update the criteria. Chicago food operators that want to seek out certification under the new standards once the pilot is completed should be able to sign up in early 2013, Ms. Karlatiras says.

Crain’s recently met with Ms. Karlatiras at Piece Brewery & Pizzeria in Bucktown, one of the restaurants in the pilot study, to learn more about how Chicago restaurant owners can green up their operations and why certification in particular could make good business sense.

Why doesn’t GCRC have a certification process of its own instead of relying on an outside group?

Ms. Karlatiras: One reason we rely on third-party certification is we let the experts decide what is and isn’t sustainable through their scientific process. These groups take it way beyond what our organization can do. Our purpose is to help restaurants get what they need to be sustainable. We’re not a standards-based, science-based organization. We’re here to preserve the environment by helping the food-service industry do what it can.

Why was there a need to ask one of your certification groups to revamp its process?

After our research, it was clear that they were asking Chicago restaurants to go above and beyond what current Chicago infrastructure permits them to do. That included mandatory composting and a higher recognition of gray water use. Restaurants were also asked to go through all the invoices they had to submit without any added staff to handle that job. We found a new standard needed to be more fully reflective of what’s possible in Chicago now. We need to create a robust yet accessible baseline for what Chicago restaurants really could do.

You mentioned that Green Seal is working to make its new standard more aligned with the sustainability goals of Chicago. Can you elaborate?

The city of Chicago just released its Sustainability Plan for 2015, and we want to help the city meet some of those goals. Chicago is quickly moving ahead with sustainability in other areas, like green roofs and green buildings. Restaurants have the unique ability to implement green roofs and they have an opportunity to encourage conservation and support the local economy.

Green Seal’s new standards will encourage more local and seasonal food purchasing, and that’s something (city officials) have said they would like to promote. It can also help the city reach goals of promoting healthy foods and (reducing the effects of) climate change. The food-service operations that go through this process are asked to collect real data and monitor their operations. This can be useful for collaborating with the city in providing industry specific data about water usage, waste management and energy usage.

Why is food purchasing highlighted as such an important piece of the new standard being developed?

It’s singled out because it has the greatest environmental impact above all other elements in the food-service industry. Food purchasing informs what needs to be done in terms of local food systems and development of local routes and distribution channels. It also informs farmers in the areas surrounding Chicago what restaurants want to put on people’s plates.

We’ll have certain seasonal requirements and restrictions, but it will give farmers within a 200-mile radius of the city the ability to provide restaurants what they need and how to make the transportation make sense. A more sustainable approach in the future is going to look at aggregation. We’re also hoping some of the less chef-driven restaurants will get in on this, too.

Green Seal has a spreadsheet that asks where they get their food from, and they will have to show some local purchasing. The restaurant will have to provide one or more invoices to show a sample of what they buy, then (Green Seal) will connect with the farmer to make sure the food purchasing has been consistent.

What’s the benefit for an entrepreneur or small-business owner in the local food-service industry to seek out a Guaranteed Green label with the GCRC?

There’s a great opportunity to communicate to your customers what you’re doing and the steps you’re taking to be more sustainable. The marketing is beneficial, but the overall benefit for certification is to prove that all the claims you’re making are true. We live in a society where greenwashing is so rampant. This is an opportunity for a food-service operator to say they’re going above and beyond to be green and they can prove it.

The feel-good is a big part of it, but there’s also a huge cost savings. They’ll understand what they can save in water and energy costs, even though there will be some capital investment required. There may be some big investments in new systems, but there are smaller ones, like aerators on faucets, that can save money on the water bill. If you’re consuming less resources, you’re freeing up money that can be better invested within the local economy.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Entrepreneurs can hit Chicago streets for green biz opportunities

A recently-completed green street pilot project could translate into future deals for eco-entrepreneurs offering products and services for sustainable roadways.

Chicago’s Department of Transportation (CDOT) last week unveiled the first phase of a green street project on a two-mile patch of Cermak Road and Blue Island Avenue in Pilsen. The 1.5-mile stretch already completed incorporates an array of sustainable designs that could help cities solve some environmental challenges already here and others anticipated in the future, says Gabe Klein, CDOT Commissioner. The $14 million project includes a long list of green features, including: roadway materials using recycled content; stormwater management strategies; reduced energy use that incorporates LED pedestrian light poles and wind and solar-powered lights, and new bike lanes. Creating eco-friendly community space is part of the design too.

While the team that oversaw the project intends to measure the effectiveness of these efforts over the next few years, they’re already moving forward with incorporating some features in other city projects, says Janet Attarian, Project Director for the Streetscapes and Sustainable Design Program. That’s because they already know many elements used in the green design are producing results and lowering the city’s costs, she says.

The commissioner says more street projects like the one in Pilsen are expected, and that’s good news for green entrepreneurs and small-business owners focusing on cutting-edge eco-minded products. They could get in on future RFPs the Department of Transportation posts, especially since Mr. Klein emphasizes the department is creating sub-contracted projects so that smaller, local players can participate.

Since disbanding Chicago’s Department of Environment, city officials have emphasized their intent to embed sustainable measures throughout local government projects. Getting Mr. Klein to comply was easy. He’s a longtime advocate of making city streets more hospitable to pedestrians and many modes of transportation. Before joining the Emanuel administration, he headed the Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C., where he piloted car-protected bike lanes and started one of the first bike-share programs in the country.

Crain’s met with Mr. Klein and Ms. Attarian to learn more about the latest project and what’s coming down the pike so green startups can think about how they can cash in.

Can you describe a few of the greenest features of this project and how they might be replicated elsewhere in the city?

Mr. Klein: On the materials front, we included new materials that used 23% recycled content. We’re going to try to incorporate that into lots of our projects. We have an RFP now for alternative paving methods using recycled content. It’s about being environmentally friendly and cutting your costs too.

The storm water best management practices here will divert up to 80% of the typical annual rainfall from the combined sewer system. It was zero before that. We did that by including bioswales, green gardens, permeable pavements and other storm water features into the overall design.

How aggressive are the sustainability goals here and what are some of the most important results you’re looking for?

Mr. Klein: We’re pushing the envelope with this project. I don’t know anyone who’s used photocatalytic cement in city roadways before. We’re setting a new standard for what cities are willing to try. Most cities aren’t doing much more than stormwater management in their street projects.

It’s really easy to design a cement plaza, but harder to put together something that’s permeable, better looking and not necessarily more expensive.

We’re in a situation where we need to make changes more quickly. We’re seeing the environment deteriorating more quickly and we need to save money. This project came in 21% less expensive than the projects that others quoted.

Why is data collection and measurement so important to the success of this project?

Ms. Attarian: We’ve partnered with the Chicago Water Reclamation District to collect information so we know if we really are diverting 80% of the average rainfall from the combined sewers. The CWRD has been collecting pre-construction data for two years to get a baseline for comparison. Now we’re committed to gathering two years of post-construction data focused on stormwater.

It’s also really important that we understand the maintenance of everything we’re installing. They might perform well the day we start, but we need to know how to take care of things over time. With the permeable pavers, for example, we have to figure out the maintenance protocol. We aren’t arrogant enough to say we know all about how to maintain it.

Are there plans to roll out some of these greening measures to other streets in Chicago?

Ms. Attarian: We’ve been learning as we go and we haven’t waited to implement some of these ideas. Green alleys are being implemented in other projects. We’re using better lighting technology across the city, and we’re putting permeable pavers all over Chicago.

We’re in the process of writing our sustainability guidelines and this will tell us how to bake these features into everything we do.

Crain’s: Are there specific areas within green street designs that startups should think about pursuing so they can bid on city contracts?

Mr. Klein: I love that there are LED street lights powered by wind and solar energy. That technology is changing so fast. Private companies are advancing this and people like us are challenging the private sector for better products. Eventually we’d like to get off the grid with more of our street lights. I think in 10 years we can probably be there and these pilots are the precursors.

How can entrepreneurs learn about upcoming CDOT projects?

Mr. Klein: They should keep themselves informed of what’s going on from the city’s website. We’re also out in the community talking about upcoming projects and the complete streets guidelines are coming out soon too. People who follow us are clear about what direction we’re heading, whether it’s design, professional services, construction or engineering. We have lots of projects coming up.

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This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Delta Institute chief shines spotlight on opportunities for eco-entrepreneurs

Jean Pogge tells sustainably-oriented entrepreneurs there’s gold in the garbage if they’d only take a closer look.

After about 16 months at the helm of the non-profit Delta Institute, Ms. Pogge believes there’s great potential in creating companies that find ways to reduce waste headed for the landfill.

Ms. Pogge has been helping entrepreneurs in the sustainable and community-minded sector launch businesses in the Chicago market for two decades. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when she assumed leadership at the Delta Institute in 2011 after the non-profit’s founder, Donna Ducharme, stepped down. The Delta Institute aims to develop market opportunities that are focused on environmental sustainability and job creation.

Jean Pogge

Before taking the CEO job, Ms. Pogge spent 18 years at ShoreBank. The lending institution was widely known for working with “triple bottom line” companies, including green start-ups. Prior to ShoreBank, Ms. Pogge was president of the Woodstock Institute, a Chicago non-profit engaged in research and policy on fair lending and wealth creation.

Crain’s recently spoke with Ms. Pogge to discuss highlights of her first year at Delta Institute and to get her views on opportunities for small green businesses in the years ahead.

You were at ShoreBank for almost 20 years. What was it like for you to return to a non-profit?

Ms. Pogge: It was very exciting to join the Delta Institute. I look for triple bottom line organizations that make a difference in the world, but run a successful business as well. One of the great things about the Delta Institute is the breadth of its agenda. What drew me in was the opportunity to come to an organization that works on the bigger picture and creates these small businesses too.

We created the ReBuilding Exchange, which takes materials out of buildings slated for demolition and resells them. It’s become a growing, thriving business and it’s a model of how anyone can start a business that’s sustainable and focuses on job creation too.

Can you describe some of your organization’s efforts in the last year that had an impact on small businesses and entrepreneurs in the local green economy?

We created the Boost Awards, which are small awards given to startups to help them move from the garage to the marketplace. We gave a total of $7,000 to three companies last spring. We also gave out $3,000 in Green Opportunity, or GO Awards, this past year, to people who developed green-related APPs. These are small awards, but we want to shine a spotlight on their talent and give them a small boost so they can grow. Even if some don’t win awards, these entrepreneurs come out and hopefully make other connections while attending our events. The fabric of this city is being changed by entrepreneurs.

We’re a center of innovation and we encourage people’s creativity by bringing people together on panels and organizing many events. We’re also very well networked with lots of partners.

Are there specific sectors within the green economy you believe are good places for entrepreneurs to seek out new ventures?

We think the waste stream in particular has a lot of opportunity for entrepreneurs. Most of it is job-rich and not very technical. It makes the barrier to entry lower. If you can find that special market niche and put your own sweat energy into it, there are hundreds of opportunities in the waste stream.

For example, all these ash trees in Cook County have to be cut down because they’re infected with emerald ash borer. They’re mulching all the wood that’s being cut down. Imagine if there were small saw mills here and there that could turn that wood into lumber.

Delta Institute has paid close attention to the manufacturing sector in particular. Why have you made that a priority?

Manufacturing creates a lot of local jobs and it represents 14% of the gross domestic product in Illinois. Most of these businesses are small, family-owned firms. The economy has been rough, but making them more sustainable can help them compete globally and be successful.

Delta Institute recently released a report showing how manufacturers in the region weren’t doing all they can to achieve energy efficiencies and cost savings, even after audits showed them what to do. What’s your reaction to the main findings of that report and what can small and large manufacturers do better in this area?

We know that energy efficiency is good for the environment but it’s also good for small businesses if they implement changes suggested from an audit. Small businesses that are successful are really good at running their business, but they may not be so good at achieving energy efficiency because that’s not part of running their business. Sometimes we have to help them understand this will help them save money and run a more efficient business.

What are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities green entrepreneurs will face in the year ahead?

I think the green economy will grow even faster. The opportunities are everywhere, but the value in the waste stream is huge. Other big areas are energy efficiency, and new products and services for the green economy. We made a small loan recently (which we don’t really do) to a company that does maintenance on electric vehicles. You can’t take those cars to a regular mechanic. There are so many opportunities that go along with new green products that are coming out.

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