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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