Culver’s pursuit of LEED certification led to a host of restaurant and operational improvements, both green and otherwise.
By: Janice Cha
With the debut of Culver’s “green” store in West Baraboo, Wis., the company is boldly going where no one in Culver’s Franchising System has gone before: to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification and beyond.
The unit, opened in September 2011, is the Prairie du Sac, Wis., chain’s first to focus on energy efficiency and is expected to become one of the few restaurants in Wisconsin to earn LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
But more than that, the LEED-certification process launched a company-wide R&D revival. “LEED opened the door for conversations, new ideas, from Culver’s people around the country,” says Jon Sandeman, Culver’s project architect and LEED project administrator.
Culver’s Green Evolution
At the beginning of 2010, company owner and founder Craig Culver posed a simple question with major repercussions.
“Craig strolled into the design department one day back in January 2010 and asked if we could LEED-certify a restaurant,” Sandeman recalls. “We told him, ‘Sure, Craig, no problem!’ After he’d left the room, we all looked around with that deer-in-headlights look and wondered what we’d just gotten ourselves into.”
“When Craig gave us the LEED challenge, he was also paving the way for Culver’s nearly 440 franchise partners by investing the time and his own money into the process so the rest of the system could learn from it,” Sandeman adds.
Sandeman’s team quickly discovered that the R&D and LEED submittal process alone would take about a year. “The first thing I did was call people who had LEED experience, starting with Leah Berlin, a LEED AP sustainable design specialist at
Kwik Trip in LaCrosse, Wis.,” Sandeman says. “I must have asked her a hundred questions over lunch alone. Another mentor who later joined us on the project was Tim Meeker, a LEED AP expert on energy modeling from JDR Engineering, Madison, Wis.”
Sandeman stresses that many people made the Baraboo project a success. “The Baraboo restaurant is a testament to teamwork. From in-house cross-departmental cooperation to supplier input to GBCI input and contractor input, we were fortunate to have so much talent focused in one direction.”
LEEDing The Way
The team had two goals in mind as they tackled the project. “One was to come up with sustainable solutions that were low-cost or that had a reasonable rate-of-return, that could be shared with Culver’s franchisees. The other goal was to attain LEED-certification,” Sandeman says.
R&D sessions led to improvement ideas, some sustainable, others operational, from throughout the company.
“As people caught wind of our plans to use Baraboo as a green R&D exercise, they began sending in suggestions. In the end, the Design team put reps from five departments—Operations, Procurement, Technology, Family Restaurants and Training, plus Culver’s COO Phil Keiser—into a conference room and essentially threw the whole deck of cards onto the table.”
During long brainstorming sessions, the Culver’s team looked at ways to rearrange the proverbial cards. “Someone had ideas about improving sundae prep, another person made suggestions about waffle-cone production,” Sandeman recalls. Eventually the discussions led to the development of an open kitchen plan and numerous operational upgrades as well as LEED-oriented ideas.
“The meeting wasn’t entirely about LEED, but LEED served as the vehicle by which new ideas surfaced and could be acted upon,” Sandeman says.
Up-Front Costs and Long-Term Benefits
The Baraboo store took much longer to design and build than a typical Culver’s store. “The LEED aspect plus the in-depth R&D process and in-house design took us 12 months of prep alone before we put the project out for construction bid,” Sandeman says. “It was a very different animal.”
Costs were higher, too. “LEED is a great process and offers a wealth of lessons, ideas and technologies—but the administrative fees, professional fees and contractor efforts involved do add up,” Sandeman admits. “All told, the extras added about 15% to 20% to the total cost of the project, compared to building a typical Culver’s unit of the same size.”
Culver’s expects to recoup some of the Baraboo investment through lower utility costs. “We’re still monitoring energy savings and making adjustments,” Sandeman says. “We can’t jump to conclusions based on only a few months. However, our bills are down, so we are seeing savings. Based on the partial year, we can say that so far we’re saving 24% on water, 15% on natural gas, and negligible savings on electric—but we’re still in the evaluation phase.”
Culver’s will recoup far more than utilities savings, however, by sharing the new technologies and ideas with franchisees and incorporating them into prototype plans.
A More Open Kitchen
One great leap forward by the Culver’s design team can be found in the Baraboo store’s more open kitchen layout. “We realized that we’d be able to increase production speed during peak times if we had a two-sided prep table in the back-of-house,” Sandeman says. “We moved dry goods further to the back, relocated warewashing and placed a double-sided prep table in the kitchen center instead of a wall. The change has led to better communication between the cooking and prep teams, fewer steps needed and a more efficient traffic flow. Franchisees across the country are excited by the new layout.”
Led by Equipment & Design Manager Vern Young, the project team specified energy-efficient equipment where possible, including high-efficiency fryers, a chrome griddle, refrigeration, low-flow faucets, a high-speed oven and more.
The Baraboo store’s cookline is essentially the same as other Culver’s stores—a griddle on the far left, supplied by a refrigerator holding proteins, then the expo area and pass-through window, a bank of fryers to the right of the expo area with a refrigerator dedicated to fish products. The high-efficiency fryers sport individual computerized controls that monitor oil temps and adjust cook times for better product consistency.
Around the corner from the cookline, situated in full customer view, is Culver’s frozen custard machine. This machine anchors the sundae prep area and generates nearly 20% of daily sales. The 5’-tall machine features three refrigerated hoppers, each with its own compressor and motor, that churn out chocolate and vanilla custard plus any one of 100 approved Flavors of the Day. The sundae prep area is conveniently located next to the drive-through window.
A key kitchen energy saver lies in its HVAC system. The kitchen cookline’s ventilation system features proximity hoods developed several years earlier in collaboration with the HVAC supplier. The proximity hoods—one above the griddle, the other over the fryer bank—give the kitchen a much airier feel. They extend less than 2½’ from the back wall, compared with the cavernous 4’ overhang of canopy hoods. They’re also more comfortable to work around because they exhaust most of the hot air rather than allow it to escape into the surrounding kitchen.
The units gain efficiency thanks to a flue bypass arrangement in which a divider panel sends clean, super-hot gasses behind the filter, while smoky effluent is sent through the filter. Because effluent is cooler when it hits the filters, it doesn’t bake onto the equipment; the filters typically can be cleaned with a trip through the warewasher. The filters and hood assembly are within close reach of workers, making maintenance easier. The more compact proximity hoods have led to a 20% reduction of air volume moving through the HVAC system; the new units move approximately 3,000 cfm compared with the 4,000 cfm two traditional canopy hoods put out in older kitchens.
The Light Fantastic
A number of sustainable elements and design improvements in the Baraboo store have proven so successful that they’re already being offered as options on Culver’s prototypes.
“We have franchisees from across the country who love the new kitchen layout, and who are interested in eco-friendly design,” Sandeman says. “Skylights, recycled materials, daylight sensors and occupancy sensors are just a few things people are asking about.”
Natural lighting has been a big draw for many franchisees. The Baraboo store features six Solatube skylights—three in the dining area and three in sundae prep. The product, supplied by Milwaukee-based Brighter Concepts, is essentially a light pipe: an 18”-wide tube with a mirror-polish interior that goes from the ceiling out to the roof. A clear dome covers the top, while a diffuser at ceiling level spreads natural light around the room.
“We considered adding skylights in the kitchen, but there’s so much mechanical action in the ceiling and roof—ductwork, sprinkers, cables, rooftop units—that it wasn’t practical,” Sandeman says. “We should have added one in the dry storage area, too. However, that placement has become an option on all of our prototypes—and it’s an example of trying something new and finding how to improve, once it’s done.”
Green, But Not For Everyone
Some of the sustainable elements installed at the Baraboo store were chosen specifically to gain LEED points, but are not entirely practical for chainwide restaurant operations. Among these were photovoltaic panels and a biofuel-powered hot water heater.
Photovoltaic panels, installed on the patio to shade the seating area, serve primarily as a “green marketing” tool for the Baraboo store, with the added perk of supplying a small amount of electricity back to the store.
“People notice the panels and compliment us for having them,” Sandeman says. Solar energy collected by the 12 patio panels is fed back into the restaurant’s electrical system, and supplies anywhere from 1% to 5% of the store’s daily electric needs.
The R&D team also looked into, but decided against, solar hot-water heating. “The system would have had a faster ROI, but we would have had to re-design the roof trusses,” Sandeman says. “We didn’t want to lower our ceilings (which would have compromised our menu boards), so we decided against the units.”
A green element that was tried in Baraboo then ultimately replaced was a biofuel-powered hot water heater. “Fryer oil would be extracted, filtered and then used to operate the water heater,” Sandeman says. “We’re using the technology successfully in other locations, but for some reason, the Baraboo installation had issues. It failed a couple of times—a health issue for a restaurant. One evening, it began leaking oil and started to smoke. We pulled the unit and went back to the high-efficiency water heater specified for other restaurants.”
Culver’s LEED Update
At press time, Culver’s was preparing the final phase of its LEED submission for construction credits. “It’s a points-based system, and I’m confident we’ll be certified,” Sandeman says. When questioned about attaining the Silver level, he admitted that there may be a slim possibility, then adds, “We’ll be proud to be LEED certified, but it was the R&D process that exceeded our expectations.”
“The Baraboo restaurant is our incubator,” Sandeman sums up. “We’re continuing to learn the ROI on each green design element. But our core mission remains the same: to serve guests delicious food, made to order.”