Energy Smart


For more than a hundred years after the discovery of oil in Oil Creek, Pa., in 1859 and the opening of the first commercial electric power plant 23 years later in New York, our supply of energy seemed endless. And though the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s put us on notice, new gas and oil discoveries and new extraction technologies have kept us swimming in energy.

Whether or not you believe in climate change or the mountain of evidence pointing to man’s contribution to it, one thing is constant—energy isn’t free. It’s a cost of doing business, just like food or labor costs.

Ask one of your store managers or a chef what that unit’s food cost is and it’ll probably roll right off the tip of his or her tongue. Ask them how to cut that cost or run a more sustainable operation, and they’ll likely have a bunch of ideas about reducing food waste, perhaps sourcing menu ingredients closer to home and on a just-in-time basis. Ask them how to use energy more efficiently, though, and you may get blank stares or suggestions to use more CFL or LED lights.

The top 10 hot trends in foodservice in 2017, according to an annual National Restaurant Association survey, comprise concepts such as hyper-local sourcing including restaurant gardens, natural ingredients, environmental sustainability, locally sourced produce, meat and even seafood, and food waste reduction. But there’s nothing specific to conserving energy. Why?

It comes down to priorities, says Jeff Clark, Director of the NRA’s ConServe program. Food and beverage costs average about 32 % of operating costs across restaurant categories. Labor costs average between 29.7% and 33.7%. Lease or occupancy costs run anywhere from 4.9% to 7.7%. Utilities only run from about 3% to 3.6%. Operators tend to focus on what they think they can control.

The savings from becoming more energy efficient, however, can add up quickly, especially for a multiunit chain or multi-site institution. For many, it’s a question of where to start.

All In
Some companies opt to jump feet first into energy efficiency strategies as part of an overall goal of sustainability. That may be easier to accomplish for large institutions like the University of California-Berkeley, Berkeley, Calif., with access to larger budgets comprising both private and public money.

The school committed to working toward sustainability after a recycling summit in ’01, and university regents signed a policy and energy standard in ’03. The UC’s sustainable practices now include climate protection, transportation, recycling and waste management, procurement, food and water.

Cal Dining at Berkeley got on board in ’04 when Residential Dining Director Shawn LaPean looked into making the recently completed Crossroads dining complex a “green” facility as a result of customer interest in environmental issues. Unable to secure LEED status after the fact, LaPean found the Bay Area Green Business Program, a nine-county collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies to promote sustainable business practices.

Crossroads had to meet specific criteria in the areas of energy and water conservation, waste reduction and pollution prevention to meet the agency’s standards. So, the renovated facility added energy-efficient lighting, low-flow water fixtures, started cleaning tables with cloth instead of paper, and instituted optional trayless service. Water conservation alone enabled the dining hall to conserve 180,000 gal. of water a month, enough to supply 30 homes.

By ’06, three other dining facilities also had received certification, and Cal Dining added a composting program with both kitchen scraps and post-consumer food waste that students scrape into special bins in dining halls. Allorganic salad bars came next, and local food sourcing has grown to include special promotions where ingredients for everything on the menu are sourced from no farther than 250 miles away.

One facility on campus, Brown’s, almost always adheres to sustainable sourcing and cooking techniques. A renovation in ’16 included updated lighting with automatic daylight dimming and new energy-efficient kitchen equipment. The project surpassed California’s Title 24 standards by 25% and earned the facility LEED Gold status.

Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vt., set a goal in ’01 to become carbon neutral by ’16, and accomplished it last year through campus-wide initiatives, including the construction of a biomass gasification plant in ’08 for heating, cooling and electricity on campus. The foodservice department also made substantial contributions through composting, the construction of its own greenhouse to grow organic produce, and a number of energy- and water-efficiency upgrades.

A new dining hall built in ’02 features lots of natural light, variable-speed hood controls, energy-efficient lighting, and low-flow faucets. Waste heat generated by compressors on walk-ins is used to heat the mechanical room. And the HVAC system features a variable-speed heat pump that automatically adjusts as the demand for cooling falls. Washing machines for the kitchen’s laundry recycle rinse water into the next cycle’s wash.

Small Operators, Big Dreams
Sustainability doesn’t depend on size, however. A number of small restaurant operators have made the commitment, too. While not without meeting challenges along the way, many are well on their way to achieving their goals.

“The goal of The Perennial was to prioritize sustainability on the same level as cuisine and make choices that showcase environmentalism as an optimistic endeavor,” says Co-Founder Anthony Myint. “We’ve gotten a lot of PR, but it hasn’t insulated us from significant hardship.”

Aspects of the restaurant’s commitment to sustainability that are more difficult to achieve or realize savings from include a rooftop garden that’s watered in part with ice melt and other clean saved waste water (“which sounds pleasant in theory but takes real time rolling a 25-gal. bucket to and from the elevator”). But Myint says the demand ventilation hood, all LED lighting, and single back-bar walk-in with sliding windows instead of individual refrigerators all save money.

Farmers Restaurant Group opened its first restaurant, Founding Farmers, in Washington, D.C., in ’05. Owned by the North Dakota Farmers Union, FRG’s mission and mantra from the get-go has been sustainability. Founding Farmers opened as D.C.’s first LEED Gold restaurant, and the four units that followed are all LEED-certified, too. FRG plans to open another two stores by early next year.

“We opened with water-efficient toilets and energy-efficient lighting and kitchen equipment,” says Meaghan O’Shea, Director of Marketing. “We also get certified by the Green Restaurant Association. Being owned by the 47,000 farmer members of NDFU, we try to ensure that we’re taking care of our land and environment for future generations. GRA certification validates our food sourcing, which helps us do that, and we buy carbon offsets for items that don’t come to us from close to home.”

The restaurants have done things like invest in an inhouse water filtration system for table water served in refillable glass jugs, saving the carbon footprint of both production of glass or plastic bottles and transportation. Initiatives like this have earned FRG the D.C. “Mayor’s Environmental Award” several times.

A Toe In The Water
Many other operators have approached the concept of sustainability from a different direction, initially looking to save some money before realizing the benefits of an energy-efficiency strategy.

“In ’08, when the economy took a turn, we wanted to button down expenses,” says Jodenne Scott, Director of Finance, Energy and Sustainability for Shari’s Management Corp., Beaverton, Ore., which operates Shari’s Café and Pies restaurants. “We had programs for food and labor costs, but nothing for utilities. All of our units are very similar with about 3,900 sq. ft., but we saw that energy usage in some units in the same area with the same volume were different. So, we conducted energy audits.”

The chain installed energy management information system technology in several locations in addition to regular audits. Spokane, Wash.-based Ecova, an energy-efficiency contractor, helped monitor and analyze the data. When the potential for savings became apparent, Scott was given a budget of $100,000 to affect a difference. She worked with the local utilities in the Pacific Northwest to see what kinds of projects they could work on and what incentives were available. She also looked at Energy Star to see what pieces of equipment might be swapped in as old models needed replacement.

Low-hanging fruit came first. Aerators for water faucets cost only $10, and the Energy Trust of Oregon had a program that paid half the cost. Water heaters due for retirement were replaced with more models that offered rebates, as were ice machines. Auto door closers and ECMs were installed on walk-in coolers. “We decided that any investment we made had to have a two-year-maximum ROI,” Scott says.

But the audits also identified some easy changes that made a huge difference. Negotiating a custom rebate that reduced investment cost by 70%, Shari’s changed to a smaller orifice on its charbroiler burners and changed them out in all stores within a month, saving 30% in gas. A new policy of turning off two of the six burners for eight hours (the chain is open 24 hr./day) saves each store at least $600 annually. Turning the set point of the water heaters down to 140°F from 155°F saves the chain about 225,000 kBtu, or $2,204 per store annually.

To target energy- and money-saving ideas for investment, Shari’s started a program called Shari’s Water/Energy-Efficiency Program, or SWEEP, that piloted programs in a couple of company-owned stores. Successful experiments were rolled out first in areas with high utility costs.

For example, stores had five dipper wells, each using about 45 gal. of water a day. The program tested an electrically heated dipper well that uses only six gal./day, and found stores could eliminate one of the five dipper wells, reducing water usage by 40% and gas usage by 15%. Lighting in the back-of-house was changed to T-8s from T-12s, and front-of-house and outdoor lighting was upgraded to LEDs, saving 18% in electricity.

“Demand control ventilation is next,” Scott says. “It saves 15% to 18% in electric power, and in areas where Puget Sound Energy is our utility, PSE pays 70% of the cost of the new system, which gives us a 1.5-year ROI. We converted 41 stores this year but have 11 to go in the rebate areas. That still leaves us with half our units waiting for new hoods.”

Other improvements made as stores need them or are remodeled include rooftop unit retrofits with variable frequency drives, tankless water heaters, occupancy sensors in washrooms, weather sensors for outdoor landscape watering systems, and relay switches for ovens and dish-machines.

Starting Small
While Shari’s push to save operating costs has turned into a commitment to sustainability, its initial energy-efficiency efforts were small and easy to achieve. Large or small, you have to start somewhere.

Walter Abrams, Executive Chef of Dabba, San Francisco, started with his local utility, PG&E, and found the Food Service Technology Center, operated by Frontier Energy in San Ramon, Calif., ready and willing to help.

“While we were looking to build out the restaurant in the LEED building we found,” Abrams says, “we wanted to test some equipment. We wanted to value engineer the design to use every part of the space as efficiently as possible. The showcase of the restaurant is the serving line in front of the customer, which we’d intended as a steam table. As soon as I saw the induction equipment at FSTC, I quickly realized we had an opportunity to elevate the food and the customer experience.”

By using induction heating for the 14-well serving line, Dabba saves water, the need for expensive floor drains (about $5,000), saves energy since the wells turn off as soon as pans are removed, and saves the labor of draining and cleaning steam wells at the end of the day.

FSTC also helped Abrams research ice machines and find one that offered a rebate, and convince him that a CVap oven was a good choice for the operation over another style of oven he was considering. “I was able to test it at FSTC,” he says, “and saw that I could use it to cook and hold lamb and pork at night and take advantage of lower utility rates, and still cook chicken during the day to keep up with demand.”

Perhaps the best place to start using energy more efficiently that involves little or no investment cost is with your own employees.

“Our efforts wouldn’t work without our employees,” says Scott. “We remind them of how much value they add back to the company. If they see a knob missing from a charbroiler for example, we want them to report it. We tell them, ‘save money to save your job.’”

Shari’s has a handout that shows employees how much money can be saved by doing simple things like turning off egg burners or broiler burners during slow periods, washing only full racks in the dishmachine, and turning off lights in rooms that aren’t being used. Total annual savings, the company estimates, are about $4,145 per store.

New employees see a video on saving energy during orientation, and veterans see it again every time they have to renew their food handling card.

Communication Key
Employees may not be the only stakeholders that need convincing. Many chain operators have to show franchisees that investing in energy efficiency will save them money in the long term and improve their business.

The Wendy’s Co., Dublin, Ohio, is a strong proponent of energy conservation and sustainability and has been a member of the U.S. Green Building Council since ’07. In ’15, the company announced its participation in the Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge, a commitment to reduce energy use by 20% per consumer transaction by ’25. The chain was the first to include its franchisees in the challenge.

To share best practices and what it’s learned, Wendy’s began an effort in ’16 to provide franchisees with resources and support to make it easy for them to collect, analyze and benchmark their own use of energy.

Wendy’s also celebrates franchisee successes in energy conservation, using media events and an energy newsletter that is sent to the entire Wendy’s system to publicize what franchisees are doing. Wendco, a franchisee with restaurants in southwest Alabama and northwest Florida, was the first franchisee to join the Better Buildings Challenge. In ’15, it rebuilt a building with the challenge in mind, and saw a 33% reduction in energy use, and annual electricity savings of $11,500 despite increases in rates.

Franchise owner Roger Webb rebuilt the restaurant using all LED lighting, a high-efficiency HVAC system and Energy Star-rated kitchen equipment to achieve greater than a 50% reduction in energy use by consumer transaction. His success has spurred other franchisees to get on board with the challenge and strategic energy upgrades.

Management, too, needs to get behind conservation efforts. Shari’s Scott notes, “you have to prove the numbers and show people it works. I got a couple of home runs, so the folks on the executive team don’t roll their eyes when they see me coming. They want to know what’s next.”

“Measurement and verification is the key” agrees Scott Moline, Manager of Project Engineering for Wendy’s. “Having a plan to measure and validate the energy savings from each initiative is paramount and part of our energy-efficiency strategy.”

As a company, Wendy’s has implemented more than 1,100 energy upgrade projects at more than 550 restaurants since ’13, including installation of interior and exterior LED lighting, high-efficiency HVAC systems, and ECMs on walk-in coolers. The efforts have saved more than 13 million kWh per year, enough energy to power 1,200 homes for a year.

By doing what we can to be more energy efficient, we all end up doing our part to save the planet—and save a few bucks in the process.

Tips For An Effective Program
• Get buy-in from management and employees. Management should make energy conservation part of the company’s mission. Employees need to know how energy efficiency affects them and what they can do to make a difference. “Education is key,” says Farmers Restaurant Group’s Director of Marketing Meaghan O’Shea. “If your team doesn’t understand the overall ‘why’ you’ll continually struggle. For employees, knowing the ‘why’ is more important than knowing ‘how’ to do something when it comes to environmental issues. For management, you have to be fully on board; it can’t be a marketing ploy. Your initiatives should be genuine, well thought out and operationally achievable.”

• Collaborate with the team. “Get everyone involved,” says Walter Abrams, Executive Chef at Dabba. “At employee meetings, get their input and ideas.” That gives them ownership in the program. Shari’s Café and Pies sends a yearly questionnaire to managers to find out what energy issues affect their stores. That’s helped the company establish things like an HVAC maintenance schedule and a new set point for water heaters.

• Perform an energy audit. Install EMIS technology in some stores to track energy usage or contract with a third-party energy consultant to collect and analyze data if you don’t have it.

• Set priorities. Decide how you want to approach the issue, all in or by dipping a toe in the water. Score early success by picking low-hanging fruit, or by picking projects with the greatest savings for the smallest investment.

• Find local resources. Consult with your local utilities to see what rebates they have available, what kind of equipment they recommend for your business, and whether they’d be open to negotiating rates or rebates. Some, like PG&E, have test facilities where you can try new equipment.

• Communicate your successes. Make people feel good about what they’re accomplishing, and recognize or reward those who are responsible. Keep up with technology. Read, go to trade shows, talk to others in the industry to find out how they are conserving energy and what might be coming down the pipe.

National Restaurant Association ConServe, 
U.S. Green Building Council, 
Better Buildings Initiative, 
Better Buildings EMIS Toolkit, 
Better Buildings Outdoor/Parking Lot Lighting, 
Better Buildings Toolkits, 
Green Restaurant Association, 
Food Service Technology Center, 
Energy Star, 
Energy Star Restaurant Guide, 
Energy Star Restaurant Fact Sheet, 

Editor’s Note: For another energy-efficiency case history, see “Arby’s Moves The Dial,” FER Sept. 2016,


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