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Restaurants go for the green

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 10, 2011 - St. Louis Earth Day, a local nonprofit environmental group, has announced a new project, the Green Dining Alliance. The organization is working with many of Maplewood's restaurants to make the businesses more sustainable. The alliance will begin a certification process in September.

"We're really excited to be implementing the program in Maplewood, and we're hoping that after six months or so, we'll be able to open the certification to more restaurants in the region. We're anticipating in mid-2012 we'll be able to move that forward," executive director Cassie Phillips said.

Tom Flood, properties and sustainability manager for Schlafly, said he thinks restaurants will sign up. Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood has been active in the planning for the alliance.

"There will be varying degrees of eagerness. Especially these days (restaurants) are going to ask about cost," he said. "What a lot of (business owners) don't understand is that it can break even."

Earth Day's restaurant coordinator Mike Hahn said that Schlafly's restaurants -- the Tap Room and the Bottleworks -- are already doing most of what the certification will require and that the program has looked to Schlafly for guidance on the criteria.

Schlafly has received grants for a program of composting at both restaurants and grows some of its own food in the Schlafly Gardenworks, according to the Schlafly website. The restaurant also buys large amounts of local food and uses high-efficiency heating and air conditioning.

Earth Day hopes to help other restaurants become more sustainable. When a restaurant signs up for the program, it will fill out a questionnaire, looking at whether the restaurant recycles or composts, whether it serves organic or locally sourced food, the type of cleaning products used, and energy and water usage. Phillips said to be in the program, restaurants must meet very minimal requirements, such as recycling and not using Styrofoam containers.

Then the group takes the information and helps the business develop specific goals.

"It's a customized program, so that we identify what the opportunities are for each restaurant and then work with them on a plan that will maximize the resources that are currently available," Phillips said.

The baseline questionnaire also determines how much waste the restaurant is producing and how much it is recycling or composting. Throughout the program, waste, electricity and water use will be tracked.

The project also includes revamping a parking lot on Marietta Avenue shared by several restaurants. Earth Day would like to combine the lot's 16 dumpsters into one and add recycling and composting for restaurants.

Restaurants that implemented the eco-friendly options can then help other restaurants.

"We really want to develop a community of restaurant stakeholders that are interested in advancing this agenda in the St. Louis area. One of the things that we're interested in doing is having those workshops hosted at restaurants that have already implemented some of the things we are pushing for," Phillips said.

It's Not Easy Being Green

Phillips acknowledges that restaurants do face obstacles in becoming more sustainable.

One is simply time.

"It just takes some time to evaluate where you are, set goals, and then make sure you follow up on whatever the markers are, or doing the research to figure out what makes sense for your company. We're trying to help the restaurants by providing resources that they might not have the time to compile otherwise," Phillips said.

Another difficulty is money. Phillips said hiring someone or paying a regular staff member to evaluate environmental options can be costly. So is switching from Styrofoam containers to more sustainable options.

Phillips said that the program hopes to offset some costs with savings made from achieving other goals and implementing new policies. For example, reducing waste will decrease the restaurant's trash bill; increasing recycling complements that goal because recycling is less expensive. Composting is more expensive, but less trash and more recycling could offset that cost.

Hahn said that part of sustainability is keeping costs down. For example, restaurants can save money by changing to energy-efficient bulbs and making sure sinks aren't leaking.

"We're not trying to make people buy a brand new, energy-efficient walk-in," he said.

As an incentive, Hahn said restaurants in the program will receive promotional materials, such as window stickers, and will be featured on the organization's website and in newsletters.

"We're hoping consumers will go out of their way to go to the restaurants in our program," Hahn said.

Schlafly's Flood thinks they will.

"The incentive (for restaurants) to join is to do the right thing. It will attract customers who like to support businesses who protect the environment. We know that's true at Schlafly."

Abby Spudich, a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is a summer intern at the Beacon. 

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