A Tall Order of Green

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Though you have to bend down to read it, the fist-size green logo on the front window of Le Pain Quotidien might be the most visible sign that the bakery-restaurant is environmentally sensitive. But that little sticker's declaration that the Georgetown business is a "certified green restaurant" describes a host of ecologically minded practices taking place on the other side of the door.

Going green, it turns out, is all in the details. And some are less obvious than others.

At Le Pain Quotidien, which opened last spring, the 39-seat communal dining table was fashioned out of reclaimed wood from vintage Belgian train cars. Cleaning products used on the floor and kitchen counters are nontoxic and non-polluting. The to-go cups are made of corn and the spoons of potato starch; they will disintegrate within 30 to 90 days in a commercial compost site rather than sit in a landfill. The exceptional croissants, like the other baked goods, are made with organic flour and butter.

Although it is so far the only restaurant in the District to earn certification from the Boston-based Green Restaurant Association, Le Pain Quotidien is in good company nationwide. Restaurateurs increasingly are realizing that environmentally minded customers care about more than local produce, sustainable seafood and free-range meats. In a survey by the National Restaurant Association, 62 percent of consumers said they would be likely to choose a restaurant based on its environmental friendliness.

Bergen Kenny, 29, was one of them as she stood in Le Pain Quotidien's takeout line on a recent morning, waiting for her daily organic pumpkin muffin and fair-trade coffee. "You try to be green in your life, and when you come here they've taken care of all that," says Kenny, who lives and works in Dupont Circle.

The restaurant association also reported that, in another survey, a quarter of restaurants said they plan to spend more on going green this year. Besides the environmental benefits, restaurant owners hope that such efforts can in the long run help them deal with increased energy and waste-management costs.

"Companies and restaurants are investing in the hard costs of ecologically friendly operations, and people are responding," says food industry consultant Clark Wolf, president of the New York-based Clark Wolf Co. "These green restaurants are popping up all over the country, in New York like crazy."

Although the GRA has certified all U.S. operations of Le Pain Quotidien (French for "the daily bread"), a Belgium-based chain with 28 locations in the United States, none is totally sustainable. The D.C. restaurant still needs to find a company in the area that will haul away compostable kitchen waste. It can't find a source with adequate supplies of organic chicken. But it has satisfied the major requirements of the GRA, a nonprofit organization that has bestowed "certified green" status on more than 300 restaurants and cafes in 30 states and Canada.

"We look at everything," says Executive Director Michael Oshman, who founded the GRA in 1990. His 11 environmental guidelines cover energy and water efficiency and conservation, recycling and composting, the use of sustainable food, green building design and construction, and more. The association helps clients find suppliers of locally grown foods, which helps reduce the amount of pollution from fossil fuels used in transportation. "We take a restaurant, no matter where they are in being green, and help them with the steps," Oshman says.

The stakes are high. Among other environmental effects, the GRA says, the U.S. restaurant industry accounts for one-third of all energy used by retail businesses and is five times as energy-intensive as other retail businesses, including lodging. The group cites studies gathered for Dining Green, a book published by the GRA in 2004, showing that on average, every restaurant meal served produces 1 1/2 pounds of trash. Half of that, the GRA says, is food waste that could be composted.

This past year, the GRA has generated the most interest in its history. Oshman credits the popularity of Al Gore's documentary on global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth." Since the movie's release in May 2006, Oshman says, "the phone has been ringing off the hook." Not only restaurant owners are calling. Oshman says the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda has asked for an environmental assessment of its food service operations.

The GRA did not invent the concept of the environmentally friendly restaurant. The group has, however, raised the consciousness about Earth-friendly issues beyond a niche group of food businesses that were sometimes perceived as esoteric.

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