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A Tall Order of Green
Forget About the Food Critic. Restaurants Seek the Blessing Of the Ecologically Aware.

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.

But in Washington, one chef was green long before green was cool.

"For them it's all big news. It is a wonderful thing for awareness. But we've been doing these things for years," says chef Nora Pouillon, who opened Restaurant Nora in Dupont Circle 29 years ago. Eight years ago the restaurant was the first in the United States to be certified organic.

In addition to cooking with all organic and mostly local ingredients, Pouillon has long used recycled paper and soy-based ink for the menus, which change daily. Four employees compost 75 gallons of vegetable waste in home gardens each day. She eliminated fresh flowers in the restaurant when it became too difficult to find blooms that had not been heavily sprayed with pesticides. Pouillon's search for Earth-friendly solutions goes on.

"What I haven't been able to find is certified organic cotton chef jackets and pants," she says. "No one is making organic shirts for the wait staff anymore."

Overall, she says, organic ingredients add 20 percent to her costs, and labor costs are 20 percent higher than for a restaurant of comparable size.

"Someone has to haul the compost. Everything adds up," Pouillon says. "But my business is better than ever, because more and more people are aware and concerned about healthy eating and the environment."

Dale Roberts, owner of Java Shack, a cafe in Arlington that opened in 1996, hopes to be certified by the GRA by the end of February.

"We've been working on the green thing for a long time," says Roberts, whose first step was switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs eight years ago. "We're going to set the standard."

At Java Shack, Roberts has cut his water bill by 33 percent by attaching an aeration filter to the taps, and he saves 66 percent of electricity costs with the low-energy bulbs. That helps offset the expense of corn-based coffee cups, which cost three times as much as standard paper cups. He also composts his coffee grounds, adding some to a neighborhood compost bin at his Clarendon home and sending most to a research farm in Virginia. But there is more to be done before he can post the "certified green restaurant" sticker.

The GRA "asked me to change my coffee cup sleeve to one they say is the most environmentally friendly," Roberts says, and he must eliminate the use of bleach and toxic disinfectants.

Nicolas Jammet, co-owner of Sweetgreen, a salad and yogurt bar in Georgetown, also hopes to be certified in the next month. Energy-efficient wiring was installed before the business opened in August. Walls are made of recycled hickory. The owners use salad bowls made of corn-based materials, and the forks and spoons are biodegradable.

For Jammet, there is more to accomplish on the green checklist. Every step, he says, "adds to our mission."

"It's not a trend or a gimmick," says Jammet, a Georgetown University graduate who has lots of customers from his alma mater. "It's the future to be eco-conscious."

For Le Pain Quotidien, the environmental commitments extend to some of the smallest decisions that employees make.

"You must watch your trash audit," says Patrick Jenkins, vice president of operations for the chain, which will open an Alexandria location and a third area restaurant in Bethesda in the coming weeks. "When you make a latte, you can't throw a milk container into the trash instead of recycling."

One model, Oshman says, is the Grille Zone in Boston, which he calls "the best example of a zero-waste business."

Through recycling and composting, this GRA-certified burger joint has pared its total waste per day, after serving an average 150 customers in 900 square feet, to half of a standard 55-gallon trash bag. (By Oshman's calculations, a similar-size restaurant without recycling and composting procedures produces 10 to 12 bags of garbage per day.)

Le Pain Quotidien is working toward such success. Managers in Georgetown regularly check bins for misplaced refuse and call it to the attention of employees. And they continue to look for a company to haul away scrap dough and other food waste for composting.

It's a difficult challenge, Jenkins says. "We're looking for a total zero" when it comes to waste, he says, "but we're not there yet."

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