What's good for the environment can be good for the bottom line.
Hans Hess discovered that when he started incorporating environmentally friendly practices into his fast-casual restaurant, Elevation Burger.
The Falls Church, Va.-based chain started by increasing the percentage of products with a healthy profile and using many organic or naturally raised ingredients. For example, it uses grass-fed beef, which removes more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than grain-fed beef.
"We're starting with meat, and we'll go from there as the organic market matures," Hess says.
Like many burger restaurants, the operation goes through a lot of oil for french fries. But Hess doesn't let it go to waste. Instead, he posted an ad on craigslist.com, offering to give it away. Between 10 and 20 "grease car" owners answered the ad; they wanted to burn it straight or turn it into biodiesel. When the restaurant accumulates 20 or 30 gallons, Hess calls people on the list. "It goes to whoever can take it off our hands fastest," he says. "We don't have to pay someone to haul the waste oil away — they take it for free. Some people even offer us money for it."
But Hess ultimately might use the oil for the restaurant. "We're thinking about getting a generator that runs on waste oil," he says. "Instead of giving the oil away, we might put it in a generator and supply some of our own electricity in store."
Before opening for business, Hess decided to follow the U.S. Green Building Council's standards for building construction and operation. Known as LEED, the practices cost more up front but save in the long run, Hess says.
Now that Hess has started franchising Elevation Burger, he's encouraging franchisees to adopt green practices. He's working with franchisees on variable-speed vent hoods. When the grills expel a lot of heat, the vent hoods work harder. When it's cooler, they don't work as hard. That offsets the price differential of using electric over gas appliances, Hess says. Although electricity generally costs more than gas, electric appliances are more efficient than gas appliances. About 65 percent of the heat from a gas grill goes into the air, compared to 30 percent from an electric grill, he notes.
"With a variable-speed hood fan, you use less electricity to move the hot air out, so it offsets the cost of your bill," he says.
Of the 24 franchise agreements completed, three are expected to open this year and another half dozen next year. Although Hess doesn't require Elevation Burger franchisees to use LEED-certified buildings, most are planning to build LEED-certified properties, he says.
"It makes sense financially if you've got a 10-year lease," Hess says. "Our operators realize it's part of the brand, and they think it's the right thing to do. That's why they're willing to put their money where their mouth is."
When Hess started working on the Elevation Burger concept in 2002, organic ingredients and LEED certification weren't yet common concepts. Today, his customers appreciate Elevation Burger's environmentally friendly practices and features.
"Most come in because of the buzz around the burgers," he says. "When they find out about the environmental and organic aspects, they're really excited."