As environmental coordinator for Ocean Pro Industries, Matt McLaughlin drives conservation efforts for Washington, D.C.-based company's six restaurants and seafood distribution company. Long before he became active in the National Restaurant Association's Conserve initiative, McLaughlin began implementing environmentally friendly practices at The Rockfish, an Ocean Pro restaurant in Annapolis, Md.
It started a few years ago, when Ocean Pro President Greg Casten and McLaughlin discovered a shared interest in the environment over lunch. So they contacted Sterling Planet, an Atlanta company that provides renewable energy credits for businesses.
In March 2007, Ocean Pro bought 1.14 million kilowatts of wind power renewable energy credits for the next three years for its two restaurants in Annapolis. Sterling calculates the monthly energy usage and replaces each kilowatt-hour used with an equal number of kilowatt-hours of energy from a wind farm in Maryland. The clean energy is added to the power grid, offsetting 380,000 pounds of greenhouse gases a year.
"That's like taking 156 cars off the road," McLaughlin says.
When McLaughlin and Casten saw those numbers, they decided to see how many different ways the restaurant could affect the local ecology. After that, their green efforts took off.
Ocean Pro started expanding its sustainable seafood offerings at The Rockfish. That was easy because the company has direct access to fisheries through Profish, Ocean Pro's seafood distribution company. Today, about 12 of The Rockfish's 15 seafood options are sustainable, and a quarter of its wines come from certified organic wineries that don't use pesticides, McLaughlin says.
From there, he started investigating green roofs, which allow businesses or homeowners to grow plants above a draining and filtration system. The engineering can be complicated because the systems can add eight to 25 pounds per square foot to the roof, McLaughlin says. "And they tend to be expensive," he notes. "When we found out it was going to cost us $185,000 we started looking for other options.
Instead, he had 4-foot by 4-foot boxes built on the roof, where employees planted herbs. This year, they added more boxes and planted lettuce, green beans, cucumbers and cabbage. So far, it's cost about $1,200, but it's almost half as effective in slowing and filtering storm runoff as the green roof — at 1 percent of the cost, McLaughlin says.
"We're really proud of that," he says. "We have enough cilantro, parsley and rosemary to garnish our plates every weekend. And we design our weekend specials around the lettuce or cucumbers or whatever's blooming."
The Rockfish added two rain barrels on the roof and nine in the parking lot to slow storm water runoff. The rain barrels provide water for rain gardens, which also slow runoff, McLaughlin says. The gardens of marsh grasses create little eco-systems in the parking lot and keep about 200 gallons of polluted water from every rainfall or snow from entering the bay, he says.
Then the company started a recycling program. At the time, the county didn't offer recycling for businesses. So McLaughlin found a recycling facility that would take its recycled waste for $12,000 a year. Then he started thinking about how to help smaller businesses in the community that couldn't afford an extra $1,000 a month to recycle. So he set up big bins for cardboard, aluminum, plastic, glass and newspaper and told fellow business owners that The Rockfish would buy them a beer when they dropped off their recycling. McLaughlin took the items to the recycling plant, which now accepts the waste for free.
Later, McLaughlin found a composting farm about 12 miles away. He struck a deal with the farm to take almost all the restaurant's waste, except for non-biodegradable plastic, glass, sanitary gloves or straws.
"I put it in the back of my truck and haul it up there," he said. "It was great for our staff because they didn't have much [trash] to separate."
McLaughlin believes many small opportunities are available for restaurants to become more environmentally sound. The Rockfish started offering eco-themed events for the community. Every few months, it would offer two-course pre-fixé lunches and invite three speakers to talk about easy home energy-saving tips. The events attracted about 200 people and created a network of experts who were happy to offer the restaurant advice on its projects because it was publicity for them, McLaughlin says.