March 30, 2010
Olive Garden has set up a Green Team in each of its 670 restaurants to counsel the chain as it embarks on a campaign to cut waste, energy consumption and water use.
The employee squads will help their stores adopt the sustainability initiatives that emerge from the green labs parent company Darden Restaurants started opening earlier this year. The casual-dining giant plans to use eight restaurants from three of its chains -- Olive Garden, Red Lobster and LongHorn Steakhouse -- as proving grounds for various green practices.
The sites will gauge new technology and such design tweaks as altering booth heights, with the objective of letting more sunlight into dining-room interiors. The kitchens will feature updated equipment with Energy Star ratings.
"Our goal with this initiative is to utilize each of the eight restaurants as a learning lab," explains Suk Singh, Dardens senior vice president of development.
The first of the test sites, an Olive Garden in Jonesboro, Ark., opened in January. Like the seven green restaurants slated to follow, the outlet is expected to earn Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification from the U.S. Green Buildings Council.
Energy-saving features include a system for using the heat vented by HVAC and refrigeration equipment to warm water.
More windows were incorporated into the design to provide additional sunlight, and LED lights were specd instead of compact fluorescent or incandescent bulbs. The LEDs require seven watts of power, compared with 75 watts for incandescents.
Ian Olson, Dardens director of sustainability, says the LEDs will also ease maintenance expenses because they burn far longer than conventional bulbs, which typically have to be replaced at least twice a year.
Efforts to cut waste started with the construction, says Olson. People tend to look at the end of a project, he observes. One of the things that gets lost in trying to be sustainable is the actual building process.
The sheetrock, doors, windows and carpeting used in the restaurant were made from recycled materials. Olive Garden crew members are excited about what we can learn from this new restaurant, and others, says chain president Dave Pickens. And the learning doesn't stop with this initiative. All of our restaurants have Green Teams that, in addition to implementing programs aimed at reducing waste and energy and water usage, look for other ways to make an impact."
Experts often advise restaurant chains to muster support for sustainability practices by recruiting green champions to serve as missionaries for the programs. Their enlistment at the grassroots level tends to keep the initiatives grounded in practicality, according to consultants and other observers.
A number of chains organize Green Teams, or groups of employees charged with pursuing green ideas, for those reasons. But seldom do they go so far as to form one for each store.
A second Olive Garden sustainability lab is scheduled to open later this year, along with two Red Lobsters incorporating a wide array of conservation measures. Two more experimental Red Lobsters will open in 2011, along with another Olive Garden and a LongHorn.
Darden also operates the Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52 casual-dining chains. The company is focusing its sustainability efforts initially on Olive Garden, Red Lobster and LongHorn because those chains tend to have uniform designs, says Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers. He also notes that Darden is opening more units of those chains at the current time, and Red Lobster is in the midst of a renovation drive.
Sustainability measures that work in one of the concepts could be transplanted into any of Dardens brands, observes Olson, adding that the kitchens of Red Lobster, Olive Garden and LongHorn share some common features.
He stresses that the new sustainability drive is only part of Dardens efforts to be a greener company. The Orlando, Fla.-based concern recently moved into a new $100-million headquarters studded with eco-friendly features, including a system for capturing rain water and using it in the bathrooms. Darden is currently working on ways to recycle more of the waste it produces, including cardboard, glass bottles and fryer oil. Weve been looking on a localized basis at wet waste, in terms of separating that out and having someone put it to a different use, adds Olson.
He says its too early to forecast the potential savings of Dardens sustainability efforts. But he readily predicts the benefits will extend beyond cost cuts.
We have 180,000 employees in our 1,800 restaurants, Olson says. They are one of the key shareholders in this. We want to put these [measures] in place to make them feel a little better about where they work, because thats eventually going to mean greater guest satisfaction.
The money you save on operating costs (through energy efficiency) adds to what you get to keep, so saving 20% on energy operating costs can increase your profit as much as 33%.
Find out green trends and more in the 2011 Restaurant Industry Forecast. Learn more