Taking the long(er) view on restaurant kitchen sustainability

Kitchen sustainabilty at restaurants and foodservice operations

In my line of work, I’m sometimes asked by municipal officials and other business sector managers to rate the general ‘greenness’ of restaurant operators. My stock answer goes like this: Most operators have a strong desire or, in many cases, a commitment to do the right and sustainable thing, but face a core challenge – a business culture where long-term success is still too often measured in months, not years.

Though not unique to the foodservice industry (and not without many exceptions), the view that a restaurant is inherently short-lived persists at many levels of this business. As a result, many operators take a pass on paying a premium for energy-efficient equipment, low-consumption fixtures and sustainable building materials. It seems that beyond LED lighting and a few other items, the typical return-on-investment falls in the three-to-five-year range – hardly an eternity. Nevertheless, it is often too long for operations looking to recoup start-up or reno costs in a highly-competitive market.

Making a strong case

However, the business case for that type of investment is gaining remarkable strength, as are the rebate and incentive programs available from gas and electric utilities from coast-to-coast. The best evidence of that trend was featured at an event this past August celebrating the 25th anniversary of a unique institution credited with defining the value of energy-efficiency for the entire industry.

In 1987, ex-pat Manitobans Don Fisher (from Dauphin) and Judy Nickel (from Plum Coulee) took their pioneering work in measuring the energy-efficiency of foodservice technologies to California’s Pacific Gas & Electric company (PG&E).

Their work inspired the creation of the Food Service Technology Center (FSTC), which has developed now-standard methods to lab-test the efficiency and performance of everything from combi-ovens to deep fryers to kitchen ventilation systems. Their results also provided the basis of the ENERGY STAR standards for commercial foodservice equipment.

Equipment evolution

In these past 25 years, Fisher, Nickel and their team have certainly noted some evolution in the design and installation of kitchen equipment, as well as the fact that adoption of ENERGY STAR units in most equipment categories remains less than 10 per cent.

Although proud of their leading role to date, Fisher, Nickel and crew are clearly not satisfied with the status quo. To that end, FSTC engineer and lead tester Dave Zabrowski sparked considerable buzz at the event with his ‘throw-down’ design for a high-performance, energy-efficient cook line.

For a typical 100-seat full-service lunch and dinner restaurant, he first described an equally typical 21-foot line-up of standard-efficiency equipment: a six-burner range with standard oven; salamander; three-foot charbroiler; four-foot manual control griddle; two fryers; two convection ovens; a two-compartment steamer; and a stock pot range. Using their lab-tested performance data and field research, Zabrowski estimated an annual total operating cost of CAD $20,800 based on California’s electric and gas rates (and comparable to average rates in most regions in Canada).

The ENERGY STAR version of his standard cook line (fryers, ovens, steamer and griddle) didn’t take up less space, but did manage to bring annual costs down to $14,500 – a 30 per cent saving.

Maximizing technology

Moving forward, Zabrowski says we should all look to maximize efficiency by applying the most effective and versatile cooking processes and technologies currently or soon available to most operations. Through limited ‘live’ testing, his future-friendly cook line for that same 100-seat restaurant is now only eight feet long and built on: a 6-hob induction cooktop; an on-demand food finisher; a two-foot double-sided ENERGY STAR griddle; a large vat ENERGY STAR fryer; two combi-ovens; and a 20-gallon steam kettle.

The substantial operating savings gained by reducing the exhaust hood by 12 feet aside, Zabrowski’s optimized cook line would cost only $4,900 annually to run, or a remarkable 77 per cent less than the standard-efficiency model.

Of course, this innovative cook line can’t accommodate every menu concept, but it does make a clear point: There is a lot of positive change in our industry’s future if we do more than specify energy-efficient gear and seek the smartest ways to cook.

Therefore, if you have some kitchen renovations slated for the coming year, do yourself – and all of us – a big favour by investing specifically in high-efficiency, high-versatility equipment. Be a ‘culture jammer’ and help us and the environment be better off in the long run.


About the author

André LaRivière is a Vancouver-based sustainability facilitator and founder of the Green Table Network, helping operators, suppliers and diners across Canada to put ‘sustainability on the menu.’ Find more information at www.greentable.net.

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