Becoming more environmentally friendly made sense to Joan Scharff a few years ago when she was creating a "brand book" describing the critical elements comprising the identity of her company's Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes restaurants.
"It occurred to me as I was doing that that going green would be a natural fit for us as a brand because we are really about fresh wholesome abundance," said Scharff, vice president of brand and menu strategy with parent company Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp.
Their customers probably assumed the company already used greener business practices, she reasoned, so Scharff convinced CEO Michael Mack to cultivate its green credentials. A multi-year effort followed, leading Garden Fresh to become the largest chain restaurant in the U.S. to get certified through the Boston-based Green Restaurant Association (GRA). In the process, the company's 121 locations will significantly trim their environmental footprint and add thousands of dollars to their bottom lines.
"We're estimating that we'll start seeing savings of about $150,000 a year," Scharff said, "as well as save 2.1 million pounds of waste, 7.5 million gallons of water, and about 4.4 million kilowatts of energy."
Scharff would be the first one to tell you the project took much longer than she expected. She declined to say how much the company spent on its efforts, but called both the time and financial commitment "significant."
Adding to the challenge is the fact that the company is geographically diverse, with 121 locations in 15 states, said Michael Oshman, GRA's executive director.
But the accomplishment and company's sheer size, Oshman said, may serve to inspire other chain operators to follow. He's been asked if the certification works for chain restaurants with as many as 10,000 units.
"Although I've been to many meetings and said, 'It absolutely does, this is what we've done thus far, it's completely scalable,' it's very different for a restaurant of 500 (locations) to see a restaurant of 121 (locations) do it," Oshman said. "It's much easier for them to now see it. That is what is a game changer."
Reaching for the Stars
The company's 121 Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes restaurants earned a two-star certification in September, on a scale of two to four stars. This entailed exceeding 100 points in seven categories and meeting several key requirements, such as using no Styrofoam and implementing a full-scale recycling program.
The company earned many points out of the gate in the sustainable food category, an easy win for a company known for salads and homemade dressings, soups and baked goods, much of which is vegetarian or vegan.
"We work with farmer and grower partners and we have our own distribution centers so we're sourcing our products in real time, many within 24 hours of being harvested are in a refrigerated truck on their way to us," Scharff said.