An online kitchen equipment retailer wants to help make the nation's restaurants more efficient with a certification program for commercial kitchens.

FoodServiceWarehouse.com launches its Going Green Program today for restaurant operators interested in meeting LEED standards, or scaling back operating costs at a time when rising energy and food prices are threatening profit margins.

"Going green isn't an option," said Steve Kurtz, FoodServiceWarehouse's vice president. "It's an imperative."

The company looked to Energy Star and the U.S. Green Building Council for guidance on aggregating an inventory of efficient commercial kitchen equipment and supplies for its Green Catalog, all of which carry a softer environmental footprint or meet LEED standards. One of FoodServiceWarehouse's staff members also earned LEED accreditation.

In addition to the catalog, FoodServiceWarehouse created a certification program that focuses on five areas: energy conservation, water conversation, waste reduction, green cleaning and education. Kitchens earn points for using efficient products, employing green operational practices and educating their employees.

Like other sectors, the restaurant industry has become more interested in reducing its environmental footprint. In May, the National Restaurant Association unveiled its Conserve initiative to offer the industry best practices in areas such as recycling, packaging, and cleaning.

Restaurants operate on notoriously small profit margins made more tenuous by the rising cost of food. "Any savings goes directly to the bottom line," said Jeffrey Clark, an analyst with ICF International.

Buildings with commercial kitchens use about 2.5 times more energy per square foot that those without, according to Energy Star. Restaurateurs began taking a hard look at the issue over the past five years, said Dave Zabrowsky, senior research engineer at the Food Service and Technology Center in San Ramon, Calif.

"Utility costs were less than 2 percent of bottom line," Zabrowsky said. "Now it's closer to the 5 percent mark. It's easily the third highest operating cost behind labor and food. That's getting everybody's attention."

Zabrowsky said it isn't feasible for the majority of established kitchens to upgrade their equipment except for replacement.

"We would say keep it in mind when replacing equipment after it's burned out, or when opening or designing a new restaurant," he said.

Energy Star-rated equipment has historically carried a price premium, Zabrowsky said. Some states, including California, Washington, Oregon and Wisconsin offer rebates to help offset the cost.

Any commercial kitchen can apply for the free certification from FoodServiceWarehouse but those that buy the equipment from the company will earn rewards, such as a permanent 10 percent discount on eco-friendly sanitation supplies when kitchens meet the green cleaning criteria.

Kurtz said he has hopes for the program that go beyond the promise of additional sales. "This will literally," Kurtz said, "elevate the industry."