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How Souplantation Became a Certified Green Restaurant Chain

<p>The San Diego-based chain's 121 Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes locations received Silver-level certification from the Green Restaurant Association</p>

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.

The most labor-intensive aspect involved surveying each location to inspect and replace physical equipment, such as sink spray valves and light fixtures.

"With 120-plus restaurants, they had varying degrees of different things already incorporated into their buildings," Scharff said. "So getting our arms around what was already out there and how we would best make those changes and communicate them was the most time-consuming piece."

Below are examples of changes implemented at Garden Fresh restaurants to earn the certification:

• Energy

Garden Fresh scored points with energy-efficient lighting. The company already had retrofit initiatives underway before it began working with the GRA, such as adding LED lighting and fixtures to new restaurants. Each location varies, but in general, the company's lighting upgrade included compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), T5 and T8 linear fluorescent, and LEDs.

• Sustainable Food

The company added up its food purchasing by analyzing operations by region.

West Coast:
Vegan Purchases (mainly produce): 29 percent
Vegetarian Purchases (dairy, bread, etc.): 51 percent
Certified Organic Purchases: 2 percent

East Coast:
Vegan Purchases (mainly produce): 31 percent
Vegetarian Purchases (dairy, bread, etc.): 42 percent
Certified Organic Purchases: 14 percent

• Water Efficiency

Garden Fresh estimates it will save more than 20 million gallons of water annually by installing 122 high-efficiency spray valves (each with a flow rate of 1.15 gallons per minute) and more than 1,000 low-flow faucet aerators (1.5 gallons per minute).

• Waste Reduction and Recycling

Full-scale recycling programs were implemented at all locations able to support them and the company scored points for reusable trays, dishes, silverware and bags.

• Disposables

Garden Fresh uses recycled plastic to-go containers, napkins, paper towels and bath tissue.

• Chemicals and Pollution Reduction

All restaurants use an all-purpose cleaner and floor cleaner that meet Green Seal standards.

Words to the Wise

As Scharff mentioned earlier, the endeavor required much more time and manpower than first anticipated for the cross-functional team assembled by Garden Fresh for the task.

"When we started I thought it would be six months to a year, and it was two to two-and-a-half years from the time we began," she said. "It's a commitment on several fronts, but something we're extraordinarily proud of."

Knowing what she knows now, Scharff offered a few pieces of advice for restaurant operators thinking about pursuing certification.

• Choose a point person to manage communications

"You really want to have an organized, single point person to serve between the interdepartmental pieces, as well as being a liaison for the GRA," she said.

• Be prepared for the process

One of the company's biggest unanticipated challenges, for example, was the recycling infrastructure differences of each city in which it operates. As a result, navigating the logistics needed to implement recycling programs in each location was not always as easy or timely as expected. 

"Have a good sense about what will be required," Scharff said, "in terms of the time needed by your own team members to get it done."




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