Rethinking Dining, From Kitchen to Compost

Rethinking Dining, From Kitchen to Compost

With more than 20 locations across the U.S., Xanterra Parks and Resorts serves people visiting Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Napa Valley and a number of national and state parks.

In line with its connection to nature, Xanterra has been taking steps to lower its environmental impacts with energy efficiency measures, waste reduction and choosing local and sustainable foods.

Greener World Media contributor Sarah Fister Gale spoke with Chris Lane from Xanterra about how to green up dining facilities, the importance of environmental management systems, how to bring down your energy needs and what it takes to get your suppliers to cut their waste.

Sarah Fister Gale: Chris Lane, tell me, what is your title at Xanterra?

Chris Lane: I'm the vice president of environmental affairs for Xanterra Parks and Resorts, and I oversee all environmental affairs as well as some health and safety issues at all the national parks, state parks and private resorts that Xanterra owns and/or operates across the country, which is in about 26 locations across the country.

SFG: Excellent. Well as I said this article is looking at dining facilities in particular, and many of our readers are gonna be looking at this from a business perspective. So if they have dining halls in their corporate facilities or catering facilities, I guess, but I know that you guys have been very progressive with taking a sustainable and green approach to the way you run your operation. Can we start by talking just a little bit about what some of the green or sustainable efforts you've made in the dining facilities in particular?

CL: Well I can answer that internally and I'll call it externally because there are a lot of things such as our environmental managers that are certified to the ISO 14001 international EMS (environmental management system) standard that inform what we do inside our restaurants, and as well as sustainable design of buildings, we've got an environmental building guideline that also informs what we do inside our restaurants. So there's some things that are external such as the EMS, the sustainable building guidelines, as well as our eco-metrics, which is what we call our environmental performance metrics tracking system that also relates.

So these are external issues and I imagine you want to talk more about internal. These are external issues that without these things in my opinion you wouldn't be getting things done systematically throughout a company and you wouldn't be institutionalizing programs as well as if we just say, “Here are five things we do inside restaurants.”

SFG: Right. I would like to talk about both of them, both the design of the facilities and the equipment as well as your operation.

CL: Yeah. Those are tracking systems and support systems and management systems that in my opinion you kind of have to have to make things happen within a restaurant at least on a large company scale such as ourselves.

SFG: Okay. Let's talk about those external features first.

CL: Well I mean the EMS, environmental management system, is what defines specifically at every operation what our aspects and impacts are and it just very simply says here are all of the things we do: lodging, restaurants, retail, transportation systems, and here are all the impacts associated with all those systems. So restaurant will be one of those and within restaurant you've got energy, you've got waste, you've got consumption of water, and then you've got food related issues, and that can be internal as well as external as you know. If you purchase organic sustainable food products you're impacting beneficially external to the restaurant itself.

Then we break down through our EMS every one of those categories. Let's just take the restaurant for example: energy, water, waste, food issues, and there are others as well, toxics as it relates to cleaning, food safety and human health and safety. Just taking a few of them, we break each one of those down and then analyze what can be done on an annual basis to affect change inside a restaurant setting.

You have EMS ties to everything, and of course that EMS gets verified through a third party. We conduct internal audits of our EMS to make sure it's working and then we have a third party auditor identify whether the system is working as well for continual improvement that's compliant with the law as well.

Now tied to that inside our EMS is our Marine Stewardship Council chain of custody certification. Again another third party comes into our operation, looks at our restaurant, and follows a complete chain of custody protocol for - and this is something we do as well, we internally audit ourselves to make sure we're serving sustainable foods. Now the one we focus on is salmon. That's the one that's MSC certified as wild, sustainable and healthy, and that has an internal chain of custody protocol as well as a third party, and it's a lot of work just to make sure you serve sustainable salmon, but we're willing to go through it because we think it makes a difference.

We're also going down that road of adding more and more species that are sustainable. Our fish policy for instance banned four fish species that are pretty slam dunk in my opinion. You don't want to be serving shark, bluefin tuna, Atlantic swordfish and species like that, but we're expanding them on that as well, banning certain species, and then we're certifying certain species of food we're serving, and then we're just also jumping into sustainable cuisine, our sustainable cuisine program.

Also just promoting what we're calling sustainable food, sustainable cuisine, and we define it fairly loosely on purpose. It can be local and we've drawn a line at 300 miles. Three hundred miles can be local in any direction. It can be third-party certified as environmentally preferable for whatever reason. So that opens up a few doors there. It can be certified organic but it also might be certified as hormone, antibiotic free. So any kind of certification, and this is a big one. 

Now this takes analysis internally. Is it beneficial to the species or to the environment in either survivability of the species? So salmon for instance is a sustainable caught species every year; wild Alaskan salmon is. Farmed shrimp is also sustainable, but then are there polluting impacts relative to it such as farmed salmon, which has negative impacts relative to the pollution associated with farming those animals. So shrimp is farmed on land, salmon is farmed in the ocean, we might go with the shrimp, we might not go with farmed salmon.

SFG: Let's back up for a minute and start with the facility itself. When you're building an operation, and I know it goes well beyond the restaurants, but what approach do you take to making the restaurant itself green and designing it in a way that it's gonna reduce the impact of the operation once you're up and running?

CL: Okay. Let me just clarify that the majority of the cases with Xanterra, we're coming into an existing restaurant that is either antiquated or old or just needing improvement. The minority of the cases would be where we build a restaurant from scratch. Now we have built several restaurants from scratch and what we've done since I've been on board is we've got our sustainable building guidelines. It's a process document that says if we're gonna build something, how are we gonna build it and who are we gonna get to build it and what are the things we're gonna consider when we build it.

If you're familiar with sustainable design the hardest part of it is the herding cat portion of it where you've got 20 different entities, architects, engineers, electrical, plumbers, carpet installers, roofers, getting them all to agree on what we're doing and then document it is the hard part. So this document sets a process for moving forward. It does not necessarily require every restaurant be LEED certified. It does not necessarily require that every restaurant be X, Y, Z sustainable. 

Though it doesn't set the standard, it says you must pursue sustainability, and whatever comes out at the other end of the pipe is what we'll be happy with if we go through this right, this process, the design, hiring a green architect, hiring a green mechanical engineer and a green electrical. Some of these people we've discovered if you get three or four of the top guys, a contractor and maybe three of the subs, as ultra green, and they understand sustainability, everything falls into place from there on.

We've got the LEED certified buildings, we've got the Annie Creek Restaurant and retail shop at Crater Lake, which is a LEED Silver certified building, and I won't bore you with all the features that we did, or I can if you want, features that we did do make it green, and then there's other cases such as Zion National Park at Zion Lodge where we've got the building that's 50 years old. It would be 100 but I think the building burned down in the 40's or 50's and they replaced it. Old building with old equipment and we took numerous steps to green that up. We said what appliances can we use that are the most efficient, on demand steam, getting rid of a fuel oil boiler and replacing it with propane. Fuel oil can spill, it's dirty burning, almost dirtier than propane.

We went through the process of, okay, well we can't rebuild the building from the ground up. It's historic. We're stuck with the building. What can we do? Lighting, a slam dunk. Replace all the lighting in the kitchen area with more efficient lighting and the dining area. In Bryce Canyon for instance we've got compact fluorescents in a restaurant setting, which is pretty rare because if you know anything about lighting people think they want this warm, cozy feeling that only an incandescent can give you or a metal hay light or something like that can give you, but we are still using compact fluorescents in many restaurant settings with sconces that give you that warm feeling, and we're using a high quality lamp that gives you a color rendering index and a color temperature that is warm and 2700 Kelvin, which is very close to the incandescent. 

So lighting is an issue. I think the biggest, most innovative restaurant success is not very sexy that we've had on the energy side is variable speed hood controls. Across the country every restaurant in America goes on at 6 a.m. for breakfast and they close at, they shut down at midnight. So you've got 18 hours of the hood exhaust, the grease exhaust, the smoke off the stovetops.

Every building has that. They're 1, 2, 5, 10 horsepower motors that run 18 hours a day, 365 days a year whether the hamburger is cooking or not.  We've got one that one hamburger is 2 percent, 5 hamburgers is 20 percent or whatever. I'm making the numbers up. Fifty hamburgers might be 70 percent and 100 hamburgers might be 100 percent.

So it not only saves electricity on the fans and motors but the biggest savings comes from if you take a smoke stick and you put that in your dining room and follow the smoke in the dining room, when someone opens the kitchen door the waiter comes out of the kitchen door and usually the smoke is going straight into the kitchen. 

The system in Mt. Rushmore was about $20,000 and the return on investment was under two years.

SFG: Wow.

CL: So I mean this is a slam dunk. Nobody knows about it, very few people are using them, and they work.

SFG: So how does it work? Does it sense how much power is needed or do you set it based on how you're using the kitchen?

CL: It modulates. It sets. It has an infrared sensor and a carbon monoxide sensor as well, and it senses when a lot of smoke or a little bit of smoke is going up the stack. When no smoke is going off it shuts down. It's pretty neat at Mt. Rushmore. When you think about it when people cook it's usually two or three hours at a time and then nothing for a couple hours and then two or three hours and nothing for a couple hours. So this system is shutting down half the time

The only trick is then you've got to modulate your makeup there inside your building. So this has to talk to your air handlers in your building, which is not a big deal but it would have to be electrically connected and they're not easy to install. You need a professional to do it and not many people out there are doing it.

SFG: You said the system cost $20,000 at Mt. Rushmore?

CL: That's for a humungous kitchen. We're talking big. So I mean the average restaurant in America is not gonna be the size - and that was actually an unusually expensive system because we had to do some re-wiring with it you wouldn't have to do it in a normal situation but the average system is about $10,000 and it'll pay for itself in a year or two.

SFG: I know that you guys also do a lot with food scrap recycling and your waste management. Can you tell me about that?

CL: Well, and let me be clear. We've got a variety of - I'm gonna try and caveat all my answers with the truth so that you don't get greenwash and you don't get marketing hyperbole. Everyone's claiming to be green these days but I'm trying to give you the facts. When you look at all our properties I'll tell you right now, some do a really, I'll tell you right now, the most amazing job, I'd say one of the best jobs in the country on managing waste associated with restaurants, and some don't. The majority, the bulk of our waste related to restaurants is being addressed in numerous ways and here are a few examples.

At Yellowstone, at Mt. Rushmore, at Zion, coming up Bryce soon, (Grand Canyon Nation Park) South Rim as well, we manage food waste to the extent that, for instance, at Yellowstone we are composting about 60 percent of the entire waste stream. Some are estimating that goes as high as 70 percent of the entire waste stream. So all the food waste is being composted at Zion, at Mt. Rushmore, at Yellowstone, at - I'm forgetting the other one but we've got composters at some of these smaller locations so we're capturing all of our food waste and a high percentage of organics. Yellowstone is capturing all organics so that's food waste, that's paper, anything that can be composted is being composted. I can't get full credit for that because the park service has a $4 million commercial rig composting facility in west Yellowstone that we are using in our partnership with them. 

But at Zion, at Bryce, at Mt. Rushmore, we're the guys doing it.  It's all from start to scratch. We're the guys managing our waste.  We've got recycling diversion rate national park-wide at 51 percent, 42 percent company-wide. That's all waste. We recycle for example at Yellowstone about 700,000 pounds of glass, aluminum, plastic, paper per year. That's just an example at Yellowstone. So as it relates to the restaurant, composting is a big thing. 

The other thing we've worked on is dematerialization. All of our cleaners, our soaps, detergents, things that we're using have condensed, we work with Eco Lab, and they've got all the marketing materials on it but I can objectively tell you they are correct when they say they've got on some of their soaps are concentrated to the extent that 90 percent reduction in materials being shipped. 

We are aware of that. We work on that extensively. We've got recycling programs in all our restaurants where we're capturing I guess, and this is years and years of auditing, probably 90 percent of what can be recycled is being recycled out of our restaurant.

It's pretty easy in a restaurant because the bulk of that is tin, aluminum cans, plastic jugs, all the bulk containers. We buy everything in bulk. Now what's really neat I think is, and this is the sexy stuff you probably wanna hear about that maybe everybody is doing but it is kinda neat. Mt. Rushmore for instance if you go to our restaurant there it's kind of a cafeteria style where you order your food, grab and go, like ski lodges and stuff. You grab all your stuff, you go through the line, you sit down with a tray, and there's just not much on your tray to throw away.

We're wrapping things in cellophane and we're not using big plastic Styrofoam. We've banned Styrofoam in our company completely. We have our to-go containers at many, not all, locations are PLA - polylactic acid - biodegradable containers, but if you go on Mt. Rushmore as an example, there's just not much to throw away. You've got your paper napkins, which is 30 percent post-consumer content anyway. Our cups are reusable. We use silverware that's all reusable. There's just not much to throw away. The plates are reusable. Nothing is plastic. The only plastic we use is cellophane to cover things to preserve their life a little bit but everything is fresh made to order and there's no waste, which I think is phenomenal. You'll see that many of the Yellowstone operations, for instance bulk dispensing of almost everything: ketchup, mayonnaise, salt and pepper.

SFG: So you don't have all the packets?

CL: Yeah. We do away with the packets. Now let me be honest, they're not at every single location. Some locations have packets and the reason we don't do it at every single location is many-fold because Yellowstone for instance you might have a restaurant that's the only restaurant for 40-50 miles in any direction, the only building. So some things are so remote and get such seasonality that we just bring in temporarily some packet-type materials, but most locations it's bulk dispensing of all the amenities, it's reduction in packaging, which is really big for us. We've had big success, bulk everything, not just dispensing but receiving everything in bulk and asking our vendors. 

We sent a letter out to all our vendors requesting reduction in packaging, looking at recyclability of materials, and we thought we'd get beat up by it and what we found out was people liked it and people were into it. “Hey, how can we help?” “Well here's an idea I have.” So that's gone a long way as well. Real quick, company-wide I think we're recycling - oh, don't let me state the number wrong - 6 million pounds of recyclables. I'm sorry, diverting. Under diverting we call recycling is a portion of diverting, dematerialization, reuse, all come under diverting. We're diverting about 6 million pounds per year right now.  As I said that's about a 51 percent diversion rate company-wide. I'm sorry, 51 at the parks, 42 percent company-wide.

SFG: Okay. Going back to the waste composting, how do you do that? Is it just gathered up in bins and dumped in a compost site out back?

CL: Well it's good that you ask because it's fun to say, “Oh we compost waste,” but the real truth behind the story is it takes a lot of work, it takes staff time, it's messy business, it's not fun. The compost takes weeks on end and sometimes we're in northern climates or it takes months on end for the compost to become compost, and then you've got all this compost that you've got to do something with. So that wasn't easy either. We thought it'd be easy giving it away but it's all in cities so it's easy to get rid of compost in cities. It's hard to get rid of it, believe it or not, when you're in the countryside 'cause people use compost. You can't just throw it anywhere.

In many of our kitchens, not all, we don't have everybody composting. In Ohio we don't do as good a job of composting. A lot of food waste goes right into the trash, but in our national parks and in Silverado we have food waste collection bins and those just pile up and by the end of the day we've got a staff person that then hauls that to our compost facility, which is Zion, Mt. Rushmore, the earth tubs, which at Yellowstone is the commercial grade compost facility, and that gets transported and then dumped there and then managed by a staff person that is in charge of drying it out and getting the right carbon and nitrogen to moisture content, turning it, and things of that nature. Usually these people that are in charge of compost are also in charge of recycling in many cases. So, they've got full-time jobs.

SFG: Dirty jobs?

CL: It's a lot of work but on the other hand if you're small it's easier for someone else to do as collateral duties rather than dedicating an entire staff person, which is what we have to do.

SFG: Right. So what advice do you have for operations that have not come as far in making their facilities sustainable? It sounds like a lot of what you're doing is common sense, that it doesn't take a lot of investment. Tell me how you would get started. What advice would you have for a dining facility in getting started?

CL: I think - I hate to go back to the process because the process is the most boring and non-exciting thing, but the first thing anyone needs to do, whether they're small or big, is set up a process. For us it's the environmental management system. That is the process that informs what we're gonna do, that assigns responsibility, dedicates staff, puts up deadlines, sets goals, objectives, targets.

I think anyone who wants to green up their restaurant needs to first sit down with their entire staff and ask the question, how can we green this restaurant? There's a thousand things you can do of which probably only 100 make economic sense, of which probably only 50 you have time to do, of which only 30 you'll do very well. 

So you need to go through that process of distillation to look at all the things you can do. Are we gonna do LEED? LEED for existing building or LEED for renovation or core and shell? We need to ask all those questions and go through the process. Then the next thing would be you need to dedicate staff. If you're big enough you can dedicate a full-time person to be environmental sustainability guru. That would be great.

If you're not, collateral duty is the next step. Maybe a manager can also be the green team leader and set up a green team to do these meetings. If you're even smaller and can't do that then I would tell you to focus on energy. Get a consultant or talk to your local utility and start energy programs. 

Energy and waste are the two ones that have money savings, well water as well, but just an energy program is so fundamental to anything anyone would ever do and any CFO will never say no to it. The easiest energy program, we have an energy management and food service program, which is just an energy awareness program that says the things you can do to save energy in a restaurant. You'd be stunned at how much waste there is. It's just turning things on and off at the right time. So you do a sticker program that says above light switches and you say this thing goes on at 5 a.m. and goes off at 5 p.m. or it's only on between noon and 1 p.m. For instance lights inside of coolers, walk-in coolers. The lights usually go on at 5 a.m. and they go off at midnight. Everything in the restaurant typically goes on at 5 a.m. and off at midnight. 

So if you set up a sticker program that informs when things should be turned on and off, well when do you turn your coffee maker on? That one goes on pretty early, but maybe it doesn't need to be on all day, and that kind of thing. Then simple retrofits on lighting, on building envelope. I mean these are so simple and they're slam dunks. Gaskets on coolers, cleaning your coils on your chillers and your HVAC units and your icemakers. Have everything maintained and serviced regularly, whatever it may be, whatever appliance it may be. Retrofitting through the most efficient appliances, they mostly pay for themselves pretty quickly. All the energy stuff is starting to pay because the cost of energy keeps going up.

SFG: Right. So that's an easy sell. Then talk about - it sounds like the reduction of packaging and dematerialization. How do you get that started?

CL: That's a little bit harder one only because, the average guy, you need a computer, you need a list of your vendors, you need to be able to write well. I don't know if a guy bussing tables can do that as a collateral duty, you know what I mean? So what you do is you get all your vendors and you create your list of 'em and usually I don't know if you're a company or if you're a restaurant owned by a major corporation, there comes another problem. Do you go to the corporate headquarters and have the corporate headquarters send that out to all the vendors company-wide, or do you just deal with your local vendors? So that's another thing that a sustainability person or an environmental manager can negotiate those waters and figure out how do we start this, who do we contact, 1,000 vendors or 100 or 10. 

So we have a form letter that we send everybody and we say, “Look, we care about the environment and if you're gonna work with us you have to care about the environment as well.” It's not “can” or “should.” You have to. It's a competitive marketplace out there and we can find somebody else to give us our French fries, and we can find somebody else to give us our tomato sauce. So you ship to us in bulk, you help us dematerialize, and it benefits them as well. Typically everyone is on board. The world has kind of come along way in the last I'd say 10 years. Very rarely do you find someone who overtly opposes you, a vendor that is, on various dematerialization, waste reduction, efficiency, whether it be shipping and things like that. Very rarely are you opposed by those things 'cause they tend to save everybody money. 

It's just a headache, but everyone gets it. Everyone knows we're getting here. We're trying to reduce waste. Another big one is not just dematerializing but sending materials that are recyclable and the packaging issue. If you're gonna send us packaging send us something that's recyclable. Don't send us these foam things that only fit one container.

At Rushmore we recycle all our packaging peanuts, I mean 100 percent, all our cardboard, 100 percent. We have a stamp that we put on boxes and on anything that we reuse so that a guest or a vendor or anybody will know, oh, okay, this looks old because it's reused. Boom. We stamp it and say this product is a reused material that Mt. Rushmore is using. So if you see something used looking on it they'll excuse it.

SFG: Yeah. I would guess that your clients support that.

CL: Oh yeah. The negative feedback we get is typically, “Well why aren't you doing more of this and how come you didn't do it this way here but I saw it that way there?” Consistency is the biggest thing we struggle with, and the reason is because unfortunately we're not like a Marriot or a Hilton or a McDonald's where in theory everything is the same across the country. Our biggest struggle is we've got Silverado, a five-star, high-end, high-tech, brand new, and then we've got Petrified Forest, which is older, historic, fewer staff, less sophistication.

Our Petrified Forest operation, get this, the general manager there, and some of this comes down to the heart and soul and the culture of the humans you hire. You got a guy, our general manager, who will dumpster dive. He's gone in and looked at what's in the dumpster and assessed and weighs everything. He literally weighs every bag of garbage that goes out of his operation. He recycled 76 percent of everything that went into that operation and all it is is a cafeteria restaurant and a retail shop and a gas station. There you get a guy like that. You can't find people like that and you can't train a guy to do something like that. That's just a cultural value is what it becomes.

We're lucky in that respect. We've got some amazing people with amazing ideas, with true heart and soul green values, and that you can't train to and that you can't institutionalize. All you do is cross your fingers and hope you hire the right guy.

SFG: Right. So before I let you go, any last words of advice on how to do this or why it's a good idea?

CL: Speaking specifically to restaurants?

SFG: Restaurants, dining, cafeterias.

CL: I glossed over a lot of the sexiest stuff. Sustainable cuisine, organic foods, they pay for themselves. People want - they associate that with if it's organic and it's sustainable, good for the environment, you know what? It's also healthier. It's also tastier.

Sorry to backtrack one thing but some sexy things like doing away with bottled beer in some locations has been beneficial to us where we've saved 10,000 pounds in glass in exchange for beer on tap that's A) local, B) it's, I don't know, not fresh, but you know what I mean, on tap, comes right out of the draft. There's a savings.

So the food thing is big, the energy thing is huge. Restaurants consume an inordinate amount of energy relative to their surroundings if they're located in a hotel or a retail setting because they've got a cook and things like that. 

So efficiency and energy are big. Reducing waste I think is the hard one. It's the sexy one that everyone talks about, “Oh, you recycle,” but it's difficult, it takes staff, it takes training. I'd say it's more challenging. Sustainable design of buildings, I mean everyone's doing it now. If you're not doing it you're in the Dark Ages. So if you're designing a restaurant from scratch you absolutely should design it as sustainable as possible. It's gonna pay dividends over time.

SFG: Well I think this covers everything I wanted to talk about, Chris. Thank you so much for your time.

CL: Thank you as well.