From sustainable agriculture to electric cars, green is today’s buzzword. But it’s a slippery term, which can more often be a marketing tool than real eco-effort. For bars and restaurants, there’s more to being green than adding a few biodynamic wines to the list, displaying a couple of organic spirits on the backbar and mixing and garnishing drinks with locally grown produce.
For the truly committed operator, green is a way of approaching business decisions, taking into account environmental impact, social responsibility and supporting like-minded businesses and the local community.
Leaders of the greening of the bar revolution embrace the concept in an all-encompassing way that goes far beyond simply serving eco-conscious drinks. Among other things, they are reducing carbon footprints by planting trees and forging old foundry buildings into LEED-certified establishments.
Studies in Green
“When I opened my bar in 2003, I started to realize how green business decisions could reduce operational costs,” recalls H. Joseph Ehrmann, proprietor of Elixir in San Francisco. Previously, Ehrmann had built an all-natural soup company and brought that sensibility to the bar business. In 2005, Elixir earned the distinction of being one of the first green businesses certified by the city.
Ehrmann’s sustainable practices included installing energy-efficient lighting and new low-flow toilets, using only eco-friendly cleaning solutions and an extensive recycle and reuse policy to reduce litter and waste. “There is an initial investment,” concedes Ehrmann, “but after that, maintenance is easy.”
Another focus at Elixir is working with local producers—brewers, distillers, farmers and grocers—whenever possible, which is an environmentally driven decision as well as community oriented. “We support the community and it supports us,” notes Ehrmann.
“Since we opened 20 years ago, we’ve always tried to work with local producers,” says Michael Cameron, co-owner of two Uncommon Ground restaurants in Chicago. “Back then that was a real challenge, but we’ve continued to reduce the distance from our front door to all our brewers, distillers and winemakers.” When the company bought the building to house its second restaurant in 2007, the structure was completely renovated to be more eco-friendly and support a roof top garden, beehives and solar-thermal panels. Uncommon Ground is two-time winner of the Illinois Governor’s Sustainability Award and possesses reportedly the first certified organic rooftop farm in America.
Partners Charley Ryan and Peter Shapiro had an environmental agenda in 2009 when they opened Brooklyn Bowl, a bowling alley, nightclub and concert venue in Brooklyn, N.Y. “We decided to go that extra mile, the headaches and heartaches to get LEED certification,” recalls Ryan. They transformed an 1881 iron foundry into the first LEED-certified bowling alley in the world. Electricity for the facility is 100 percent wind powered, the stage floor is made from recycled truck tires, a 30-space bike rack is available for pedaling patrons and 16 trees were planted on the property.
Beverages are at the green heart of every eco-conscious bar. Each has shaped a different approach.
“Local and sustainable are huge issues at the moment,” says Guy Rigby, vice president of food and beverage, Americas, for the Toronto-based Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts. “We’ve done a lot of work in our restaurants on farm-to-table, because that’s important to our guests.”
Conceived in that spirit was the “100 Mile Cocktail Collection,” Rigby’s challenge to the 40 Four Seasons Americas properties. It’s a contest to develop drinks using only ingredients found within of 100-mile radius of the hotels. “Our bartenders went nuts for the idea,” reports the vice president. “They came up with some fantastic cocktails.”
Each property submitted a recipe and featured its 100 Mile Cocktail (prices ranged from $10 to $15), during the month of February, with in-house promotions and social media. “Feedback on customer response from properties has been fantastic,” says Rigby. Although he doesn’t have figures on specific sales increased, popularity of the 100 Mile drinks has been so great that some hotels are offering them beyond the promotional period and are developing more cocktails within that 100-mile parameter.
Picking out the winners was a difficult job, concedes Rigby. Top prizes went to the Nor’Easter from Boston and the Koa Wai from Hualalai in Hawaii. The Nor’Easter mixed Bully Boy White Whiskey (from the city’s first spirits producer since Prohibition), Still River Apple Ice Wine from Harvard, Mass., and a house-made apple-maple shrub; the drink is served in a Ball Mason jar to highlight New England’s history of fruit preservation, and is garnished with house-made maple candy. The Koa Wai honors the endangered koa tree; the drink comes with a certificate and GPS coordinates of a tree planted from the drink sales. Served in a coconut cup with a Hawaiian black sea-salt rim, the drink is made with organic Ocean Vodka, contaminant-free seawater from 500 fathoms, star fruit, Thai basil, ginger and lemon—some ingredients are grown on the resort’s grounds.
Among casual-dining chains, one of the eco-pioneers is Scottsdale, Ariz.-based P.F. Chang’s China Bistro. The 204 restaurants promote locally brewed beers, pour Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee and reduced their carbon footprint with a private-label wine produced from sustainably grown and harvested grapes and packaged in earth-friendly recycled and recyclable boxes. “The bag-in-box product is quality wine at a great price—and it helps save the environment,” notes Mary Melton, P.F. Chang’s director of beverage. Customer response to Vineyard 518 was very positive, reports the beverage director. So positive, in fact, that the chain has run out of the wine. Melton is in the process of creating the next bag-in-box selection. “It’s a lot of work to run our own label,” she confesses, “But it’s exciting and we really want to keep it going.”
“We buy local, that’s the heart of our green bar program,” says Ryan at Brooklyn Bowl. To reduce the bar’s carbon footprint, beers in all 10 of the draft lines are brewed right in the borough, from Sixpoint, Greenpoint and Brooklyn Brewery. To reduce trash, the bar doesn’t carry canned or bottled beer or soda. “And we forgo the profit opportunity of selling bottled water,” because, Ryan points out, recycling too has its environmental costs: the energy to collect and truck the empties, to crush, shred and reform the materials. “The idea that recycling is totally virtuous is a myth,” he concludes.
Elixir offers an extensive selection of organic and sustainably produced beer and wine offerings. Cocktails at Elixir (priced $8 to $12) are made with organic ingredients whenever possible, which are noted at the bottom of the menu. But it’s not possible to use organic ingredients exclusively, points out Ehrmann, because many spirits are not certified organic and produce availability is often limited by seasonality and economics. One green example from the constantly changing drinks list is the Ruby Chai Appletini, made with Square One Organic Vodka—a brand which Ehrmann works as brand ambassador—organic apple cider, Numi Organic Ruby Chai, muddled Gala apples and organic agave nectar. “I don’t claim the whole menu is organic,” notes Ehrmann. “We select the products we pour based on corporate integrity, product quality and potential success with our client base.”
“Anything we can get in the U.S., we don’t import,” says Cameron at Uncommon Ground. However, with spirits like Scotch and tequila, that’s not possible, he admits. The restaurants also use as many local, organic and sustainable products as possible.
The ever-greenest drink on Uncommon’s list is the trademarked Agripolitan. Part of the proceeds from the original incarnation of the drink were donated to “Live It Green” to plant 10,000 trees in Tamil, Nadu, India. The next round was more local; now Uncommon Ground partners with Chicago Rarities Orchard Project and sales of the Agripolitan help establish urban orchards. This season’s rendition is triple berry-infused Rain Organic Vodka, cardamom syrup and lemon juice. “The Agripolitan is delicious and affordably priced,” notes Cameron. The $10 drink is on par pricewise with other cocktails.
Despite the high-quality ingredients in these green drinks, they generally are not too pricy. And customers seem ready to pay a premium.
“The 100-Mile cocktails are priced about the same as the other drinks on the list,” confirms Rigby at the Four Seasons. The outlay varies from property to property, but ranges $10 to $15 a drink.
At Elixir, green cocktails fall into the same price range as the regular cocktails, $8 to $12. “When pricing, I keep an eye on costs and seasonality,” says Ehrmann. He will switch a drink out of the list if a product is too costly or out of season. In other cases, the proprietor will decide to take a smaller margin on a drink to keep the price in line.
“I think customers understand that a handmade, 100 percent certified organic product is going to cost more than a mass-produced product,” posits Cameron. “So maybe an $8 cocktail becomes a $10 cocktail, but when you list all the local and organic ingredients used, people don’t mind paying that extra dollar or so because they know the love and care that went into it.”
Wearing of the Green
Significantly, those operators with the most to brag about are often the most modest about touting their green efforts. Browse their websites and you might find a page about commitment to the environment. The terms organic, biodynamic, sustainable may be noted on menus, but not prominently. Green is not a marketing tool; it’s a philosophy and a way of doing business.
“I don’t like to preach,” declares Ehrmann. “We don’t shove these ideas in our customers’ faces.” He used to list every single organic ingredient on the menu, but not anymore. “You can only say organic so many times; it got annoying.” Hand-selling by the staff is the main way the green message grows. “It’s important that your employees ‘get it,’ that they are on board with the philosophy,” says Ehrmann.
“There are no table tents, posters or flashing signs,” says Cameron. Uncommon Ground doesn’t have an advertising budget; it never has. “We get the word out through our employees, with training and education and they get our guests excited,” he explains. “Guests tell friends and family. It’s viral word of mouth that’s been way more valuable than any advertising I could buy.”
“We don’t really emphasize our green aspects,” says Ryan at Brooklyn Bowl. Nonetheless, he adds, “Customer response has been uniformly positive. People understand that our place is different, and the spirit behind it is good.
“Green is good business as well as good social policy,” insists Ryan. “I think doing the right thing is its own reward.”
Ehrmann has been thinking a lot about eco-efforts lately as he considers opening another bar. A new place, he insists would have to include aspects of Elixir’s green sensibility. And, says, Ehrmann, “I would love to see more bars become more environmentally responsible.”