Kansas City restaurants work to become more green

06/24/2014 1:57 PM

06/24/2014 10:48 PM

Yvette Hirang is a single mother of three, and with a budding career as a chef, she doesn’t have much spare time.

But recently when preparing a fish dinner for her family, she took the time to chop off the fish’s head and turn it into a tasty sauce.

“I don’t think Kansas is ready for that,” she said.

She was born and raised in the Philippines, where she learned to use everything from snout to tail. Her family got 80 percent of its food at a farmers market supporting local producers.

When she enrolled in Johnson County Community College’s culinary program, she jumped at the chance to be a “sustainability intern” at EBT restaurant, helping the business find ways to become more green.

The internship and her time as a cook at other restaurants in the Kansas City area convinced her that restaurants have plenty of potential to reduce energy costs and food waste.

“It has a future and it can get better,” she said.

Hirang is part of a budding movement in Kansas City to turn the spotlight of sustainability onto the restaurant industry.

Most restaurants are pretty piggish when it comes to saving energy and reducing waste. No business in a commercial building uses more energy per square foot than a restaurant. And restaurants dump billions of pounds of leftovers and food scraps into the country’s landfills each year.

Johnson County Community College, in what is thought to be a first for a culinary program in the U.S., has been fielding interns since 2012 to help local restaurants become more sustainable.

The interns have had successes and stumbles. Restaurants — with tight budgets and a business culture that naturally puts the emphasis on serving meals — have often put sustainability on the back burner.

“We can’t solve this problem on our own, but our students and this program can be a valuable tool,” said Ryan Wing, senior analyst for the college’s sustainability center.

Johnson County Community College, known for training chefs and restaurant managers, has been working to be less wasteful itself. Its new building for the culinary program recently earned a silver LEED certification for using less energy and water. The college collects food waste from its dining services and a food court and turns it into compost to use as fertilizer or soil conditioner.

The college’s sustainability internship program got its start two years ago after the Mid-America Regional Council provided a $50,000 green-jobs grant to the college. The school paid at least one intern $3,600 a semester to work at a restaurant and offer ways the establishment could cut down on waste and be more energy efficient.

Then the college used green-jobs grant money to give restaurants or other food-service establishments up to $2,500 each to make improvements that the intern recommended.

For example, an intern at Christopher Elbow Artisan Chocolates in Kansas City noticed that its building, formerly a tire shop, was connected to a drafty garage that contributed to high utility bills, especially in the summer. Temperatures have to be tightly controlled to ensure the quality of the chocolate.

The intern recommended and a grant helped pay for insulation and other weather proofing. The business also stepped up efforts to recycle, including glass bottles and cardboard boxes, and found companies to take it away.

“They’re making it easy to not throw things away,” said Ethan Taylor, a manager at the chocolate business.

The interns, who have so far worked at nine restaurants, have found problems such as loose doors on walk-in coolers and faucets that constantly leak. In one restaurant, the oven was never turned off because a malfunctioning pilot light kept it from being easily re-lit. The program got that oven fixed.

Hirang’s internship at the EBT restaurant and working at other area restaurants has her looking for ways to cut waste. Her successes include stopping the use of styrofoam cups and containers and getting sensors installed on bathroom lights so they are only on when occupied.

At EBT, some things were fairly easy to accomplish, such as recycling glass bottles through the Ripple program started by Boulevard Brewing.

“Our industry is becoming more aware, especially among younger chefs,” she said.

The most vexing problem in the food industry continues to be food waste. In the Kansas City area, an estimated 171,000 tons of food end up in landfills each year from restaurants, households and grocery stores.

Most restaurants still dump partially eaten meals and scraps from preparing food into the trash, but finding a solution has moved center stage in the internship program.

“It’s going to be strictly about food waste,” said Donovan Stabler, an intern in the program.

The money from the green-jobs grant has been spent, but George and Patricia Semb, big supporters of the college, agreed to fund the interns’ pay in the sustainability program.

“We thought this was a great idea,” said George Semb.

Restaurants have long been ripe for sustainability because of the huge potential savings.

“There’s more energy used by restaurant appliances than by all the computers in commercial buildings in the United States,” said Sameer Kwatra, a senior analyst for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

They use 5 to 7 times more energy per square foot than an office building, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. About 25 percent of a restaurant’s energy bill goes to food preparation and slightly less for heating and cooling the premises. Another 10 percent of a restaurant’s energy usage goes to lighting and 15 percent to refrigerating food.

A commercial deep-fat fryer in a restaurant uses 18,000 kilowatt hours of electricity over a year. That’s 60 percent more than the power used by an average residential home in a year.

More efficient commercial appliances are available and over the long run are economical. But they cost more, and cash-strapped restaurants, especially if they’re small businesses, are inclined to choose the cheaper but less efficient stoves, fryers and other appliances, said Kwatra.

The amount of food waste from restaurants is also large, although putting a number on it is difficult. The U.S. Department of Agriculture claims that 30 percent to 40 percent of the country’s food is wasted, with the losses happening all along the food chain from harvest to consumer, including in households and restaurants.

At least 10 percent of the country’s wasted food is thought to come from restaurants. LeanPath, a technology and software company that allows restaurants to track food loss, says that 4 percent to 10 percent of the loss happens when preparing food in the kitchen.

And in the dining room, only an estimated half of uneaten meals are taken home.

“The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way,” said Dana Gunders, a project scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We can do much better.”

One of the sustainability program’s goals is to help restaurants become certified by the Green Restaurants Association, which was founded in 1990 to offer help to make restaurants more sustainable and give consumers some choices in dining at green restaurants. Restaurants are charged $50 a month to belong, which includes assistance in meeting the group’s standards.

“We are the experts in what we do,” said Michael Oshman, founder and CEO of the Green Restaurants Association, which is based in Boston.

The association has different levels of certification based on a point system, including for the use of energy-efficient appliances and LED lights, along with recycling food waste when available. Styrofoam cups and containers, which don’t decompose, are banned, and environmental friendly cleaners are recommended. Using more locally raised food plays a role.

So far, most of the green certified restaurants are in cities like New York, Boston and Chicago. But Sweet Tomatoes, a national chain of soup and salad restaurants, certified all their restaurants, including one in Kansas City and another in Overland Park.

Oshman said he is also seeing a generational shift in the restaurant business, with younger chefs and employees especially interested in sustainability.

His association is eager to qualify more restaurants in the Kansas City area. It recently did that when Rockhurst High School’s cafeteria earned the certification.

Flik Independent School Dining provides the school’s meals. Adam Horner, its director of dining services, was manager of EBT when Hirang was an intern at the restaurant, “which gave me a leg up” when getting the high school’s kitchen and dining hall certified.

The cafeteria is essentially trash-free.

“There are no garbage cans because there’s no need for them,” he said.

Energy-efficient appliances are used as well as the school’s advanced system, which uses an atomic clock, to manage heating and cooling. There are no plastic utensils. The napkins are biodegradable so they decompose quickly and, combined with food waste, are turned into compost at the high school.

Horner said the certification was worth it but was a lot of work, with proof required for each step. The process took about 90 days.

“I think it makes sense but it was a very involved process,” he said.

Danny Huffman is dressed in his chef uniform — a white hat and jacket — when he lends a hand at a food pulper. He tosses leftover pieces of apples, bananas and chips in a stainless steel trough, which has water coursing through it. The food flows into an auger and is ground up and sent to a chamber that squeezes out the moisture and dumps the waste into a biodegradable bag.

The whole process makes it more manageable to deal with large amounts of food leftovers and scraps, which are sent to a company that turns it into compost.

“It’s great,” he said.

Huffman works for Aramark, which operates two cafeterias at Sprint’s corporate headquarters in Overland Park.

Sprint recently won an Environmental Protection Agency national award for recycling 54 tons of food waste in a year that would have gone to a landfill.

The food waste goes to Missouri Organic, a Kansas City-based company that takes waste from several corporate cafeterias and a handful of restaurants and turns it into compost at a facility near Liberty.

“They do a wonderful job,” said Stabler, Johnson County Community College’s current sustainability intern.

A family business, Missouri Organic got its start in 1992 when landfills stopped taking yard waste and the company started collecting tree limbs and brush to sell as firewood. Missouri Organic also took other yard waste and a few years ago began accepting food waste from grocery stores, including produce that had passed its sell date.

The company combines yard and food waste, turns it into compost, and then sells it under its Nature Wise brand to gardeners and others.

It later began taking food waste from corporate cafeterias and now has a couple of restaurants that send it their waste. Last year, it prevented 16,000 tons of food waste from going to the landfill.

But getting more restaurants to participate has been difficult.

“I think it will be a lingering issue,” said Kevin Anderson, vice president of the company and one of the sons of the person who started it.

His company’s experience is that the bottom line matters for 90 percent of those who recycle food. They avoid the cost of taking the waste to the landfill, but Missouri Organic also has fees to pick it up or take the waste at a site near Liberty.

Corporate cafeterias and grocery stores, for example, have the volume of waste to make the economics work. But individual restaurants, not so much, with just a handful sending food waste to the program, said Anderson.

Convincing restaurants to participate has been a harder sell.

But Trezo Mare, a restaurant in the Briarcliff Village shopping center in Kansas City, North, has been doing it for three years and is convinced it makes environmental and economic sense.

The restaurant has reduced by 80 percent the waste it once sent to the landfill. The food scraps and leftovers are picked up three times a week by Missouri Organic, and other items such as glass bottles and cardboard containers are also recycled. Used cooking oil is sent in 100-gallon batches to a company that turns it into biodiesel.

It uses biodegradable corn-starch containers for takeout orders instead of styrofoam.

“It’s part of what we are at Trezo Mare,” said Robert Padilla, the restaurant’s executive chef.

Missouri Organic approached the restaurant three years ago about sending the company its food waste. The restaurant is still at it, with employees who are trained to throw food and other biodegradable waste into containers that are dumped into one of three 100-gallon bins to be picked up by Missouri Organic.

There are costs, including the $380 monthly charge to pick up the food waste and more expensive biodegradable trash bags that are used to collect the food waste.

But for Trezo Mare, those costs balance out when compared to the price it once paid to send waste to the landfill.

“If it works for us, it will work for anybody,” said Padilla.

To reach Steve Everly, call 816-234-4455 or send email to severly@kcstar.com.

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