Not Just the Lettuce is Green

From solar arrays to composting, a number of Jersey restaurants are reducing their carbon footprint.

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Visitors to The Frog and the Peach in New Brunswick may notice that something has sprouted on the roof over the last three years—58 solar panels, which produce 25 percent of the restaurant’s electricity. Across town, the sister restaurants Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi share a 10-kilowatt solar energy system that contributes up to 30 percent of the restaurants’ electricity. In Margate, Steve & Cookie’s, which gets plenty of sunlight from its bayside perch, is mounting a solar array, which will bolster its two-star rating from the Green Restaurant Association. The 20-kilowatt system will produce 21 percent of the restaurant’s electricity, saving the owners about $8,700 a year.

“People are realizing, ‘I’m green at home and I recycle, but when I go out to eat, is the restaurant doing the right thing?’” says Joe Palombo, chef and owner of Mirabella Cafe in Cherry Hill, which invested in an energy-efficient air conditioning unit and began composting food waste in November.

Last year, Palombo started the South Jersey Green Dining Restaurant Group. So far ten restaurants have signed up, and he hopes to have 50 by this summer. To belong, a restaurant must commit to adopt any 18 of 100 possible initiatives, from recycling kitchen grease to using green cleaning products to switching to more energy-efficient lighting.

The granddaddy of environmental restaurant groups is the Green Restaurant Association, organized in 1990 in Boston. To earn green certification by the GRA, a restaurant must eliminate Styrofoam, have a full-scale recycling program, and accumulate a minimum of 100 points divided among seven areas: water efficiency, waste reduction and recycling, sustainable food, sustainable furnishings and building materials, energy, disposables, and chemical and pollution prevention. Accumulating 100 points confers two-star status, with three- and four-star status having thresholds of 175 and 470 points, respectively. There are 265 GRA-certified restaurants nationwide, mainly in New York and California.

So far seven restaurants in the state have been GRA certified—Eno Terra in Kingston, Fresh in Basking Ridge, and the five Shore-area restaurants owned by Tim McLoone of Little Silver. At Eno Terra, floor-to-ceiling windows and a skylight cut down on the amount of electric light needed, and a super-efficient (if initially expensive) refrigerator further cut energy use by 40 percent compared to Energy Star models, according to the GRA. McLoone began greening his restaurants two years ago after his son was diagnosed with leukemia, and he became concerned about the possible toxic effects of household chemicals. He then extended that concern to his restaurants—McLoone’s Pier House in Long Branch, McLoone’s Rum Runner in Sea Bright, McLoone’s at Favorites in Fords, and McLoone’s Asbury Grille and Tim McLoone’s Supper Club in Asbury Park.

GRA certification can be expensive. Fees run up to about $1,500 a year, plus there’s the cost of switching to sustainable practices and green equipment. Some restaurants, such as The Frog and the Peach, have decided to put their money into things like the solar array and not into GRA fees. One tactic is to compost food waste—at Eno Terra, 3,000 pounds of food waste a week are carted to Converted Organics in Woodbridge for composting. “If you recycle food [compost], recycle bottles and cans, recycle cardboard and paper, essentially restaurant waste goes to virtually nothing,” says Priscilla Hayes, executive director of the Solid Waste Resource Renewal Group at Rutgers, which works with restaurants and composting facilities across the state to get food waste out of landfills. The Knowles family filters waste vegetable oil from two of their four restaurants, Highlawn Pavilion and The Manor in West Orange, and use it to fuel what they call their “Veggie Van” to shuttle supplies between their properties.

Restaurant owners say that the single most important eco-step is buying produce, meats, and seafood locally. Farm2Bistro buys tomatoes from backyard gardeners in its Nutley neighborhood. Chef James Laird of Serenade in Chatham serves produce from his own garden, as does chef Mitchell Altholz of The Manor and Highlawn Pavilion in West Orange. Seasonal, local food also tastes better, chefs say.

After all, notes Laird, “People come to a restaurant to eat.”

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