Ethnic eateries learn to trim their own bills

Restaurants consume more energy per square foot than any other retail business, and they're a major source of the food waste and packaging that clog America's landfills. But Asian restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area are serving up a new kind of "green" curry.

On a busy Friday night, the kitchen at Ajanta, an Indian restaurant in Berkeley, is a whirlwind of activity. Hindi-speaking staff grill asparagus spears and Indian breads in tandoori ovens while curries of every color sizzle on a huge gas range. Other workers remove produce from the walk-in refrigerator and rinse tall stacks of dishes in the sinks. All these activities consume energy and generate waste, but owner Lacchu Moorjani has taken more than 50 measures to lighten his restaurant's load on the planet, gaining a "Green Business" certification from Alameda County in the process.

Mr. Moorjani has installed energy-saving lights and water-saving spigots, fine-tuned his heating and cooling systems, and started composting and recycling his kitchen waste. The restaurant used to send nine big cans of garbage to the landfill every week; now it sends just two.

"I'm saving easily between $200 and $300 a month on garbage, I'm saving $50 a month on water, and my electric bill is down $75 to $100 a month," says Moorjani.

According to the Center for Small Business and the Environment in Washington, D.C., a typical restaurant that cuts its energy use by 20 percent can increase its profits by a third.

With help from a local Asian-American nonprofit group called Thimmakka's Resources for Environmental Education, ethnic eateries are reducing the often-steep impact of putting hot meals before hungry customers. Thimmakka's Resources began targeting owners of Indian and Pakistani restaurants in the Berkeley area two years ago, in the only program of its kind in the United States.

"Ethnic businesses are an underserved community as far as environmental outreach goes," says executive director Ritu Primlani.

With its multicultural staff and volunteers, Thimmakka's Resources now works with Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, Tibetan, Persian, and other ethnic restaurants in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Jose. The 30 participating restaurants in Alameda County save a million gallons of water annually and have cut their solid waste an average of 80 percent, according to Ms. Primlani.

Restaurants that sign up with Thimmakka's Resources undergo detailed audits of 57 different practices that consume energy and water or generate waste - from cooking to dishwashing to lighting. Then they get technical assistance to boost their environmental performance and save on their utility bills in the process.

While Bay Area environmental agencies have had little success penetrating ethnic communities, Primlani boasts that 95 percent of the eateries visited by her Greening Ethnic Restaurants project have agreed to participate. "You can approach someone over the phone, you can give them literature, or you can approach them in person," says Primlani. "Of these three methods, the least successful is mailing literature to restaurants, which is what most regulatory agencies do."

Government agencies and utilities generally lack the funding, and the flexibility, to do more hands-on outreach.

"Pacific Gas and Electric, they would send me 10 pages of survey every year. I never respond to it because I am not connecting with them," says Fetlewerk Tefferi, owner of Café Colucci, an Ethiopian restaurant in Oakland that has joined the Greening Ethnic Restaurants project.

"We have so many rules about our conduct," says Wanda Redic of Berkeley's solid-waste management division. "A rule as simple as not accepting a free meal in the performance of your duties is offensive to some community groups. To refuse them, however small the gift, is insulting."

Alameda County's Green Business program has certified more than 100 firms, from auto repair shops to printers, as green. But they have had difficulty at restaurants. "Restaurant operators just seem to have the least spare time of any sector I work with," says Pam Evans, the county's Green Business coordinator. "They can't take even 10 minutes to learn how to save money."

Thimmakka's Resources' painstaking, hands-on approach makes it easy for overworked restaurateurs to go green, but it limits the number of restaurants its small group can reach. To date, the young program has signed up 30 of Alameda County's 2,000 restaurants.

The restaurant industry's profit margins are notoriously slim, and since the California energy crunch in 2001, many restaurants' utility bills have doubled. Ahmed Hadir, the Moroccan owner of Your Black Muslim Bakery in Oakland, is grateful for Primlani's efforts to help his small new bakery save money on its hefty utility bills. "She may help keep me in business," he says.

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