Rachel Pelkey has seen it many times before. Working behind the counter at Grille Zone in Boston, she'll watch diners finish their meal, gather their rubbish, march it to the front of the restaurant, and then look confused.
"The biggest question I get is 'Where's the garbage?' " she says with the kind of grin a mother gives her questioning child. "I explain that we don't have a garbage can, only compost and recycling."
That often sparks a chain of follow-up questions: Why only compost? What do you mean it's a near zero-waste restaurant? Everything is biodegradable? Even the plates and knives?
Once customers catch on, they get kind of excited, she says. "They like being a part of something so green," says Ms. Pelkey. "Yeah, we serve burgers and fries, but we're also as environmentally friendly as they come."
As more Americans seek out products with green credentials, more quick and casual restaurants are ready to serve them. Eating green no longer means just ordering from a vegetarian menu. In fact, it doesn't even have to mean eating healthy.
"For a restaurant to be truly green, they have to think about the lighting, the napkins, the cleaning products, the waste, the grill – everything," says Michael Oshman, founder of the Green Restaurant Association (GRA), a national, nonprofit consultancy in Boston that helps eateries become more environmentally friendly. "But what a lot of restaurateurs don't realize is that taking the necessary steps is not only good for the environment and good for their image, it's also a way to lower costs."
Thanks to improved technology and increased adoption of sustainable products, even burger joints can go green.
After opening in June, Grille Zone became the GRA's first certified environmentally friendly fast-food restaurant. Its green features surround the lunch crowd of mostly college students. Co-owner Ben Prentice points to the infrared grill, the energy-efficient lighting, the locally grown vegetables, the wall decoration taken from an old New England schoolhouse, the plates and cutlery made completely from corn and wheat starch – even those confusing compost and recycling barrels are from an old brandy distillery.
Because of its focus on biodegradable cups, utensils, and paper, Grille Zone produces an average of 15 pounds of waste a day. Mr. Prentice compares that to the US restaurant average of 275 pounds.
"Restaurants are typically huge waste producers, particularly, when guests are eating off disposable plates," Prentice says.
This problem hits fast-food places the most. While upscale restaurants wash and reuse their silverware, fast-food waste often just winds up in the trash. Those millions of Happy Meal bags and Whopper scraps are then dumped into landfills, which over time can produce methane, a greenhouse gas.
But for his restaurant, Prentice touts that the rubbish is brought to a compost facility and "in 30 to 60 days all that food waste is now mulch, and it goes back into a farmer's field or into your garden."
The Massachusetts burrito chain Boloco is pushing toward a similar low-waste future. In the next few weeks, its stores will phase out Styrofoam cups and use ones made of cornstarch instead, says Mike Harder, the company's president.
"We knew that Styrofoam was out," he says. (While recyclable, Styrofoam left in landfills is virtually nonbiodegradable.) "And we didn't want just plastic cups. So, we chose a material that was good for the environment, and most people will never notice the difference."
Such a claim couldn't be made a few years ago. Early cornstarch spoons would melt in hot soup, while potato-based cups would leak when filled with hot coffee.
But in many areas, technology has finally caught up with demand. Now it's just an issue of price and availability.
For example, this fall Boloco announced it would shift toward "humanely raised" beef and pork. By choosing animals that are allowed to freely roam and are not exposed to added hormones or antibiotics, the chain hopes to alleviate the moral and health concerns of its customers.
Boloco has also attempted to partner with nearby farms, hoping to reduce the carbon footprint of delivery trucks. But finding farmers that carry the right animals, cut, certification, price, and location, all at once, has proved difficult. As a result, some of Boloco's "humane" pork is shipped from Canada.
"We have 13 stores, so no one farm can handle that much of one cut," Mr. Harder explains.
Similarly, he hoped his stores could offer "humane" chicken, but his original supplier couldn't handle the size of the order. "We're looking for a second source right now," he says.
Such tricky logistics and other moves to build an environmentally friendly restaurant often come with higher prices.
Last Friday, Texas restaurateur Jason Birmbaum opened his second Doc Green's franchise in Austin. With this new location, Mr. Birmbaum decided to try the GRA route right from the beginning.
He built the new salad and grill restaurant with low energy lights, potato-starch packaging, a tankless hot water heater, and wood harvested entirely from Texas.
Building the Austin branch likely cost $100,000 more than his first Doc Green's, Birmbaum estimates. But he's not worried. A big portion of the added price is from energy-efficient lights and devices, which he says are expensive to buy but save money in the long run.
The lighting "will pay for itself in a year or two," he says. "I will make up the rest of it by attracting more customers [with the restaurant's green message]."
The Doc Green's company is very interested to see if his investment pays off, Birmbaum says. And if it does, he'll retrofit his other location to meet the same GRA standards.
These trade-offs – spending extra money in some areas but saving in others – are Mr. Oshman's favorite sales pitch.
"Now, enough restaurants have taken those first steps and become early adopters that we can say, 'Look, this restaurant here has saved $5,000 a year,' " he says. "This is an industry that has a 5 percent profit margin. So, it would take $100,000 in sales to earn that $5,000. That's a big issue for any business, whether they care about the environment or not."
The message is catching on. After starting the GRA in 1990, it took Oshman 14 years to partner with and certify just 90 restaurants. This summer, he had 300. "Now, we're at 350 restaurants and we have literally hundreds on our waiting list," he says. Boloco hopes to be certified by the end of the month.
Behind restaurateurs' motives – both to save the environment and save some old-fashioned green – there's the distant ticking of proposed legislation. In February, Australian officials announced plans to phase out all incandescent light bulbs. In March, San Francisco approved legislation to ban plastic shopping bags. New York and several other American cities are currently debating a prohibition on Styrofoam.
"When these bans pass, our [certified] restaurants won't have to do anything," says Oshman. "They've already done it. And because they were first, they were the heroes, they got the attention, and their customers and employees were happier. Everyone else will just be forced to keep up."