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In Restaurants, Habits Make the Difference in Water Conservation

Often saddled with frequent staff turnover and deeply ingrained kitchen practices, restaurants and bars have a lot more to think about than plumbing.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

Restaurants face a number of unique challenges in dealing with drought. That’s because, unlike in many other commercial sectors, a solution to saving water doesn’t necessarily come from simply installing new plumbing fixtures.

The biggest obstacle to saving water in restaurants is breaking old habits. A restaurant owner can install all the new water-saving technologies available, but if chefs, dishwashers and servers continue to work in old patterns, the water savings won’t materialize.

That’s the word from a number of industry professionals, who recently participated in an online water conservation forum hosted by Water Deeply and Shock The Drought. (To view a highlight video of the event, click here.)

“No matter how many ideas we have, it all boils down to just changing the culture,” said John Cox, chef at the award-winning Sierra Mar restaurant at the Post Ranch Inn at Big Sur. “It’s not about some radically new ideas. Unless you’re really committed to changing those habits that have been established, you’re not going to get anywhere.”

That can be a difficult task, because restaurants typically experience a high rate of staff turnover. Once a kitchen helper gets trained in a new technique – such as not leaving faucets running as a convenience – they might be off to a new job at another restaurant. Their replacement is likely to bring the same habit, because it’s so ingrained in restaurant culture.

“A pet peeve is seeing the water run all the time because staff find it easier to just leave it running,” said Debra Lane, a water resources analyst at the City of Santa Rosa, who works with lots of restaurants on water conservation. “I love technology, but the biggest bangs for the buck are going to be these little things in terms of behavioral change.”

Health codes can be another problem that are completely outside the control of chefs and restaurant owners. Chazz Alberti, executive director of Deft & Delicious, a consultancy that specializes in crafting sustainable dining experiences, said many county health codes actually require a wasteful defrosting method.

“How you defrost food is responsible for more wasted water than probably anything else that happens in a restaurant,” said Alberti. “Defrosting food under running water is really a thing of the past, and boards of health … need to adapt.”

The opportunity for water conservation in restaurants is significant. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates restaurants use about 15 percent of all the water consumed by commercial and industrial facilities in the United States. And saving water offers benefits for restaurants as well. The EPA estimates that introducing water conservation measures can cut restaurant operating costs by 11 percent.

Lane mentioned one eatery, “which will remain unnamed,” that rinses potatoes under running water for hours to wash the starch out. It does so to achieve a certain taste in its French fries.

If the restaurant isn’t willing to change a practice like that because it would impact their product, “they might look at some reuse of all that water,” she said. That could include capturing it for landscape irrigation instead of letting the rinse water run down the drain.

She also frequently sees restaurants with leaky fixtures, whether it’s a toilet or a kitchen faucet that doesn’t shut off completely.

“If many restaurants paid attention to basics like that, they would see a great reduction,” Lane said.

The city is now targeting brewpubs with rebates to replace old urinals with new ones that either use no water at all or need just a pint per flush.

“There’s tremendous savings that I’m seeing there,” she said. “There’s a lot of guys that are going to the lavatory at these businesses. An existing urinal will use a gallon per flush.”

Cox said trying new things can yield big water savings. He noticed the night cleaners at his restaurant used a large amount of water. So he decided to buy an air compressor to see if it could fit into the cleaning process and save some water. As he was storing the compressor under the dishwashing counter, he noticed the prerinse nozzle in the sink running constantly. On a whim, he routed the air gun from the compressor behind the counter and into the sink area to see if it could be used to blow food off plates instead of using water. And it worked, preventing the need to rinse plates with water before they go in the dishwasher. Total water use by the restaurant fell from 3,300 gallons per day to 2,800.

“Literally overnight, we had pretty huge (water) savings,” Cox said. “There’s so many other things you can use, like faucet aerators or low-water-use prerinse units. For some reason most restaurants are completely oblivious to them. Until that changes, I don’t think we’re going to see a big change in the state.”

Another challenge at restaurants is indirect water consumption determined by what customers choose to eat. Producing meat requires a lot more water than growing fruits and vegetables. But restaurants build their identity around their menus, so making a radical shift to more vegetarian menu offerings is not going to be likely.

“At the end of the day, a steakhouse is a steakhouse, so they’re going to have to save their energy and water in other ways,” said Michael Oshman, CEO of the Green Restaurant Association.

He suggested, instead, that any restaurant can use simple graphics on its menu to identify dishes that use less water – as many already do to identify spicy or heart-healthy options.

“Make it easy for the consumer to choose … with menu icons that call out environmentally friendly food,” Oshman said. “It’s got to be fun; the graphics have to be good.”

Lots more can be done, with table tents (stand-up cards) that describe what the restaurant is doing to save water, training servers to explain drought-friendly menu options, or putting posters in the front window.

“That’s going to be a feel-good to the customer to be able to go in there and get an understanding that … they are not only eating good food but they are supporting a business that is trying to make a difference,” Lane said.

But there are limits to how far some restaurants might be willing to go.

Cox said that although Post Ranch Inn has taken many big strides to conserve water (including a grey-water-reuse system to irrigate orchards on the resort property), he is wary of getting too preachy with his customers.

“My job as a chef is to make sure people have a fantastic time,” he said. “I think it’s a very sensitive balance in being an ecological and sustainable member of the community without taking away from the guest experience.”

Top image: Candelario Orozco demonstrates the system devised by chef John Cox to clean dishes with compressed air, instead of water, before they go in the dishwasher. Cox says the system cut daily water consumption at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar restaurant significantly. (John Cox)

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