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Q&A: Turning the Restaurant Business Green

Michael Oshman decided he could make a difference by urging restaurateurs to be environmentally sustainable

Dana Nigro
Posted: September 21, 2012

In 1990, at the age of 19, Michael Oshman had heard enough about the world's environmental problems to decide that he had to do something. The question, he says, was how to motivate large numbers of people to consume dramatically fewer resources while continuing to live the kind of lifestyles they wanted. That year, he founded the Green Restaurant Association to help the food service industry operate in a more environmentally sustainable manner and educate consumers about the impacts of dining out.

To date, some 850 restaurants have joined and 450 have earned the Certified Green Restaurant designation (find them at www.dinegreen.com), including a 100 percent wind-powered restaurant owned by a collective of family farmers, the first kitchen to have a certified-organic rooftop farm, hipster coffeehouses, vegetarian establishments and university food courts, as well as pinnacles of urban fine dining like Le Bernardin, Topolobampo and Del Posto.

The points-based certification tackles more than the food; a restaurant must look at all the products and processes it uses, from appliances, lighting and cleaning products to waste reduction (a full recycling program is required) to decor, staff uniforms and take-out containers (no Styrofoam permitted). Oshman, the association’s CEO, spoke to Wine Spectator about the growth in green, current trends in food and wine and simple changes restaurants and diners can make for big results.

Wine Spectator: Of all the ways you could have tackled environmental issues, why did you choose the restaurant industry?
Michael Oshman: As a consumer, that was the industry I was most familiar with. The food-service industry has a huge environmental impact; restaurants are the largest consumers of electricity in the retail sector. When I looked at the auto industry or aviation or refrigerators, I felt consumers have less ability to influence those directly. A restaurant has to be supersensitive to consumers. There's a manager on site, a real human being there you can talk to. You can leave a suggestion card with your tip.

WS: Since you started the green certification, how much has the level of interest increased in the food-service industry?
MO: When we started in San Diego, it was a little bit like some of the first people saying the earth was round, not flat. Now we're in 44 states and Canada. We’ve got famous chefs—Eric Ripert, Mario Batali and Rick Bayless—on board. We have hotel chains, government institutions, banks, technology companies and universities such as Harvard. But we are only as good as the solutions. Had the market not responded, there’s not much we could do. The goal of the organization is to create demand for these better products. The restaurants ask the distributors, who ask the manufacturers, and that drives the economy.

WS: What are some of the most important things a restaurant can tackle on the way to being greener?
MO: In the standards, there are hundreds of things that can be done. What’s more important: going fully organic or reducing energy by 50 percent? But in the real world, the best things are defined by what’s actually doable. For example, restaurants can recycle and compost almost everything. It’s doable yesterday and makes economic sense. On the energy side, there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit. You can change your spray valve for cleaning dishes to one that uses half the water [allowed by law]. LED lighting is becoming a no-brainer, since there is such a plethora of options and the color is great now. Lighting consumes 13 percent of the electricity for a restaurant.

WS: In your certification standards, a lot of points are given for sustainable food choices. What are some of the trends you are seeing in this area?
MO: Previously it was local and organic. Now there’s a lot more awareness of eating lower on the food chain [vegetables, fish or chicken rather than beef]. For example, Mario Batali got behind the Meatless Mondays movement. A restaurant doesn’t have to be vegetarian, it’s all a matter of percentage. The more items that are low on the food chain, the bigger the positive impact in terms of energy and oil and land use.

WS: Many restaurants these days tout their "farm-to-table" cuisine or "organic and local wherever possible." So why aren't even more restaurants certified?
MO: A restaurant making a claim on its own, it's just that—a claim by a business, like "this is the best tasting ketchup." Unless the business is certified, unless there is someone outside verifying that in an objective manner, I don't know what any of them are really doing. As an issue becomes popular, you get the good and the not-so-good. The consumers deserve to know the facts, and that's what we provide.

WS: Are green-certified restaurants also choosing greener options for their wine and cocktail lists, even though that's not required in your standards?
MO: Yes, actually. Some restaurants have gotten credit for it. Some restaurants are carrying organic and biodynamic wines, and there is also a local movement within wine, pairing local vineyards with the menus. There are more and more options among liquors and wines, but it's not a huge area. … Just as it's pretty common to find organic milk, cheese and eggs in the market, I think so too organic wine could fit in that category in the coming years because wine has that association with a sense of quality that fits in well with the demographic that cares about these issues.

WS: Are many green-certified restaurants trying out wine packaging alternatives to glass bottles, such as kegs or pouches for by-the-glass pours?
MO: We haven't seen a huge amount of experimentation on that level. You have to look at the impact of the packaging in terms of size and weight and where it can go. We need to make sure the product can be turned back into a product. Glass is really heavy but it's so recyclable. A pouch that is disposable but lighter is still sending something into the landfill. That brings up a larger issue: In essence, the delivery and distribution side of the game is very unsustainable.

WS: How can diners make their experience greener even if they are not at a certified restaurant?
MO: Walk or take public transportation, consider items lower on the food chain, bring your own coffee mug or takeout container and, because so much food waste comes from unfinished food, be conscious of how hungry you are and how much you order. Consumers have an incredible amount of power to influence their restaurants. If they do all of those things, especially encouraging restaurants to go green, they will see that those restaurants make changes—larger changes than they can make at home.

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