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Green Restaurant Checklist

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A woman stands in a commercial restaurant kitchen.
Sustainability best practices for your restaurant, including ways to reduce food waste, and use less water and energy. Plus, how to engage employees and give back to your community.
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Required practices

In Portland, the following rules apply to businesses who make, sell, or distribute food or beverages:

Food

Offer vegetarian and/or vegan meals. According to Portland’s Climate Action Plan, by choosing to eat lower-carbon foods, residents can eat a healthier diet, bolster the local economy, help preserve the agricultural land base and in some cases, reduce emissions from transporting foods. Your menu should offer a variety of vegan or vegetarian options, including more than one of your entrée sections. Do you frequently highlight a vegetarian or vegan special? Look for ways to boost the number of lower-carbon meals you offer to your customers.

Purchase seafood from sustainable sources (Marine Stewardship Council or Seafood Watch). According to Seafood Watch, over 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are either fully fished or overfished. Purchase seafood that has been certified by credible third parties and you’ll help to maintain or even grow seafood populations without jeopardizing their ecosystem. Sustainable fisheries will be rewarded for their environmental stewardship, and those that aren’t sustainable will be encouraged to improve their practices. Customers are increasingly trying to make thoughtful food choices. Let them know you share their interest and concern for the long-term health of the world’s fisheries.

Purchase food from certified organizations working for environmental and economic justice throughout the supply chain (Food Alliance, Fair Trade USA, etc.). Sustainability at your restaurant isn’t just about your own practices. Your purchasing choices can impact the practices of food suppliers, too. Look for organizations that support farmers and ranchers who not only produce sustainable food, but also work to promote safe and fair working conditions for their staff. When possible, make purchasing choices that consider both the food and the farmer.

Recycling and waste reduction

Monitor food scraps and implement a plan to reduce food waste. Reducing food waste saves money and staff time, reduces environmental impact, and supports our region’s waste reduction efforts. Begin by monitoring and recording your pre-consumer food waste. Keep a written log of food thrown out and discuss it with staff to raise awareness. For a more in-depth analysis, the EPA has a free tracking tool and calculator that lets you compare different approaches to manage excess food. The USDA and the National Restaurant Association also have tools and resources that can help. Large restaurants might want to invest in an automated approach such as Lean Path.

Donate excess edible food to staff and/or food donation program. Before you compost excess food, consider whether you can donate it to a local organization that will redistribute it to those in need. State and federal laws protect you from liability when you donate in good faith, and since your staff is knowledgeable about safe food handling it’s unlikely you’ll need to provide much additional training to ensure safe donation practices.

Compost food scraps. In addition to garbage and recycling, your garbage company can add compost pickup to your service. If this is something you’re interested in, give your current garbage company a call to see what they charge to add compost. You can find your current company’s name and phone number on your bill. You’ll likely see it printed on your garbage roll carts or dumpsters, too. Note: Unlike residential service, restaurants can sign up with any permitted commercial garbage and recycling company for pickup service. When considering new service or a change in service, you can give several companies a call to compare rates.

Recycle cooking fats, oils, and grease into biofuel. You can often find a company that will take your spent oil for use as a biofuel. Fats and grease are typically pumped from your restaurant. Find a list of local “preferred pumpers” and oil recyclers. The businesses listed have been able to show that they meet certain criteria required by local government.

Provide reusable dishware, silverware, and cups for customers and employees. Eliminate paper plates, cups, and plastic utensils for customers who are dining in and from back of house. Provide washable, reusable serviceware instead. If you offer take-out, ask your customers if they need napkins, utensils, or condiments rather than assume that they do.

Purchase paper supplies (paper towels, toilet paper, to-go containers) made with recycled content. Help close the recycling loop. Think about the paper supplies that you use the most and ask your vendor for products that contain at least 30 percent recycled content. The higher the recycled content the better.

List specials on a chalk/white board or have staff share them with customers verbally rather than print them. For menu items that change frequently, use a chalk board or have your servers provide the details at the table. You’ll save paper, ink, and computer time.

Use electronic alternatives to paper whenever possible (invoicing, payroll, orientation materials, etc.). Evaluate all the ways that paper flows through your restaurant. Transition to doing as much work online as possible and you’ll save paper, ink, and wear and tear on your printer.

Purchase environmentally friendly products (food & beverage, office supplies, décor, etc.). Take a holistic view when making purchases. Reduce pesticides in the environment by favoring organic. Consider used furniture, lighting, and remodeling materials before buying new. Think about how you can reuse or repurpose seasonal displays. Develop the habit of applying a sustainability lens to all your purchasing decisions.

Use green-certified cleaning products in areas not used for food prep. Cleaning products impact indoor air quality and aquatic life. When it comes to purchasing green cleaners, these three programs have well-established standards:

If you’re interested in making your own cleaning products, check out this helpful guide from Metro.

Offer sustainable catering practices to customers (minimal packaging, buffet style serving, etc.). If you offer catering to your customers, avoid providing individually packaged meals. Provide buffet-style or platter servings instead. Ask your customers if they need paper plates, cups, napkins, or utensils rather than automatically providing them. If you incorporate organic, local, or non-GMO food into your menu options, make sure you share those details with customers.

Deliver food and/or supplies in reusable containers. Disposable take-out containers cannot be recycled or composted in Portland, even if the packaging says "recyclable," "compostable," or "biodegradable" (metal containers are the exception; they can go in recycling). Even if they could be, reusable is an environmentally better option. If you receive seafood and produce packaged in waxed cardboard, work with your suppliers to see if they can switch to using reusable plastic crates. See if your vendors offer a durable tote system for breads and other items.

Use high-efficiency electric hand dryers instead of paper towels in restrooms. High-speed electric hand dryers are the best environmental option for hand drying, above paper towels and standard speed hand dryers.

Water

Upgrade your dishwashing pre-rinse sprayer to a flow rate of 1.15 gallons per minute (gpm) or less. An older sprayer typically uses 2 gallons of water a minute. Replacing it with a new, more efficient model will cut your water use in half, not only saving on water and sewer charges but also the energy used to heat the water. The sprayer head is often stamped with a gpm number but sometimes not. Request a high efficiency pre-rinse sprayer from the Portland Water Bureau.

Regularly check all water-cooled equipment and dishwashers and adjust for water efficiency. Equipment that has water running through it (but not recirculating) is considered “single-pass” cooled equipment. Because by design the water flows through the equipment and then down a drain, this type of equipment uses a significant amount of water and can result in unnecessarily high water and sewer costs. It’s often difficult to know if your equipment is water-cooled unless you can see the plumbing. Either way, call your maintenance company to ensure your water-cooled equipment is working properly, especially if you see an unexpected spike in your water bill.

Based on water and sewer costs only, replacing a water-cooled model with an air-cooled model can pay for itself in as little as 1-2 years. If you’re ready for a more efficient ice machine, you can likely qualify for a rebate worth 50% of the cost of the new eligible ice machine (up to a maximum of $3,000) when you replace your water-cooled ice machine with a high-efficiency Energy Star-labeled air-cooled ice machine.

You can also get a free assessment from the Water Bureau. They provide you with a water use report and will also indicate whether certain equipment could be replaced with an air-cooled version. They can even calculate your estimated savings from making the switch.

Use restroom faucet aerators that have a flow rate of 0.5 gallons per minute. Find the gallons per minute (gpm) number stamped into the outer edge of your restroom aerators. If it’s 1.0 gpm or greater, request free aerators from the Portland Water Bureau.

Fix interior faucet and exterior hose leaks. A faucet or hose that drips at the rate of one drip per second can waste more than 3,000 gallons of water per year. You can often eliminate leaks and drips by replacing old washers and then using plumber’s tape and wrench to get a tight seal when you reattach aerators, hoses, or nozzles.

Rinse-water from equipment that is cleaned outside flows into a sanitary sewer, not the storm drain. If you clean and rinse containers or equipment outside, make sure that the water runoff is flowing into a sewer drain, not a storm drain. Some storm drains flow directly into rivers, along with whatever soaps or other cleaners you’re using. Rinse-water should only flow into a sewer drain so it can be filtered and treated.

Purchase WaterSense-approved toilets or those that use 1.28 gallons per flush or less. A WaterSense label is printed on toilets that are independently certified for both performance and efficiency. Replacing an old, inefficient toilet with a WaterSense toilet can reduce water use 20 to 60 percent. If you’re remodeling soon or it’s time to replace an older toilet, check with Portland’s Water Bureau to see if they are offering rebates for toilets and other water-efficient fixtures. Currently, commercial accounts can get up to twenty rebates at $50 each.

Purchase WaterSense-approved urinals or those that use 0.5 gallons per flush or less. Consider replacing older, inefficient urinals with new, more efficient models. Check for rebates through Portland’s Water Bureau.

Landscape with native and drought tolerant plants. Landscape with plants that are drought tolerant, native to the NW, and are hardy in urban environments.

Sign up to be a Green Street Steward and adopt a bioswale in your neighborhood. Bioswales are rain gardens that collect stormwater runoff from streets. When placed by the City along street curbs, they are often referred to as Green Streets. They help keep stormwater and pollutants out of our streams and rivers, improve the health of watersheds, and provide attractive streetscapes. The City conducts regular visits to bioswales to trim or replace vegetation and to ensure that they’re operating effectively. Green Street Stewards help in between these visits by alerting City staff to issues needing immediate attention.

Transportation 

Provide secure bike parking for customers. The City can provide and install up to two free sidewalk “staple” racks, assuming your location meets a few minimal requirements. If you consistently see more than 10 bikes parked in front of your restaurant, you might want to also check with the City about getting a bike corral installed. Bike parking corrals are created by installing multiple bike parking racks in a street parking space at or near your restaurant.

Provide sheltered, secure bike parking for employees. Because employee bike parking is long-term, it should be sheltered from rain and it should be secure – in a locked room, enclosed by a fence, or within view of employees, a building attendant, or security guards. 

Offer reimbursement, raffles, or other incentives to employees that bike, walk, or carpool to work. Best Workplaces for Commuters has helpful resources with details on tax benefits for commuters, carpool incentive programs, and more. You might start with their Commuter Benefit Briefs.

For bicycle commuters specifically, the federal government currently offers a tax benefit of up to $20/month. Your accounting and/or HR folks can learn more about the federal tax benefit in the IRS publication 15-b, Employer's Tax Guide to Fringe Benefits; see “Transportation (Commuting) Benefits.”

If you’re looking for smaller first steps to take, consider a gift-card raffle or pizza party (or both) every now and then. A common parameter is to include folks who use alternative transportation for at least 80% of their trips, but you can set any threshold you want. Celebrating staff that leave their cars at home can be rewarding for those making the effort and motivating for others that may simply need a nudge to give it a try.

Provide emergency ride vouchers or taxi reimbursements to employees who commute by foot, bike, transit, or carpool. Sometimes employees are reluctant to take alternative transportation to work because they worry they might need to suddenly leave work for unexpected personal needs (pick up a sick kid from school, etc.). Knowing their workplace has an emergency ride program in place helps alleviate those concerns. Solutions include offering cab reimbursement, bus tickets, and/or rides by coworkers. If your organization participates in one of Trimet’s employee pass programs or subsidizes at least $10/month per employee for alternative transportation, TriMet will supply your organization with cab vouchers. Feedback we’ve gotten from businesses indicates that employees are grateful the policy is in place, and that it rarely gets used.

Participate in a commute challenge every year. Every year in May, the Street Trust organizes the Bike More Challenge. Anyone at your business can register—either as individuals or as part of a team. In early October you can join Oregon Get There Challenge. Don’t want to wait? Your business can create its own competition anytime. Compete against last year’s commute rate or compete across departments or locations. Set out to improve last year’s alternative commute rate or compete across departments or locations. Consider challenging a neighboring business or friendly competitor to see which commutes the most miles by bike, has the most new riders, rides the most days, etc.

Offer an onsite electric vehicle charging station for employee and/or customer use. (Or promote one nearby.) Electric vehicles are becoming increasingly popular. That means an increasing number of people are making destination decisions based on whether they can charge their car while they shop, eat, or meet. Is there an EV station within one block of your restaurant? If your restaurant has its own EV charging spot, consider making it available for both employees and customers. You can learn more about EVs and EV charge stations through Forth.

Make customer deliveries by bike, hybrid or electric vehicle, or vehicles using low-carbon fuel. Can you use one of the local bike delivery services that have insulated cargo carriers? If you already have standard cars or trucks, can you convert them to biodiesel? 

Set a "no idling" policy for deliveries to and from your restaurant. Idling for more than 30 seconds wastes more fuel than restarting the engine, and trucks and autos emit the same pollutants into the environment when idling as they do when they are moving. Ask your delivery drivers not to idle at their destination, and post “no idling” signs near your loading docks and doors. 

Display sustainable travel options on your website for visitors. Add this information to your your website’s “contact” page. Make sure you’ve listed nearby bus lines, MAX or streetcar stops, electric vehicle charging, and/or bikeways and bike parking near your workplace.

Energy

Train staff to ensure optimal airflow of refrigerated cases and walk-in coolers. Your cooling equipment works best when there’s nothing blocking fans and vents. Provide periodic training to your staff to ensure food crates or other supplies aren’t consistently stored where they will cause your equipment to work harder than necessary.

Conduct annual maintenance checks on HVAC system (or as often as recommended by manufacturer). Heating and cooling equipment that isn’t operating at its best causes your HVAC unit to perform less efficiently than it should. Conducting maintenance as often as recommended helps catch potential problems early on, when they are often easier and less costly to repair than when left to chance. You also want to ensure that the air quality in your restaurant is as good as it should be. Keep filters and equipment clean and in good working condition to provide a safer working environment for staff and healthier air for your staff and customers.

Use ENERGY STAR® qualified cooking equipment. ENERGY STAR products are independently certified to save energy without sacrificing features or functionality. Whether you buy or lease, look for equipment that is Energy Star-rated. And don’t forget that you can get a rebate through Energy Trust of Oregon when you buy (and sometimes even lease) certain efficient restaurant equipment. Before you shop for cooking equipment, confirm the make and model through the Energy Trust of Oregon website to see if a rebate is available.

Turn down (or off) cooking equipment during slack periods and after hours. Create and post a schedule. Designate a staff person to ensure cooking equipment is turned off, or down, when not needed for long periods of time.

Install automatic door closers and/or strip curtains on walk-in cooler doors. These are two very cost-effective ways to reduce losing cold air when opening and closing your walk-in cooler. In situations where an automatic closer is impractical, strip curtains are a good solution. However, most walk-in coolers would benefit from using both.

Regularly check seals on walk-in coolers to confirm they’re in good working order. Door seals wear out over time so it’s a good practice to inspect them at least once a year. Seals should not be torn, missing or compressed to the point that air leaks through. Leaky air can cause ice and frost build-up, water dripping on floors, freezing around door seals and unusual icing patterns in and around the refrigeration equipment.

Use ENERGY STAR® qualified refrigerated appliances. As with cooking equipment, you can reduce monthly energy expenses by using the most efficient equipment possible. Look for Energy Star-rated refrigerated units and cross-check your preferred makes and models with Energy Trust of Oregon’s list of incentives.

Use either LED bulbs, T8, or T5 fluorescents with electronic ballasts in linear lighting. When it’s time to replace or upgrade your lighting, check out LED options. The prices continue to fall and the options (bright or warm, dimming, colors, etc.) continue to expand. As with most energy equipment decisions you make, take advantage of Energy Trust of Oregon incentives to maximize your buying power.

Use LEDs or CFLs (compact fluorescent lightbulbs) in track and spot lighting. LEDs in particular are improving very quickly in both quality and variety, even as the price per bulb continues to decline. Track and spot lighting has historically been very inefficient lighting. LEDs use much less energy than halogen bulbs and most other forms of spot lighting, and they offer you a range of tints and colors. As with all lighting projects, check Energy Trust of Oregon incentives to see if you can bring your costs down even further through rebates.

Use occupancy sensors or timers for lighting in storage rooms, offices, restrooms and other common rooms. Occupancy or motion sensors can be very effective, especially in rooms that are used sporadically. Estimates of savings after installing sensors range from 35-75 percent, depending on room size, type of lighting, and the use of the space.

Use programmable thermostats to automatically reduce heating and air conditioning during closed hours. Occasionally check the settings on your programmable thermostats to make sure they are still set for appropriate on/off times. At the very least, check them after power outages, and in spring and fall when changes for daylight savings time take effect. If you have a few rebels overriding the settings on a regular basis, you might be able to minimize this behavior by setting the timer so that heat/air comes on 30 minutes before the first employee arrives. That way, the temperature is comfortable when people start their workday. To offset this extra energy, you should also program the thermostat to revert to your off-peak temperature 30 minutes to an hour before the last person leaves for the day. Most restaurants stay perfectly comfortable for that last bit of time before leaving for the night.

Schedule an energy audit at least every 5 years through your electric utility or the Energy Trust of Oregon. Your options for improving energy efficiency will depend on whether you lease or own your building, how you use your space, and the age of the building, etc. Lighting and HVAC are obvious places to look at, but each workplace can have additional, unique opportunities.

Purchase renewable energy. PGE and Pacific Power both have green energy programs.

Weather seal doors. If you can see even a small amount of daylight around the edge of your external doors, you’re losing heated (or cooled) air. Replace or install doorway insulation and door sweeps to reduce this loss, and save money on your energy bill.

Employee Engagement

Management supports an employee or green team in making sustainability improvements. Just one sustainability champion can make all the difference in your workplace, but the more employees you have, the more important it is to establish a sustainability group that includes representatives from different areas of your organization.

Educate employees annually (at a minimum) about sustainability best practices. Everyone can benefit from a refresher about do’s and don’ts now and then. Use a newsletter, a lunch and learn, or reminders at all-staff meetings. Get in the habit of doing this at least annually. You could also consider a Recycling 101 training every year or so. (Contact us for ideas.)

Communicate sustainability practices to customers. Don’t forget to share your accomplishments with customers and clients. Your restaurant’s commitment to sustainability can set you apart from your competitors. Share your successes through industry newsletters, social media, advertising, and marketing. This has the added benefit of acknowledging staff effort and achievement. It will help you maintain momentum, and even better, you may influence other restaurants to make their own changes.

Educate new employees about sustainability best practices—including waste reduction, recycling, and commuting options. Don’t forget to provide details and direction for new hires about composting, recycling, alternative commute options, waste reduction efforts, etc. Include a sustainability and transportation section in your orientation materials. If you have only a few employees and take an informal approach to orientation, consider creating a one-pager with answers to FAQs along with a list of sustainability practices that you want new hires to keep in mind.

Create a sustainability plan and/or purchasing policy to guide decision-making. Your plan can be as simple as a list of actions, assignments, and dates, or it can be as complex as a multi-page document that describes your restaurant’s sustainability mission, goals, measurements, and next steps. A plan helps maintain sustainability efforts by keeping everyone informed, and prevents lapses due to employee turnover.

If you have fewer than 20 employees, you could start by establishing a purchasing policy that promotes sustainable food and supply purchasing. Or focus on equipment and energy by directing that the restaurant only purchase or lease Energy Star qualified equipment going forward. Take the first step and build from there.

Encourage employee feedback, comments, and suggestions related to sustainability actions at work. Employees often see opportunities or have recommendations for greening the restaurant, but they aren’t always sure how to share them. Encourage and capture as many ideas from as many employees as you can. Encourage staff to share ideas with a point person or green team member.

Community Engagement

Donate in-kind services or products to community organizations. Sponsor local events, clubs, children’s sports teams or activities. Donate food, services or products to nonprofits for their fundraising events. Host fundraising days where you devote a percentage of the day’s sales to a local nonprofit or cause.

Provide paid time for employees to serve in a community leadership role (business association, government advisory committee, etc.).

Create a policy to contract with women- and minority-owned businesses (MWBE). Not only can you use this lens when hiring for formal contract work, but you can also apply it to your own internal contracts with janitorial services, caterers, remodelers, and others. Business Oregonhas a search feature to help you identify businesses that have registered and been certified by the State of Oregon.

Create a social responsibility mission statement to guide work and share it with the public. According to the National Restaurant Association, “60 percent of consumers say they are likely to make a restaurant choice based on its eco-friendly practices, such as water conservation and recycling.” It’s probably safe to assume that the percentage is even higher in Portland, along with a broader focus that often includes local, organic, etc. Develop a short, one- to three-sentence statement that reflects the sustainability values of your restaurant. Once you have this, share it with employees and customers through your menu, website, and/or social media.

The content on this page was last updated in 2020. Please let us know if you discover outdated information or broken website links.