by Whit Gibbons

October 23, 2011

I have entered many restaurants in the past year with the expectation that I was in for a fine meal. In two instances, I got more than I expected and came away with a positive attitude about the ecological and environmental stance of the restaurant owners.

One of the restaurants, in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., was called Farmers & Fishers. I use the past tense because the restaurant had to close following the flooding of Washington Harbour from Hurricane Irene. According to its website, it hopes to reopen next spring. The other is known as The Restaurant at the Willcox in Aiken, S.C. Both restaurants serve "green" food--of the environmentally friendly type not the Dr. Seuss green eggs and ham variety--and both operate on the principle that they will serve food produced through sustainable agricultural practices.

For Farmers & Fishers sustainable agriculture includes "raising food that is healthy for consumers and animals" and that does no harm to the environment. From a social perspective, sustainable agriculture also "supports and enhances rural communities." Why would anyone object to a conservation ecology approach that preserves natural biodiversity, is economically viable, and provides excellent restaurant food to boot?

I spoke with Shannon Ellis, owner of the Willcox, which is a hotel as well as a restaurant. The theme of sustainability runs throughout the enterprise, and Ellis and her staff are committed to a plan that makes it work. Their sustainability statement includes a commitment to "seasonal cooking and procuring ingredients that are grown and harvested from sustainable and local food sources whenever possible." The menu features pasture-raised beef, naturally farmed pork, organic chicken, and farmed and line-caught fish. Processed and chemically preserved foods are excluded as is most food that arrives in plastic containers. The restaurant simply does not do business with companies that cannot meet its standards.

The Willcox's commitment to minimizing its environmental impact is evident through the full dining experience, from acquiring the food to disposing of the waste. The organization embraces the conscientious waste management strategy promoted by environmentalists: reduce, reuse, recycle. We would all benefit environmentally if every business were to strive to meet those same goals. The restaurant's menu is "printed on 100% recycled product" and "used cooking oil is collected and converted into biodiesel fuel." The Willcox also strives "to conserve water and energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve air quality, and minimize waste." They educate their employees and encourage them to practice environmentally sustainable approaches. In addition, they advise their commercial suppliers that management values "the importance of environmentally respectful conduct." That position is reinforced by having "an environmentally preferred purchasing policy."

Shannon Ellis views her management of the Willcox as having a triple bottom line. First, the business has to be financially sound. Otherwise, additional bottom lines will be meaningless. Her second commitment is to the local community, a plan borne out by purchasing the restaurant's food from regional suppliers whenever possible. And finally, the environment is a key part of the overall business plan. She notes that some economic decisions cost money in the short term but pay off later with positive environmental returns, a sustainable approach for a long-term business plan. All three bottom lines described by Ellis should be the concern of responsible business owner.

For hotels and restaurants, the idea that "going green" is good for the financial bottom line is not a new one. National organizations such as the nonprofit Green Restaurants Association (www.dinegreen.com) and the Green Hotels Association (www.greenhotels.com) were established in the early 1990s. State organizations also exist. The South Carolina Green Hospitality Alliance (www.greenhospitalityalliance.com), founded in 1993, is a nonpartisan program that focuses on environmentally responsible food services and lodging throughout the state. The Willcox's hotel and its restaurant have the admirable distinction of having earned the highest ratings given by the alliance.

If every restaurant followed the green lead of the Willcox (www.thewillcox.com) and Farmers & Fishers (www.farmersandfishers.com), we would have a better, sustainable environment, not to mention some very fine food.

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