This text is replaced by the Flash movie.

Lansing State Journal 2007

Green Dining

By Kathryn Prater
Lansing State Journal

Lee Irish says price doesn't matter when it comes to the environment.

That's why the owner of the Draft House Neighborhood Bar & Grill in DeWitt is willing to spend a little more to clean up the establishment's operations in an environmentally "green" fashion.

"Most of this green stuff we've been doing isn't necessarily cheaper, but we're willing to do what it takes to do our part to help save this planet," Irish said.

Last month, the Draft House became the first mid-Michigan business to go green in accordance with the standards of the Green Restaurant Association (GRA), a nonprofit national environmental group.

During the summer, Draft House owner Lee Irish ramped up recycling efforts, cut down water and electricity usage, eliminated plastic foam containers and moved away from toxic chemicals.

Now, his restaurant is one of 350 eateries across the country certified as environmentally friendly by the 17-year-old GRA, based in Boston.

To land such a certification, members are required to implement comprehensive recycling systems, get rid of polystyrene foam products and commit to completing each year four new steps toward becoming greener.

Road to conservation

The Draft House recycled cardboard for years and Irish said he has always considered himself ecologically friendly.

But when he created a full recycling system in his DeWitt garage for his family last year, Irish said doing his part to preserve the environment became an addiction.

Over the summer, Irish set up recycling bins in the Draft House's kitchen for his 22 part- and full-time employees to fill with glass, plastic, tin and aluminum. The four bins are in lieu of a garbage can that was used for 50 percent more waste than what the restaurant now throws away, he said.

Next, Irish tackled some larger tasks. Among them:

  • Replacing plastic foam to-go containers with unbleached, biodegradable boxes and to-go cups made with corn byproducts.
  • Adding water-saving aerators and spray valves to the dishwasher, sinks and other equipment.
  • Installing motion sensors that turn off lights when a room is vacant to save energy.
  • Switching to recycled paper towels.
  • Replacing chlorine bleach with cleaners that avoid harsh chemicals.
  • Ordering fair-trade certified coffee that is grown in natural, shaded habitats without pesticides.
  • Changing the seafood selection process to avoid fishing methods that harm the environment.

All told, Irish spent about $10,000 on the new equipment and supplies for the 2,400-square-foot restaurant and bar. And even though going green can be more costly, Irish said it's worth it.

For instance, the new to-go containers cost 34 cents apiece, compared with 7 cents each for plastic foam boxes.

"I embarked on this journey to do the right thing," he said. "I don't care what it costs."

Irish declined to discuss exact figures, but said revenue at the Draft House, which averages 200 customers a day and seats 93, is composed of about 70 percent food sales and 30 percent alcohol sales.

Irish said the restaurant and bar, whose menu selections range from $1.25 appetizer popcorn to $9.95 salmon dinners to entree specials for $16, has seen significant growth during past two years. Sales are up 40 percent from three years ago, he said.

Some conservation methods may end up saving money for the Draft House, which Irish's father opened 25 years ago.

The new equipment will reduce the restaurant's water usage by 54 percent, Irish said. It now will use about 217,800 gallons a year - or 600 gallons a day - instead of 478,071 gallons a year with the old system.

A green pioneer

For the GRA, the Draft House is among a select few green restaurant pioneers in Michigan. The establishment is only the third in Michigan to meet GRA standards. Amici's Pizza in Berkley is the only other restaurant or cafe to receive green certification. Rock Harbor Lodge in Isle Royale is certified as a resort or retreat center.

"Those restaurants are exhibiting leadership by being some of the first," said GRA's founder and executive director, Michael Oshman.

He said the association, founded in 1990, has not yet "done much outreach in Michigan." Elsewhere, the numbers are higher. For example, the GRA Web site lists 25 restaurants or cafes in New York and 16 in California. The work Irish has put into the Draft House could spark a trend in Michigan, Oshman said.

"He's making it easier for the next restaurant to do it - it shows that it's doable," Oshman said.

"Once an area gets a bunch of restaurants ... other restaurants get wind and they follow. And as we get more restaurants in a particular area, there's more distributors and recyclers who take those products."

To some environmentally conscious customers, green businesses are valued and even preferred places to patronize.

Michele Halloran, a DeWitt resident who eats at the Draft House once a week, has recycled aluminum, paper, plastic, glass and batteries for 20 years.

"If I know an establishment is ecologically friendly, I'm much more apt to shop there, dine there, bring my business there," Halloran, 55, said as she browsed a Draft House menu last week.

"All we really have are ourselves and the earth. So the extent that we can be kinder to the earth, all the better."

The Draft House, as a certified member of the GRA, must implement four new green methods each year of its membership. Irish said next year he's considering replacing old equipment, such as compressors, that absorb double the energy necessary to operate.

Irish also is hoping to eliminate smoking in the main restaurant and open a smokers lounge in a basement banquet room now used for storage. He said plans to go nonsmoking may be in place by the first half of next year.

"You hear a lot about global warming, you hear a lot about things going on in the world, and we're just trying to be part of the solution, not part of the problem," he said.