As consumers become more aware of where their food is coming from, restaurants and retailers alike are getting into the sustainability game. From a business standpoint, incorporating things like sustainable design makes sense because it helps the bottom line. But having a strong message of sustainability associated with a business is also advantageous in the food and beverage industry from a branding perspective.
For EL REY, a Mexican beer garden in Washington, D.C., sustainable design is what the business is all about. In addition to beer, margaritas, tacos, tamales and other items one would expect to find at a Mexican beer garden, diners are also treated to a unique atmosphere created by the restaurant’s structure. EL REY is D.C.’s first fully-enclosed structure that is made out of shipping containers. The building is made out of five total, along with a retractable roof over its patio area.
According to Roger Brown, EL REY’s general manager, the unique facade is often what draws customers to the restaurant.
“People walk by and look at the building and think, ‘Wow, this is different…and cool! I should check out what’s going on inside.’ Customers always seem to be intrigued by the venue,” he said.
The restaurant is committed to sustainable design to its core, which makes it unique. But it also helps pay the bills and keep costs down, Brown said. EL REY’s signature shipping containers themselves were cheaper to build with than traditional construction materials. The restaurant also gets paid by grease collectors for its used fryer oil, which is converted into diesel fuel that burns almost 95% cleaner than regular diesel, and it recycles paper, plastic and glass and participates in water conservation efforts.
Brown said that the restaurant’s commitment to sustainable design is something that engages customers.
“I think most Americans realize that their actions do have an impact on the environment and would like to do what they can to contribute to its conservation. It feels good on the conscience to ‘go green’ as they say, so most people seem to be very supportive of any and all our efforts to go in that direction,” he said.
Maeve Webster, senior director for Datassential, agreed that consumers care more and more about where they spend their money. She said that millennials in particular are often skeptical of big business, and from a branding standpoint, sustainable design efforts can alleviate that lack of trust and help establish a more positive brand image.
“Most consumers are looking to feel better about what they purchase and where they spend their money, whether that’s driven by a desire to eat better or support ‘good’ business practices. Providing those reasons to feel good definitely helps any brand — restaurant or manufacturer — in the end,” she said.
Whole Foods Market is another business that has established a strong reputation for sustainability. The company has incorporated sustainable design elements at its stores, including solar-canopied parking lots, wind-powered lights and efficient combined heat-and-power systems.
The retailer’s Brooklyn, N.Y., location is a particularly impressive feat of sustainable design, incorporating a rooftop greenhouse from which it can source produce all year long and delivering groceries to customers via a fleet of bikes that not only help Whole Foods reduce its carbon footprint, but also get deliveries to people faster since they don’t have to deal with city traffic or parking.
Like EL REY, Whole Foods’ reputation for sustainability is something that makes it stand out to customers, and its sustainable design efforts have also allowed the retailer to forge partnerships within the communities in which it operates. For example, its Brooklyn rooftop greenhouse is run by local company Gotham Greens and its bike deliveries there are made by Peoples Cargo.
“We’re particularly excited to work with a local organization with roots right here in Brooklyn and a mission — local, fresh, sustainably produced food — that’s very much in line with our own,” said J’aime Mitchell, green mission specialist for Whole Foods’ Northeast Region, according to a Supermarket News report.
And while Whole Foods’ sustainability efforts have certainly raised the brand up in some consumers’ eyes and drawn publicity to the retailer, Datassential’s Webster said such efforts also allow businesses like Whole Foods to benefit from longer-term cost cutting. Specifically, she pointed to reducing energy use and waste, which provide both short- and long-term financial benefits, and sustainable farming practices, which can help companies cut costs that are associated with bad publicity. Overall, incorporating sustainable practices can generate goodwill for a brand, which will bring in more customers and, in turn, more sales, Webster said.
EL REY’s Brown said he hopes that other establishments start to take advantage of the good things sustainable design brings to the table. Many restaurants still don’t recycle, which he said is a good place for them to start on the path toward sustainability, potentially following up with efforts such as installing hand dryers in bathrooms or adding solar panels to their buildings.
“I think we will look back in 10 to 20 years and wonder how our society functioned without consideration of sustainability. If EL REY is helping to push this discussion forward and make people re-evaluate, then I am immensely proud to play a role in its continued success,” he said.
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