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Shaping Restaurants to Be Models of Efficiency

by: LAURA NOVAK    18 May 2006

HERE'S food for thought: if restaurants were automobiles, they would be Hummers. That's because the restaurant business wastes more energy than any other industry in America. Experts say that 80 percent of the $10 billion annual energy bill for commercial food service is squandered by the use of inefficient equipment.

But one organization here, the Food Service Technology Center, has been trying to turn gas-guzzling eateries into energy-efficient hybrids.

For 20 years, the center has been "road-testing" restaurant equipment, as Don Fisher, the center's project manager, calls it. The center applies the equivalent of a mile-per-gallon rating to the appliances that cook and refrigerate food and clean the hardware used to prepare it. Mr. Fisher says the energy waste in restaurants is "the same thing as if people go out and buy all the materials to make 10 hamburgers or sandwiches and then just throw eight of them away."

According to the National Restaurant Association, a trade group in Washington, there are 925,000 restaurants and food service outlets in the United States, with sales expected to reach $511 billion in 2006. About 50 percent of restaurant operators have bought energy-saving equipment in the last two years, the association reports. But for the Food Service Technology Center, it has been a long, slow climb uphill to make the industry aware of its wastefulness.

"For years nobody cared about what we did," Mr. Fisher said. "We were out there doing something pie in the sky, California stuff. But now there are very few manufacturers who don't know who we are."

On any given day at the center, located 35 miles east of San Francisco, researchers can be found cooking common foods using equipment sent by manufacturers or restaurant owners. For example, one technician inserted temperature sensors called thermocouples into about a dozen raw potatoes before placing them in an oven. The thermocouples were connected to a computer calculating how much heat was needed to cook each potato. Another researcher measured the moisture and fat content of cheese sprinkled on several pizzas before baking. These equations are later factored into final cooking temperatures that will be compared with measurements of energy used. (The food is donated to a local food bank.)

"Our goal was to develop a robust procedure that would measure energy consumption and efficiency and at the same time document how many pounds of hamburger the appliance can cook and how uniformly," Mr. Fisher said. "Then the restaurant operator's goal is to reduce operating costs so they don't have to charge so much for a hamburger."

The center was created in 1986 by Pacific Gas and Electric Company, the utility, to help food service customers understand the energy costs of their equipment. The company hired Mr. Fisher and his partner, Judy Nickel, both of whom had experience in food service, to develop standard test methods. (Years later, Mr. Fisher and Ms. Nickel formed their own company, Fisher-Nickel Inc., which runs the center under contract with Pacific Gas and Electric.)

The first appliances they tested were deep-fat fryers, quickly followed by commercial griddles. It took five years to get the two test methods approved by ASTM International, an organization that develops technical standards for products, services and systems in 138 fields. With this stamp of approval, the Food Service Technology Center carved its niche as the only research lab for testing electric and gas-fired restaurant equipment.

The center's research is highly regarded by many companies, which want independent information, not a manufacturer's marketing claims, before investing in equipment.

"The restaurant industry is in a growth pattern all the time," said Rick McCaffrey, vice president of architecture and design for Brinker International, a chain of restaurants like Chili's that had $3.9 billion in revenue in 2005. "We do one thing and it can impact a huge volume." he said.

He recalled, for example, that when the center was testing low-flow spray nozzles for rinsing dishes, Mr. Fisher showed him a more expensive yet more efficient model than the ones used in Brinker restaurants. Mr. McCaffrey bought the energy-saving model. "It takes about half the amount of water that our old nozzles did," he said. "The payback for us was about a week, and the impact to the communities our restaurants are in was great."

Companies pay nothing for the testing, Mr. Fisher said. The center's $1.5 million budget is provided by Pacific Gas and Electric, and test results are available to anyone.

Some customers, which include companies like McDonald's, Marriott, Darden Restaurants and Safeway, turn to the center routinely for testing. Over time, the center has developed 35 procedures for measuring energy consumption and efficiency in 50 categories of restaurant equipment. Mr. Fisher estimates that in 20 years the center has tested 500 pieces of equipment.

The industry's efforts to save energy are becoming more universal. "This is not a fad," said Charlie Souhrada, director of member services for the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers, a trade group in Chicago. "This is definitely where the future lies from the food service operators to the food service suppliers' perspectives."

The National Restaurant Association says 7 out of 10 restaurants are small businesses with fewer than 20 employees. Experts say these smaller owner-operated places are usually too cash poor to invest in energy-efficient technology.

"This is a large and dynamic market and one in which the pressure of staying in business is greater than any energy or water bill," said Ted Jones, senior program manager at the Consortium for Energy Efficiency, a nonprofit organization in Boston. "It's easier to pay a monthly utility bill and say, 'yes, it goes up, but there is nothing I can do about that.' A significant market barrier is for us to say that 'yes, you can do something about it by the types of equipment you purchase.' "

Three hundred customers a year visit the Food Service Technology Center for testing or to request site surveys and design reviews. Of the 2,500 customers who attended seminars at the center last year, Mr. Fisher says only 20 percent were small businesses because many owners cannot take time away from their restaurants. So, the center makes its extensive research available on its Web site,

"We've been able to see the impact we've had on the industry," he said. "We've seen people change their pattern. The positive effect of energy efficiency on greenhouse gases is huge."