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Ethnic Restaurants Save Green by Going Green

New America Media, News Report, Maria Shen & Jason Sanford Posted: Jul 13, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO -- Tins Tea House Lounge, a dim sum restaurant in the Bay Area, has darkened dining rooms. By purposely dimming the lights and implementing other energy conservation methods, owner Alice Wan is conserving 33,000 kilowatt-hours a year.

Wan sees the financial benefit of going green.

"Just from installing strip curtains and gaskets in the refrigerators has saved me $1,100 already," said Wan, whose establishment was certified green just over half a year ago. "You save money and do good to help the environment."

Wan says her restaurant is now releasing 17,000 lbs. less of carbon dioxide into the local environment. Also, she annually saves 3.3 million gallons of water ($13,000) by using aerators, water conserving toilets, and pre-rinse spray nozzles, among other changes.

Since her restaurant became green, even the trash has been drastically reduced. Wan used to have trash picked up at least six times a week, if not daily. Now, because of wiser waste management, such as recycling, it is usually picked up twice each week at most.

Tins Tea House Lounge is not alone. It is just one of 67 restaurants in California certified green by Thimmakka.

For six years, Thimmakka, a nonprofit organization, has been has been working with the food service industry, aiming to give them the resources to become green organizations.

Thimmakka began its work in 2002 with ethnic restaurants. Initially, Ritu Primlani, the founder of Thimmakka, worked with Indian restaurants, speaking Punjabi or Hindi. But as her program expanded, Primlani found that all ethnic communities are facing the same problemeven mainstream business face same problem: they really dont have the time or resources to be environmentally conscious.

We do everything from product procurement to certification training. All restaurants have to do is say yes and we get them certified green, explains Primlani.

Restaurants that have been certified green by Thimmaka proudly post a special green sticker on their windows, indicative of their green status. In many cases, this attracts customers.

Kasia Lewakowski, 20, is an animal activist and customer of Ajanta Restaurant. She says, it makes me feel good to eat here and know that Im helping the Earth at the same time.

Primlani says that working with the food industry makes sense because restaurants have an incredible environmental signature.

The Environmental News Network names restaurants as the largest electricity consumers in the U.S. retail sector. The industry uses an average of five times more energy per square foot than other commercial buildings. China Delight, a Bay Area restaurant, reports that it uses electricity in many, many things, from lighting to the refrigerator, which is turned on 24 hours a day, as is the case in most restaurants. And, according to Primlani, restaurants are also a significant user of water because of pre-cooking and post-cooking requirements.

Thimmakka has been trying to reduce the environmental impact of restaurants, but it hasnt always been easy. To Primlani, one of Thimmakkas biggest challenges is that restaurant owners often think going green means spending green.

"It's a culture of waste in the United States," said Primlani. "The general consensus is that being environmentally friendly is expensive. That's not the case."

La Cocina, a non-profit organization that provides a kitchen space to low-income food entrepreneurs, is nestled inconspicuously on a residential street in San Franciscos Mission District. It might not be a restaurant, but it has also been certified green by Thimmakka.

We train 27 restaurants, explains Program Director Caleb Zigas. These restaurants go into La Cocina regularly to use its kitchen. Businesses like Sabores del Sur , El Huarache Loco, and Estrellita's Snacks form La Cocinas predominately South American customer base. La Cocina not only saves these young businesses the start-up cost, but it also reduces the environmental impact of what would otherwise be 27 independently running commercial kitchens.

La Cocina operates sustainably, using organic foods in its enormous kitchen and recycling and composting aggressively. It recycles all its oil, employees bike to work, and most paperwork is done electronically. Even the building itself is built such that heating and cooling systems would not be necessary.

Just on garbage disposal, we save $12,000 a year, Zigas says.

Restaurants that have worked with Thimmakka testify to the economic advantages of going green:

The initial costs for my electrical upgrades to energy efficient lighting were $860, of which the City of Berkeley covered all but $206. In addition to those savings, I will save $340 each year off my energy bill. All of the restaurants food waste was transferred to composting through the city, which also collects recyclables at no charge. Im already saving more than $300 per month on garbage pick-up alone. Its been a win-win situation all around, writes Lacchu Moorjani, the owner of Ajanta, a restaurant that serves Indian cuisine in Berkeley, California.

The owner of Kamal Palace Indian Restaurant, also in the city of Berkeley, will be saving upwards of $6,000 in the upcoming year on his energy bill, and more than $1,000 on his garbage pickup fees.

The numbers attest to the resource-saving power of simple modificationsthe kind that Thimmakka advocates. Using efficient light bulbs, fixing leaky water spigots and recycling are all practices that business owners dont have to jump through too many hoops to implement.

But most restaurant owners dont go green because theyre apprehensive about interference. Ritu Primlani explains that, usually, she gets 30 seconds to convince a restaurant owner to convert to sustainable practices. Most times, business owners dont like the idea of having a horde of inspectors come in tell them how to run their business.

For other restaurant owners, going green isnt an option simply because its something theyre unfamiliar with.

Wan, whose Tins Tea House Lounge is now green, admits that, "[Going green] is a gradual transition, little by little. It really all started when I was telling one of my customers 'I want to help the environment, but I don't know how.'"

Primlani explains that Thimmakka tries to take away the hassle of being green, leaving the benefits of it to business owners.

We focus on saving them money by saving the environment.

Maria Shen is a writer at New America Media.

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