Green round-table debate: The price of going green

11 October 2007
Green round-table debate: The price of going green

Running a kitchen which conserves as much energy as possible is an ideal that most operators would aspire to. But when it comes to the crunch, the higher cost of energy-efficient equipment still often holds sway in the green issues debate. Ross Bentley reports on how some leading industry figures considered this conundrum at a round-table debate held at London's Dorchester hotel

At the heart of any catering operation is the kitchen. Creating the right space and filling it with the necessary equipment is essential if the food preparation is to be of a high standard. But the kitchen is an area where lots of energy is used and, in many cases, wasted. So how does the industry work towards ensuring kitchens become as energy-efficient as possible? This was the subject for discussion when Caterer invited some of the great and good from the sector to a round-table event at the Dorchester.

The first question was: is energy efficiency in kitchens an issue that people working in hospitality are aware of? There was general agreement that there's a growing awareness of the need to reduce the carbon footprint in today's commercial kitchens.

According to David Clarke, a director at commercial kitchen design company CDIS-KARM and a member of the Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI), more and more of his clients are asking for energy-efficiency features to be included in kitchen designs. "It's definitely a larger part of the brief compared with two or three years ago. There's been a big step forward," he said.

But it's not so much a trend driven by a desire to save the planet. Henri Brosi, executive chef at the Dorchester, says there's a business imperative behind opting to use more energy-efficient kit in the kitchen. "With the cost of utilities going up we know we can save a lot of money by choosing energy-efficient equipment, whether it be the oven, refrigeration or washers," he said. "I can only see this becoming a more important consideration in the future."

But even though the hospitality industry is waking up to the green agenda, John Forte, a consultant to the Institute of Hospitality, was frustrated that many buying decisions were still left to accountants who balked at the higher price of energy-efficient models. "Energy-saving equipment tends to be more expensive at first, but will pay you back in energy savings over eight to 10 years, possibly less if energy prices continue to go up," he said. "But an accountant will always want to see a short-term payback on any equipment that's bought, and is not interested in the bigger picture."

Ian Osborne, group managing director at Enodis, agreed that the initial price of equipment was a priority for most operators buying kitchen apparatus. "I'd say about 10% of the industry, many who have done well, are in a position to consider energy efficiency. But many more operating on low margins simply want a big oven cheap - at the end of the day it's about money for most buyers," he said.

Osborne argued that as a manufacturer Enodis had to follow this market demand to survive. Incorporating energy-efficient improvements inevitably pushed up the initial cost, he said, and this wasn't what his customers were asking for. "At present we only have to make gas burners that are 50% efficient - it's a crazy situation," he admitted. "We could design them to be 60% or 70% efficient but it would cost, and there aren't enough people out there prepared to pay for it."

Forte agreed that it was this attitude and not the limitations of current technology that was most responsible for holding back progress in reducing energy consumption in kitchens. "The expertise is already here to drive down energy use," he said, pointing to technology that recycles heat from the kitchen atmosphere and dishwashers back into heating water. Better insulation and using one central refrigerator rather than a number of small boxes around the kitchen were also established methods of saving energy. "These are the things we need to be talking to operators about. As awareness grows, the price of these technologies will come down as demand goes up," he added.

Brosi said that he knew of a number of progressive general managers of hotels and restaurants who now insisted that any new equipment was energy-efficient, but these were still very much in the minority.

Clarke felt an important aspect missing from the industry was a standard that could be applied to equipment, so that when buyers were looking at a range of combi-ovens, for example, they could easily compare their relative energy efficiencies. Manufacturers needed to work harder at pushing the message that energy-efficient equipment would save operators money in the long run. "There's a perception that energy efficiency costs, but we have to find a way of getting the accountant to include the lifetime costs of equipment on a business plan," he said.

This debate will be familiar to us all, whether we work in the hospitality industry or not. The conflict between short-term market forces and the willingness of businesses to invest for the longer term, often at a price, is at the nub of the environmental question. But in the face of this perennial discussion, what factors did the panel think would drive caterers to adopt energy-efficient practices in their kitchens?

Brosi felt the Government had a major role to play and that regulation was the only way to get all caterers to take any meaningful steps to cut the amount of energy they used. "Something like the home information packs where kitchens are surveyed for energy efficiency may be the answer. Offering tax incentives to caterers who are green could also be a solution," he said.

Tony Fleming, executive chef at One Aldwych, felt as attitudes changed in the catering industry, energy-efficiency best practice would filter down to operators which were currently less aware of environmental issues. "When I was training to be a chef the environment was never an issue," he said. "Now there's a different culture and young chefs coming through are taught about turning off taps, and the importance of sourcing local foods in season to cut down on food miles. As these people move round the industry they're bound to pass on these working practices along with their culinary knowledge."

But with such a small base of genuinely green-conscious chefs in the industry, "real change will take 100 years" was Brosi's gloomy prediction.

Clarke felt other external factors might force caterers to consider their energy outputs sooner. "We've already seen smoking in workplaces banned," he said. "If we get another heat wave like 2006 and the temperatures in kitchens reach the levels they did, then we may see regulations come in that demand lower temperatures in working environments." The increasing prices of gas and electricity would also compel operators to use less in order to save money, he added.

Catering colleges also had a role to play in promoting the importance of energy efficiency in the kitchen, according to Andrew Twells, executive chef at the Compass Group. "And perhaps we could see the development of some kind of standard whereby caterers would be given an award and be able to promote themselves as an energy-efficient provider," he added.

Osborne also felt it was important to keep the issue in the public eye. "There's a danger the issue will be put on the back burner unless we get the whole industry involved, he said. He even suggested a high-profile "Live 8-type of event" involving celebrity chefs and thousands of people from the industry as the only way to really force the catering industry to sit up and take notice.

But rather than taking the big-bang approach, Forte felt the issue would be better tackled "in easy pieces - we need to get leading chefs together to produce a wish list that we can present to manufacturers", he said.

Osborne welcomed the suggestion and reiterated that the main priority for manufacturers of kitchen equipment was to react to what their customers wanted. He said: "If all the chefs got together and said to me that in two years' time they would stop buying my equipment unless it was more energy-efficient, I'd have my research and development guys working on it tomorrow."

Taking part…

  • Ian Osborne, group manager director, Enodis UK
  • Tony Fleming, executive chef, One Aldwych
  • Henri Bosi, executive chef, the Dorchester
  • David Clarke, director of CDIS-KARM and FCSI member
  • Andrew Twells, executive chef, Compass Group
  • John Forte, consultant to Institute of Hospitality, Hospitable Climates Programme
  • Graham Veal, managing director, Merrychef
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