As entrepreneurs, chefs and restaurant owners, my business partner and I have often been asked about the secret of our success. I don’t know that I can pinpoint any one practice or strategy, but I think our overall philosophy – that we run our business in the same way that we run our homes – creates an atmosphere that fosters customer loyalty and overall quality.
Over the past several years, sustainability has become a key part of our lives, both at home and at work. We have worked conscientiously to reduce waste, increase efficiency and shrink our carbon footprint. As an example, at our Border Grill restaurant in Santa Monica, we serve only sustainable seafood, as well as organic rice, black and pinto beans, and coffee. We compost, recycle and use biodegrable to-go containers. Most recently, we developed a program giving guests the opportunity to choose dishes made with at least 80 percent plant-based ingredients, thus reducing meat consumption and the greenhouse gas emissions created from raising livestock.
Embracing sustainable business practices feels like a natural and responsible evolution as business leaders, as chefs who create food consumed by the public and as citizens of a community where our customers are our neighbors. We also hope that when it comes to dollars and cents, the decision to “go green” is good for business.
Frankly, I am baffled by those who oppose carbon constraints by declaring them bad for business. In the long term, unrestrained and unsustainable energy consumption is bad for business. Individuals, backed mostly by big business interests, have made headlines claiming that businesses like mine will fail unless California backpedals on policies that will make us more energy efficient, less wasteful and less dependent on volatile dirty fuels like oil. They’ve suggested suspending AB 32, California’s historic energy security and environment law, which sets a cap on carbon for our state, reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020.
Recently, the Brattle Group, an international economic consulting firm, completed a study of AB 32 commissioned by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Our restaurant, Border Grill, served as a case study. The economists concluded that even in an energy-intensive business such as ours, the resulting potential energy cost increases due to AB 32 would be nearly negligible. They found that on a dinner tab of $20, my customers could expect to see an average of a 3 cent increase. Such a minuscule increase, even if noticed, would not cause our customers any heartburn.
The report further concluded that our restaurant had previously experienced greater year-to-year fluctuations in energy costs due to the normal ebb and flow of energy markets. Overall, the Brattle Group study showed that AB 32 policies will increase the percent of small business revenue spent on energy in California by only one-third of a percentage point – from 1.4 to 1.7 percent – in 2020.
In the end, our experience tells us that constantly moving forward with our environmental policy can be a challenging process, but a rewarding one. Our commitment to sustainability is definitely one of the reasons customers choose Border Grill, as well as a huge incentive for employee retention. Our customers and employees are just as concerned as we are about the health, environmental and economic risks of climate change.
I urge all business leaders to take a long-term view of the economic and environmental health of our state by supporting the immediate continued implementation of AB 32. I’m proud to be a Californian, setting the standard for the rest of the country with AB 32 and living among a group of people who care about sustainability. Let’s not let a vocal minority derail the path toward long-term sustainability that we’ve already chosen for our state.
Mary Sue Milliken and her business partner Susan Feniger are owner-operators of the Border Grill restaurants in Santa Monica and Las Vegas as well as Ciudad restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. They are authors of five cookbooks and starred in almost 400 episodes of Food Network’s “Too Hot Tamales” and “Tamales World Tour” series.
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