Redesigning Restaurants

Ritu Primlani, founder of Thimmakka’s Resources for Environmental Education, is on a remarkable mission. Through her brainchild, Greening Ethnic Restaurants (GER), Primlani reaches out to Indian and other Asian eateries with little environmental knowledge and transforms them into "green" enterprises. That’s no easy feat, considering that restaurants consume more energy per square foot than any other industry, gobbling water and producing huge amounts of solid waste. Add in the difficulty of approaching overworked restaurant owners who rarely speak fluent English, and the task seems nearly impossible.

Ritu Primlani is helping green the restaurant business—one Asian eatery at a time.
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"Given that these are small, family-owned businesses, they really don’t have the money or time to make changes," says Primlani. "They may want to help the environment, but it just doesn’t seem possible." So Primlani focuses on financial benefits, demonstrating how environmental changes can increase their efficiency and save dollars.

Participating restaurants, mostly in the San Francisco area, spend a maximum of 24 hours a year improving in four areas: water conservation, energy conservation, waste reduction and pollution prevention. Environmental experts assess the premises pro bono, accompanied by GER volunteers who translate for the owner. After the assessment, the restaurant chooses several environmental measures to enact. GER helps research and implement the reforms, often using the combined buying power of the group to get deals on recycled products or organic produce.

At the program’s end, the newly improved restaurants undergo a formal audit to become certified as green businesses. This year, all 30 participating restaurants passed inspection with flying colors. Energy and waste bills were slashed, and some restaurants got down to just one bin of non-recyclable garbage per week.

GER has a 90 percent success rate in pitching the program to restaurants, owing mainly to Primlani’s fierce dedication. She is involved in implementing changes and maintains close relationships with the owners. "All the improvements wouldn’t have happened if Ritu hadn’t called me up periodically, giving me deadlines," notes Cindy Lalime-Krikorian, a restaurateur from Berkeley. "Ritu is like family to us," adds Sarabijt Kaur, another GER participant.

Primlani has ambitious plans for the future, in which she hopes to expand GER nationwide. She intends to begin a college internship course and a membership program that offers discounts at revamped eateries. "I want to show everyone that [greening] is of benefit to both restaurants and the community," she says.