A growing number of restaurants are joining the fight against climate change, including the formulation of environmentally friendly prototypes. 

In April, Chipotle announced a new all-electric restaurant design, with intentions to maximize energy efficiency and use 100 percent renewable energy from wind and solar power.

The brand has opened two locations with the new design and a third will open in late summer. Next year the Newport Beach, California-based chain plans to open 100 all-electric locations, and “depending on the success of these in 2024, we expect the number of all-electric locations to continue to grow as a part of our wider carbon reduction strategy,” says Lisa Shibata, Chipotle’s director of sustainability.

The new design will further Chipotle’s progress toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 compared to 2019. 

The new restaurants feature solar panels, where possible, which provide a portion of their power. Inside, all kitchen equipment is electric, and heat pumps provide heat and cooling. The company installed energy management systems, a smaller electric cookline, and improved exhaust hoods. Chipotle also learned to adjust the set points for the HVAC units as needed for seasonality. “In 2022, we saved approximately 65,000 MWh of energy through energy management systems in our restaurants; this is enough energy to power over 6,100 homes in a year,” Shibata says.

Like Chipotle, Amy’s Drive Thru is recognized for its environmental stewardship. The company, which has a CPG arm, Amy’s Kitchen, has four restaurants close to San Francisco (one in the airport) and one in Southern California.

Amy’s is committed to net zero, which requires sustainability practices to balance the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. The fourth location in Roseville, California, and all others to come, are designed with this goal in mind.

The company is committed to the renewable energy transition and aims to be powered 100 percent by renewable electricity by 2030. The restaurants feature solar panels on their roofs, which supply around 10 percent of the required energy. All future stores will have solar panels, as well. 

For remaining energy needs, Amy’s avoids purchasing renewable energy certificates or carbon credits and is intentional about procuring only “additional” renewable energy that directly brings new wind and solar assets onto the grid. 

Amy’s also keeps energy usage down by using reclaimed materials as much as possible in its restaurant design. “Beyond the warm look that matches the feel of our spaces, using reclaimed wood and metal components helps keep those materials out of landfills,” says Renaud des Rosiers, Amy’s director of sustainability. “It also decreases the embodied greenhouse gas impact of our restaurants by reducing the need for newly manufactured components and the extraction, manufacturing, and energy use that goes with it.”

Sourcing reclaimed materials can be difficult, however. Amy’s searches through junk yards and reused lots. “There’s this cottage industry of reuse-oriented work yards,” he says. “There’s not a conventional supply chain. It’s almost case-by-case.”

Amy’s used reclaimed materials in a wood facade at the ordering station of the newest location—which opened this May in Thousand Oaks, California—and more frequently for table bases, often using axels and parts of wheels. “It can be challenging to find things that fit, tables that are the right shape and maintain cleanliness and we love to do it a way that brings some flair,” des Rosiers says. 

Amy’s also provides electric car charging stations, as does Chipotle. 

Last year the company was part of the inaugural cohort of the Gigaton Power Purchase Agreement, which includes Amy’s Kitchen and Amy’s Drive Thru. The company will buy renewable energy from Ørsted’s Sunflower Wind Farm in Marion County, Kansas.

The Gigaton Agreement was created as part of Walmart’s renewable energy accelerator, which allowed five companies, including Amy’s, to get together as a group to reduce or avoid one gigaton of emissions from Walmart’s supply chain by 2030.

“We feel really good about that because it sets the precedent for other small companies to bring renewable online,” says des Rosiers, who expects this to be running by October. “It will be a large component of our energy portfolio, and we’ll continue to source more renewables in coming years.”

Cesar Rubio
Amy’s keeps energy usage down by using reclaimed materials as much as possible in its restaurant design.

Legacy Renewable

Legacy restaurants aren’t being left behind. Wendy’s has 10 company-owned restaurants in Florida that are powered by renewable energy. It expects to have another 22 by the end of this year and 35 more in 2025.

The restaurants are all in Central Florida and are sourcing renewable energy from Duke Energy Florida’s Clean Energy Connection program, a community solar offering. 

“The solar facility was being built [by Duke Energy] and we raised our hand early to be part of this,” says Liliana Esposito, Wendy’s chief corporate affairs and sustainability officer. By the end of last year, when just seven restaurants were working with Duke, Wendy’s was sourcing 1,274 kilowatts (kw) of clean energy from the program; by 2025 it expects that to increase to 6,363 kW.

Wendy’s deliberately signed with Duke Energy in an area that had a lot of company-owned restaurants. “We see the company’s footprint as an important part of our business model,” Esposito explains. “It keeps us grounded and makes sure we’re operating restaurants in the way the franchisees are operating restaurants.” This program has the potential to expand to franchisees, she adds.

Moving toward renewable energy “has been a multi-year program,” Esposito says. This started in 2015 when Wendy’s joined the Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Challenge, which encourages businesses to commit to improving building energy efficiency by 20 percent or more over 10 years and to share their strategies and results. 

“We were looking at opportunities to be more energy efficient, which saves costs and is really impactful to the restaurants’ operating expenses … and it has a real tangible benefit,” says Esposito. 

Being part of the Better Buildings Challenge, Wendy’s was able to compare its restaurants. “There shouldn’t be wide variations in their energy use, so we can collect data and identify efficiencies,” she explains. 

Because of what it’s learned, Wendy’s has installed energy management systems and more efficient equipment in many locations, like automated ware washing machines that reduce water used per dishwashing cycle by 47 percent. It has also added LED lighting in restaurants and parking lots. “It’s about keeping good track of what you’re using. If you look at your electricity bill and compare with other households in the neighborhood, you might see there’s something you could be doing better,” Esposito says.

This fall Wendy’s will open its first Global Next Gen restaurant. This design has about 10 percent energy savings compared to its former most energy-efficient model. Restaurants built with this prototype will use more efficient building elements (i.e. lighting and HVAC) to decrease energy usage and costs. They’re also cheaper to build and operate. 

So far Wendy’s hasn’t seen any savings from switching to Duke Energy in the 10 Florida restaurants “but we see that as a longer-term potential,” Esposito says, adding that she expects to see that more after a full year of use. “Ultimately we anticipate there will be a savings but it will also be a more resilient source of energy and has a far more favorable environmental footprint compared to conventional electricity.”

Walking the Walk

Hannah’s Bretzel is a fast-casual sandwich concept with three locations in Chicago. Along with using 100 percent biodegradable or recyclable packaging, two electric Mini Coopers for deliveries, and in-store composting, the stores are powered by energy from wind and solar companies. Because the stores are all within high-rise buildings, there’s nowhere to place solar panels and this is the next best option, says CEO Florian Pfahler.

He partners with an energy provider to ensure the money he spends on electricity goes to the companies producing wind and energy, except for a small portion that goes to the energy company in the area. 

Pfahler has been doing this for 15 years and he pays a premium for it. “We finance their operations and in return we enable them to produce more energy and get an even larger share of the grid,” he says. 

“Money is not the only driver. I also want to lead by example,” the CEO adds. “There are a lot of customers who want to see businesses operate this way. I want to support that industry and see solar and wind grow.”

The premium price is worth it, he says, to know he’s doing the right thing and to let customers see that. It not only appeals to guests; it helps attract team members, too.

Pfahler lets consumers know about what he’s doing through prominent signage on the walls and through the company website and social media. “We make it fairly well known,” he points out. “It does influence some people’s decisions about where they eat.”

At the end of the day, it’s a decision that keeps Pfahler feeling better about his operations. “This is a no-brainer. I need to set this business up to contribute positively to the community.”

Consumer Trends, Design, Drive Thru, Fast Casual, Fast Food, Restaurant Operations, Story, Sustainability, Amy's Drive Thru, Chipotle, Hannah's Bretzel, Wendy's