When customers stroll into Raj Pannu’s Subway store in LaPlace, Louisiana, they’re excited to find the lights react to motion sensors. They love the chairs and tables made from refurbished material, and they’re even impressed by the water-saving toilets.

A Subway franchisee for 18 years, Pannu ensured her sixth store was certified green by the U.S. Green Building Council. She crunched the numbers before going for the LEED certification, and her efforts paid off: She now saves $300–$400 in electricity and $70–$80 in water each month.

Subway, as a brand, has comfortably stepped into green waters in recent years by sourcing reusable materials, installing energy-efficient equipment, and incorporating recycled content into paper products, such as its sandwich wraps that contain 40 percent post-consumer fiber. It also encourages franchisees to consider sustainable measures.

“We are in the 21st century and people are moving toward conserving and sustainable materials, so it’s better for us to be the first ones to do it,” Pannu says.

Experts interviewed for this story say sustainability is no longer a trend: It’s a pillar of contemporary design and an expectation of today’s consumers and businesses. For some restaurants, installing biodegradable ceiling tiles and opting for environmentally preferable cleaners is second nature. That’s because as quick serves surf the green wave of sustainability, they’re finding that the term eco-friendly fits right in with their brand message.

The costs of going green differ for each brand and unit, however. For a restaurant owner who constructs an eco-restaurant or brands that sustainably source food, the price tag may be higher. Restaurants that make simpler transitions in sustainability, perhaps to biodegradable cleaners or bowls made entirely of recycled plastic, find the switch is often cost neutral or even a money saver.

The benefits, from high regard in the community to saving money in the long run, far outweigh the liability, sources say. Pannu says her store cost around $30,000 to build in 2008. Along with the light sensors, refurbished material, and water-saving toilet, her Subway unit has small water heaters installed under each sink, an AC unit that controls the temperature for individual rooms, and biodegradable ceiling tiles.

“I didn’t think, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s going to cost me another $30,000 and I’m not going to go for it,’” she says. “You have to trust the brand and their eco group, and understand everything will be a win-win situation for everybody.”

Catherine Lederer, vice president of food and beverage at Chop’t, says the salad chain faced a big cost impact when it decided to transition to Freebird-brand chicken, which is humanely raised and antibiotic free but more expensive to purchase.

“Chicken is 80 percent of the protein that we sell, so we really needed to make a decision [about] if it felt like it was the right thing to do and beneficial, and [ensure] that we did not pass on that cost to our customers,” she says. “You look at other ways and hope that in doing this, it’s going to drive more sales because it’s the right thing to do for the animals and the planet, and also it’s a better-tasting product.”

Eco-friendly materials are not only a selling point and help further communicate a brand’s core values, but they’re also healthier for employees and customers. Today, several companies offer plant-based cleaning supplies or germ-free hand-washing solutions to cut down on chemical exposure and reduce waste.

EcoLogic Solutions is a Brooklyn, New York–based business that manufactures cleaning products that are plant-based, non-toxic, and even safe enough to drink. Founder Anselm Doering often sips his cleaning solutions at trade shows. His antics and green products have won over quick serves such as Chipotle, Chop’t, and Le Pain Quotidien.

“If I go to a quick-serve restaurant and somebody comes by my table to clean it before I sit down and I smell bleach, I’m so turned off from food that I’m out of there,” Doering says.

Eka Arakhamia was general manager at the first Le Pain Quotidien location to test EcoLogic products seven years ago in New York. She made the switch to avoid the bleach smell, protect employees from chemicals, and reinforce Le Pain’s brand identity as one that cares for the planet. It now uses EcoLogic cleaning products in all of its stores.

In addition to eco-friendly solutions, Le Pain Quotidien’s utensils are made of cornstarch so they degrade quickly. The brand sources both organic and local products, to the point that one of its newest restaurants in Brooklyn is made from reclaimed wood salvaged from an old train station in the Bronx.

“Using chemicals and things that are not plant-based, that would not exactly connect with our philosophy,” Arakhamia says.

Part of the demand for sustainable products comes from Millennials, the first generation for whom eco-friendly attitudes are instinctive rather than a meditated decision. Reared on energy-efficient light bulbs, online bill paying, local sourcing, and on-screen documents rather than printed versions, Millennials are intuitively choosing restaurants that square with their principles.

“A lot of these [quick-service restaurants], like the Chipotles of the world, are placing more and more emphasis on fresher ingredients, local ingredients, and food with integrity,” says Franz Wisner, EcoLogic’s director of communications. “If you’re going to demand that you’re using local, fresh food, you want to make sure that you’re also using local, healthy cleaners.”

In the back of the house, using eco-friendly products can send a supportive message to employees. Standard dish chemicals can burn or irritate skin, while bleach is poisonous if ingested and ammonia fumes are highly toxic.

“A quick serve that switches to environmentally preferable products can tell employees, ‘Look, we’re going toward these products because it’s safer for the user and the environment, and we care about you using these products,’” Doering says. “So, theoretically, it increases loyalty of staff and turnover decreases. The internal PR is valuable.”

For some limited-service concepts, a commitment to sustainability even comes down to the products and machinery used in the restroom. For example, several quick serves are turning to all-in-one lavatory systems—which combine a hands-free sink, faucet, and hand-dryer unit—to reduce water and energy consumption, as well as the time it takes to clean the restroom, in some of their units. Such products, like one created by Bradley Corporation, prevent puddles of water from accumulating around sinks or floors, while also eliminating paper towel waste.

Though surfing the sustainability wave is often cost-effective and environmentally preferable, customer experience is a top priority. Fortunately, brands like Chop’t, Le Pain Quotidien, and Subway are finding that both the restaurant owner’s and the customer’s experience improve when they go green.

At Chop’t, Lederer says, customers appreciate that the humanely raised chickens are a superior quality of meat, which often drives sales. “It eats better, it tastes better,” she says. “I think that gives us a competitive edge. We’re doing something that is sustainable, but like I said, it’s producing a better-quality product.”

Pannu says customers love the energy-efficient aspects of her Subway so much, they constantly ask where she gets the light sensors. “My customers are coming in and saying, ‘Oh, I need to put this in my home. It may reduce my energy bill,’” she says. “And it does. Now I can be laughing to the bank rather than worrying, ‘Oh my god, my energy bill is so high, how am I going to afford it?’”

Back of House, Consumer Trends, Story, Sustainability, Chipotle, Chopt, Subway