Tucked away neatly into the rows of shops along La Jolla’s busy Girard Ave, Cups is at first glance a study in trendsetting style. Diner seats line the counter, while the vinyl couches and wooden tables in the lounge area further into the shop gives diners a chance to relax and enjoy their cupcakes and coffee more casually.
But further inspection reveals that there’s more to Cups than just polish – flyers advertise in-store classes on gluten free, raw foods, and farmer’s market shopping. To-go containers are compostable, and that lounge furniture is made from upcycled materials. The cupcake menu is dotted with markers indicating which are vegan or gluten free. The one thing every cupcake has in common is being made with all-natural and organic ingredients. While the cupcakes and atmosphere may earn Cups style points, it’s all of these finer details that earned it the points to become California’s first Three-Star Green Certified restaurant.
Green Certified: it’s a nice-sounding title, and it’s one that more and more restaurants are looking into. There are Green Certified restaurants in 44 states and Canada, ranging from standalone spots to dining halls for the likes of Harvard College and Microsoft. Just last September, Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp. – parent company to Sweet Tomatoes and Souplantation – signed on as the first national restaurant chain to gain Green Restaurant Association’s Two Star certification across the board. But what does it all mean?
On the phone from headquarters in Boston, Green Restaurant Association CEO Michael Oshman breaks it down as a “database of green solutions for the restaurant industry in the United States,” backed by support from organizations like Environmental Defense Fund, Surfrider Foundation, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“What we do is a six-pronged approach to helping restaurants become more environmentally sustainable,” he says. “First and foremost, what we do is help restaurants define where they are right now in relationship to our certification standards, which include energy, water, waste, disposal of chemicals, food, and building.”
It sounds simple, but it gets more complicated from there – those points Cups racked up weren’t just a turn of phrase. “Everything that [restaurants] do has a point ascribed to them based upon our certification standards – a napkin might be 2.5 points if it’s 100 percent recycled, or they might get points in the food area if they’ve got a lot of local food,” says Oshman. “We get down to that if 51 percent of their bulbs are LED, they’ll get 51 percent of the maximum points for having the most efficient bulbs there. So it’s not just ‘are you doing this or are you not,’ it’s to what level.”
The goal for a Two Star green certification is 100 points – once the GRA has evaluated how far a restaurant stands from reaching 100, it provides a consultant and a blueprint of how to get there. But when all is said and done, the result is a more environmentally friendly restaurant as well as a spot on a public database that attracts the attention of both media and consumers looking to make more eco-conscious dining decisions.
Perched on a wood-stained stool in Cups’ lounge section with a detailed notebook of steps and points, General Manager Nina Han is excited to talk about all that’s gone into the shop’s certification process. With 200 points – almost 75 in the “food” category alone for its vegetarian and vegan options and dedication to organics, plus more for bullet points that range from Energy Star equipment to its distance from public transportation outlets – Cups has one of the highest green ratings in the state.
It didn’t start out that way, but Han explains that going green has always been a priority for the shop. “[Owner Michelle Ciccarelli] is an earth advocate,” she says, listing Ciccarelli’s background as a former labor litigator (and avid baker) and involvement in causes like the Non-GMO Project. “Everything kind of goes hand in hand, being green and being organic and trying to support local businesses – it all ties in. When she came to open this, it was just a purpose and a goal and a message that we wanted to send out, and we did all our research to make sure we get the correct certification. This is our pride and joy, being Green, because at the end of the day we’re doing a service and we get to really witness to people that it’s doable – we’re still afloat and doing well, and we just want to educate. We want to be educated as well as educate.”
Han can also confirm firsthand that making the leap from green to Green Certified was no cakewalk. “It’s expensive to have corn plastic to-go containers, to have everything made out of recycled materials,” she notes. “As manager, that’s been my biggest challenge: to manage the finances and to maintain it.”
Then again, worthy endeavors are hardly ever easy. As far as benefits to outweigh the cost, Oshman presents facts and figures. “79 percent of consumers prefer dining at Certified Green restaurants; 78 percent prefer working in certified green restaurants,” he notes. “Ask anyone you know in the restaurant industry: would you rather work at a place that throws everything in the garbage, or a place that reduces their waste by 95 percent? Would they rather have a place that wastes lots of energy? Or, when they read a story about energy or air pollution, might they feel proud about being at a place that reduced their energy by 30 percent? A good chunk of them are going to say the latter. So it’s a great value for employees – we’ve gotten wonderful feedback from restaurants. They can stay ahead of legislation; they can also just do something great for the environment that they’re going to feel good about.”
Of course, that kind of positivity can only be expected from the source itself. Back at Cups, the question is post: is certification worth it? “Absolutely,” Han enthuses. “We’re really proud of it, and want other people to hop on this train and do it also. You know, California’s kind of trendy – I hope [other people] think it’s cool to do it, so they will.”
Sitting in the designated lounge section of an organic cupcake shop, the trend factor is one that cannot be understated. But, where shallow fads may fade, the trend of going as-green-as-possible has a strong purpose that transcends fashion. “There’s not enough we can do to backtrack at this point,” says Han, of both the state of the environment today and the work it may take to improve it for the future. “We’re just doing our best to help.”
Interested in going green? Call 617-737-4422 or check out http://dinegreen.com for more information.
[PHOTO CREDIT: Green Restaurant Association]