By CAITLIN ESCH
As bars and restaurants in San Francisco go eco at an increasing rate, Elixir bar owner H. Joseph Ehrmann can take some satisfaction in having led the pack.
“I went out on a limb and switched everything over,” Ehrmann said. “It was an expensive venture, but it paid off because the customers really responded.”
Such a reaction, advocates said, is precisely why the city’s green certification has become so popular. “It has been positioned as a competitive advantage to attract high-end consumers, in particular,” said Carolyn Allen, the editor and publisher of California Green Solutions, an environmental Web site. “Businesses can have higher selling prices for products.”
The 16th and Guerrero Street bar, which specializes in organic drinks from environmentally friendly distilleries and vineyards, became the city’s first certified green watering hole in 2005. Since then, 92 businesses have been certified by the Green Business Program. With 319 applications pending, that number stands to triple within a year, according to Sushma Dhulipala, the Toxic Reduction Program Coordinator for the Department of the Environment.
Some 42 percent of green businesses in San Francisco surveyed reported increased earnings since gaining certification, Dhulipala said.
Customers recognize green-certified businesses by the insignia displayed on windows, menus and Web sites.
All city-certified green businesses must meet basic requirements: they must recycle, compost, obey the Styrofoam ban, abandon disposable silverware, clean with non-toxic products, employ low-flow nozzles, and use energy-saving lightbulbs.
Businesses are then required to fulfill a certain percentage of more complicated energy-saving techniques like installing showers for employees who bike or walk to work, offering incentives to employees who take public transportation, and landscaping with drought-resistant plants.
Ehrmann has met the city’s green requirements, and plans to remove the bar’s electric water heater and install a water purification system, which, Ehrmann said, is more of a quality issue than an environmental one.
In an effort to green the Mission District, Ehrmann started Green and Tonic last year, a group of regular customers that raises money to help Mission bars go eco.
So far, the group has assisted Mission bars Casanova Lounge and Doc’s Clock, Polk Gulch restaurant Le Colonial, and South of Market bars Prana and Temple Nightclub in their eco-transitions. Of the 15 bars and restaurants certified green in San Francisco, so far three are in the Mission District.
Ehrmann doesn’t see it as aiding the competition.
“It’s about changing the industry,” he said. “If I’m the only one who changes, what good is that? There’s no impact there. But if we can get 2,000 bars in San Francisco to change—there’s your impact.”
Recent data compiled by the Department of the Environment show that every year 25 green businesses in San Francisco save a combined total of 971,993 gallons of water—the equivalent of one and a half Olympic-size swimming pools—and 224,188 kilowatt hours of energy, or 2 million hours of power for a 100-watt lightbulb.
Folsom Street nonprofit La Cocina, a training and support center for Latino and immigrant women starting their own businesses, doesn’t earn revenue from its green practices, but it does save a lot of money.
Director of Operations Caleb Zigas said La Cocina saves about $10,000 a year in rebates through the citywide recycling program, on top of significant savings on water and energy costs.
“Margins are thin in the restaurant industry,” said Allen. “So those savings really add up.”
Ehrmann is constantly on the look out for better green products, but as a mixologist and former chef, the bar owner said it’s more about the quality of the product than anything else. This month’s special: an organic celery cup cocktail.
“It’s a culinary approach,” Erhmann said. “You start with a principle spirit you want to build off of, and you use the characteristics of that spirit… When it comes together, it’s a completely different experience.”