Sustainability and serving locally-grown and organic food are two big food trends in the restaurant industry, as suggested by the National Restaurant Association. Restaurateurs are actively responding to such trends by implementing various green initiatives in operations.

It would be great if restaurateurs could take as many green practices as possible, but in reality they can probably invest in only a few "important" changes due to the constraints a restaurant normally faces (e.g. low budget). In this case, the million-dollar question becomes: Among all the green initiatives a restaurant can adopt, which ones matter the most to customers?

By understanding what customers really want from a restaurant, restaurant owners and managers will be able to allocate their time and company resources wisely. With the effort to help restaurateurs make informed business decisions in sustainability, I led a research team in conducting an empirical study to answer three specific research questions:

1. What are the green attributes of restaurants that customers deem to be most important?

2. What is the impact of consumers' perceived importance of restaurants' green attributes on their intentions to make extra efforts to dine at a green restaurant (i.e., willingness to pay more, wait longer and/or travel farther)?

3. What is the impact of consumers' demographic attributes (i.e., gender, age, income, educational levels and number of children living in the household) on consumers' perceived importance of various green attributes of restaurants, as well as their intentions to make extra efforts to dine at a green restaurant (i.e., willingness to pay more, wait long and/or travel farther)?

To answer the above research questions, we collected 382 usable questionnaires for data analysis. While the full report can be found in the May issue of the International Journal of Hospitality Management, the key findings include:

Environment first: When restaurants' green attributes are categorized into food-focused (e.g., offering organic food), environment-focused (e.g., using energy-saving equipment), and administration-focused attributes (e.g., gaining a green certificate), the participants being surveyed valued environment-focused attributes more than the other two types.

As more restaurants are offering locally-grown and organic options on the menu, this findings suggests consumers may want more than just food-focused attributes. More specifically, participants perceived such green attributes as "minimizing harmful waste" and "participating in recycling programs" to be more important than others.

Following the money: The perceived importance of food-focused and of administration-focused green attributes were found positively related to the likelihood of consumers' willingness to pay more, wait longer or travel farther, but such relationship was not identified between participants' perceived importance of environment-focused attributes and their behavioral intentions.

This finding appears to suggest consumers would accept greater costs to patronize a restaurant for its green food and favorable reputation derived from administration-focused green practices, rather than environment-focused initiatives. Alternatively, this finding indicates consumers may expect restaurants to use the savings from green practices to absorb the extra costs associated with environment-focused initiatives.

Making the effort: Among those who were willing to pay extra, wait longer and travel farther to dine at a green restaurant, about 50 percent were willing to pay no greater than 10 percent extra; most of them would feel inclined to wait 1-20 minutes longer; and nearly 68 percent were willing to travel to an addition of no more than 10 miles. It means consumers may not want to spend much additional effort to dine at a green restaurant.

Demographics: Female participants perceived all three kinds of green attributes more important than their male counterparts. Participants living in a family with at least one child perceived food-focused attributes as more important than those living in a family without children, but no differences were found on environment- and administration-focused attributes. Participants who were younger showed higher willingness to make extra efforts to dine at a green restaurant.

What can restaurateurs deal with the findings? In my opinion, they can possibly take the following considerations:

  • To meet consumers' expectations, allocate more resources and efforts toward launching more environment-focused initiatives.
  • Highlight the restaurant's environment-focused attributes on the website, advertisements and other marketing materials because these "back of the house" practices may often be overlooked by consumers even though they can mean a lot to them.
  • Be cautious about charging higher prices, because most consumers are only willing to make marginal efforts to dine at a green restaurant.
  • To increase consumers' tolerance of extra costs associated with patronage, restaurants could offer healthy, sustainably grown or locally grown food, attain green certificates, and make donations to environmental projects beyond environment-focused practices.
  • Green restaurants may develop menu items or special events that are tailored to female consumers because they tend to view all three categories of green attributes to be more important than males.
  • Restaurants that serve healthy, sustainably grown or locally grown food may offer family-friendly menus or market as a family-friendly restaurant, because families with at least one child value food-focused green attributes more than others without children. Alternatively, green restaurants could consider incorporating their sustainably or locally grown food into marketing messages designed for families.

Do any of the findings surprise you? What suggestions would you make to the restaurateurs who want to implement green initiatives to operations?