VSAG/Founding Farmers Featured in The Consultant

VSAG client Founding Farmers – the first LEED Gold certified full-service upscale-casual restaurant in the U.S., as well as the first LEED-certified restaurant in Washington D.C., was recognized for its outstanding commitment to sustainability, appearing as the cover story for the 2009 bonus edition of The Consultant magazine. Read more for the full article, or click here.

Turning Green to Gold

It’s only fitting that the first LEED Gold certified full-service, upscale-casual restaurant in the country, which is also the first LEED certified restaurant in the nation’s capital, is owned by a collaborative representing farmers, the North Dakota Farmers Union.

Founding Farmers, which celebrates America’s culinary tradition in its menus and promotes sustainable agriculture and seasonality, received the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)’s LEED for Commercial Interiors certification, raising the bar for foodservice operations seeking higher levels of accreditation.

“We have set a new benchmark for restaurants to be more environmentally friendly,” says Dan Simons, VSAG co-founder, the management and operations group for the restaurant, as well as foodservice consultant on the project.

“This is an important achievement not only for the hospitality industry but for the ownership collective of more than 47,000 American family farmers whose food we bring directly to the restaurant,” adds VSAG co-founder, Michael Vucurevich.

Achieving LEED Gold, VSAG took a decision. “To reach the most points… would’ve cost $200,000 more. We couldn’t do that, so we looked at things that we could do to get the points. We expect to do this again,” he adds. “There are other restaurants pursuing this and we get calls for advice. There’s a high level of chatter.”

At Culinary Options in Seattle, consultant Karen Malody, FCSI, expects “we are definitely going to see more and more of this. At FCSI, we’re already seeing more design consultants being LEED accredited and this can bring far more knowledge about the issue to projects.”

However, she continues, “Consultants will be fighting for more points to be associated with efforts in the kitchen. The energy hog center of the facility is the kitchen and it doesn’t contribute more than a few points (in the certification ratings). You need as many sustainable extensions from the kitchen such as waste reduction or energy conservation and very few total points are gained. You can buy Energy Star equipment and low-flow faucets and reduce the carbon footprint. From my perspective as a management advisory consultant, you try to reduce waste through strategic menu development engineering, but those things don’t contribute heavily to points.”

At Fisher Nickel Inc. Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon, CA, Richard Young says LEED projects create positive public relations and are seen by USGBC as “honoring the best of the best. But it’s not necessarily for every building out there. It’s great that (Founding Farmers) did this and I applaud it. It’s not an easy walk. For each one that moves forward, it helps others do it. With each certified restaurant, it gives lessons, opens the door to the next one and helps tailor LEED so it works better for restaurants. LEED is the ‘yellow brick road.’ The guidelines are a pathway.”

The leverage that certification provides, he adds, can help a restaurant. “The real benefit is you learn a lot. Is there payback? The extra money equals an incredible education and that’s really important. Green buildings are typically better and it helps the staff too. Increase the comfort for guests and employees and your return goes up.”

“We’ve proven it’s possible,” says Simons, “and the public does appreciate it. Our sales have been up every week and we have plans for creating more sister restaurants and growing the brand. In a city like Philadelphia, it could be ‘Liberty Farmers.’ We just put a strategy in place to explore this and capitalize up for growing locations.”

Behind the Founding Farmer project and others, Simons says, are “people caring. That’s the principal driver, along with the public relations value, and lower utility bills. But, it’s about the guest loyalty that this creates. We’re aligned with our guests’ principles and it feels like we’re on the same team.”

Reaching Gold, he adds, “was not fundamentally more expensive. The myth is that it costs more money. It’s about education, state of mind and commitment to doing the right thing. I spent more money on research time – choosing paint, for example. We spent less on some materials –  salvaged, re-claimed woods from old barns. You’re not paying to have something made. This pushes you to innovate. We loved the thought of ‘naturalizing’ the usual suspects and it focused us to be better, more compelling.”

The group recycled “north of 70 percent of our construction waste. If everybody did that, it would be a different world.”

Actually operating the restaurant they consulted on, Simons adds, “keeps us reality-based. It reminds us how hard it is to deliver on the vision.”

The 250-seat restaurant was also certified by the Green Restaurant Association whose founder, Michael Oshman, says, “Those of us following the environmental world for 20 years know that the world is just waking upto this. It’s an exciting time.” He calls Founding Farmers’ LEED certification “a milestone and the start of a process.” But he points out, “Environmental responsibility is a direction, not a destination. There is always room for improvement.”

Some design consultants see USGBC’s current guidelines as weak in giving few points for energy reduction in the kitchen through more efficient equipment. At Robert Rippe Associates in Minneapolis, Steve Carlson, FCSI, a consultant who was recently LEED certified, notes that USGBC recently drafted a “prescriptive path” that is currently “the closest thing to guidelines for commercial kitchens” and addresses gas, water and electrical use.

“I think we’re getting there,” Carlson says. “This is probably the first step.” The new criteria are, for the first time, specific to kitchens both in operations and design, and reward water savings through use of more energy-efficient dishwashers with more points. Projects are required to show a minimum of 20 percent energy savings, and energy efficient equipment is required.

The new “prescriptive guidelines” are currently up for consideration and a vote by USGBC membership. “The number of credits were changed to create a commercial kitchen baseline,” says Mark Heisterkamp, director of commercial real estate. “Now, we better capture the energy coming out of the kitchen. The rating system still needs approval and we’re working for August or September. It’s been in use from a pilot perspective for the past couple of years, and some restaurants have been in the pilot.”

At RSA Food Service Consulting in Portland, OR, Ray Soucie, FCSI, also calls the guidelines a step forward.

“Commercial kitchens consume more energy than the rest of the building and different uses have different consumption. The LEED program became so popular so fast. It’s an evolving process. The nice thing is points for innovation that are now included, because they encourage people to think outside the box. LEED ’09 is a combination of all the building blocks that went before it.”

For Founding Farmers to achieve Gold certification under Commercial Interiors, he adds, “is a feather in their cap. It’s not easy and my hat’s off to them.”

Consumers appreciate efforts to reduce the carbon footprint. But most agree that LEED certification doesn’t give a restaurant license to be anything more than a great restaurant. In the case of Founding Farmers, the idea behind the restaurant is that “everyone benefits from knowing about the source of our food and its journey from seed to harvest to table,” says Simons. The design elements celebrate the farm with a playful custom carved lamb atop the welcome station, and agricultural botanical drawings. All tabletops and chairs were made from walnut extracted by Harrisburg, PA and manufactured in High Point, NC, all within 500 miles.

Energy Star appliances and a higher efficiency HVAC system which has carbon dioxide sensors to monitor indoor air quality, waterless urinals, lowflow lavatories and the use of reclaimed construction materials (more than 15 percent) contributed to credits for certification. Ninety percent of construction waste was recycled. The restaurant is expected to save 192,168 gallons of water annually compared to conventionally designed counterparts.

Meals are homemade/’scratch’-made American classics inspired by the heartland with sustainably farmed products.

Guests can choose to eat at one of two communal tables in a farmhouse atmosphere. Chicago-based restaurant consultant Darren Tristano at Technomic, Inc. believes the industry will become more “ecologically and environmentally friendly as consumer pressure and operator passion fuel the efforts…Founding Farmers has set the standard and raised the bar. This will compel other upscale restaurants to seek certification.”

How Founding Farmers earned the necessary assessment points to achieve its Gold Commercial Interiors LEED certification

Energy Star

  • Installed Energy Star rated appliances for more than 80% of all eligible appliances (for rated power), including freezers, refrigerators, the main dish machine, glasswashers and eligible cooking appliances such as a hot food holding cabinet, fryer, steam cooker and four LCD TVs installed in the bar
  • Installed higher efficiency HVAC system with heat pumps that exceed the Advanced Buildings Energy Benchmark and ASHRAE 90.1. Heat pump efficiencies exceed ASHRAE by 5-30 percent. Carbon dioxide sensors were located throughout to constantly monitor indoor air quality. Ventilation rates (fresh outside air) are at least 30 percent above code requirements.

Materials and Finishes

  • Reclaimed flooring from an old textile mill and de-nailed salvaged beams, cutting them into blank pieces of lumber that were then kiln dried and molded into tongue and groove flooring.
  • Reclaimed barn door from West Virginia
  • Reclaimed brick from Vintage Brick Salvage
  • More than 15 0ercent of all construction materials are reclaimed, which earned a LEED innovation point
  • Wood furniture (walnut tables, custom bar stools and side chairs) were harvested from PA and OH forests and manufactured by Dunbar Furniture in Greensboro and High Point, NC
  • Metal disks were sourced from Follansbee Steel in West Virginia
  • PaperStone countertops in restrooms were made from 100 percent recycled content paper. PaperStone is made from cellulose fiber and non-petroleum based phenolic resin derived in part from natural phenolic oils in cashews
  • 45 percent of materials manufactured within 500 miles
  • Recycled or diverted 90 percent of construction waste
  • 3Form Acrylic Screen is made from 40 percent post-consumer recycled paper
  • Graphic wall coverings are on Durapene, composed of 50 percent wood pulp from sustainably managed forest, 40 percent post-industrial waste and 10 percent recycled post-consumer waste
  • Carpet on the mezzanine level is certified as an environmentally preferable product
  • Paints, coatings and varnishes all have low VOCs which helped earn points for indoor environmental quality

Plumbing Fixtures and Water

  • Waterless urinals and low-flow lavatories in restrooms
  • Water efficient Energy Star dishwasher and spray valve. The restaurant will save at least 192,168 gallon of water a year compared to convention design restaurants (not including the dishwasher and spray valve).


  • The restaurant recycles to the maximum capacity possible in Washington, DC and has a waste, recycle and compost area that separates all waste
  • Through a partnership with CarbonFund.org, Founding Farmers (and other VSAG managed restaurants) purchase carbon-offsets to help eliminate the operating Carbon Footprints of these businesses