LC Bulletin: Green team influence spreads; Russell Hernandez commits to corporate policy

October 26, 2012. Retrieved online October 30, 2012 from Alta LeCompte, Las Cruces Bulletin

Local manager commits to corporate policy

For the Las Cruces Bulletin.

Las Crucen Russell Hernandez was an Olive Garden manager in Albuquerque five years ago when the company offered him a management position in the Tuscan-themed restaurant on Telshor Boulevard.

Although the move would bring him back home where he wanted to be, Hernandez hesitated before cutting a deal.

He said he would come down and work as a server before deciding whether to accept.

He liked what he saw, and became one of four local managers for the new Las Cruces Olive Garden.

As serendipity would have it, the restaurant also wanted someone to head up its recycling and sustainability program, something that keenly interested Hernandez. So he took on the added challenge of building a green team.

The team was formed to carry out a company-wide initiative begun in 2008 that set the ambitious goal of reducing water and electric use by 15 percent and generating zero waste by 2015 across the 780-restaurant chain.

Policy gets personal

Green is policy for Olive Garden. It is far more for Hernandez.

“I take it personal,” he said.

Hernandez said launching the green team was “a learning experience all around.”

“We went from zero – no recycling – to a strong focus throughout the company. This company has my heart.”

He noted that, thanks to a green team initiative, Olive Garden no longer sends Styrofoam into the waste stream.

“This restaurant is excited to be Styrofoam-free,” he said.

Green teams successfully advocated for togo boxes made from recycled plastic that are recyclable, microwave and dishwasher safe, he said.

Although the city doesn’t recycle glass, Olive Garden has become known to crafters and collectors as a go-to place to get handsome wine bottles.

“Conservatively, 20 to 30 percent gets recycled,” Hernandez said. “Unfortunately, the bottles are empty – we can’t dispense full ones.”

Green behind the scenes

Many of the local team’s initiatives are invisible to restaurant patrons.

“Our location focuses on water,” Hernandez said. “I grew up on a farm in Mesilla, exposed to the importance of water sustainability.”

He said changes prompted by the green team include cleaning floors with an enzymatic product rather than buckets of water. All hand-washing faucets are equipped with low flow aerators. The kitchen has eliminated its dipper wells for utensils, where water used to run constantly. Instead, chefs use a hot-water well.

Olive Garden pasta is boiled in low-flow cookers.

Hernandez said one initiative he pushed is the complete removal of incandescent lighting throughout the building.

The kitchen area switched to compact fluorescent lighting, and Hernandez’s green team began lobbying for the installation of LED lighting in the restaurant. Las Cruces was the first Olive Garden location to be fitted for the energy-efficient lighting, he said.

“It cost a big chunk of money,” Hernandez said of the initial LED investment. “The only way it happens is if the company hears from the teams.”

Teamwork saves resources

Green teams “get those closest to the action involved in the decision making that affects the restaurant,” he said.

Although some Olive Garden locations have been able to inspire only one or two staffers to volunteer for the green team, the Las Cruces restaurant has more than 10 percent of its staff participating, Hernandez said.

Active members receive a lapel pin, which generates questions from customers. Engaging customers in a dialogue about the restaurant’s green initiatives helps spread the word beyond the four walls of the restaurant, Hernandez said.

Hernandez’s green team began meeting quarterly to discuss sustainability issues, but now convenes each month. Prior to every meeting, a member conducts a 30-point leak inspection to determine whether the restaurant is losing any water or energy or missing out on any recycling opportunities. “We focus on what’s going on in the company and what we can do now,” Hernandez said.

Since all billing is handled at the corporate level, the team can’t directly measure its dollars and cents impact. It does, however, monitor quarterly reports on BTUs and kilowatt hours used.

“We’re always looking at the kind of impact our efforts are having, not only on the environment and on future generations but also from the business and corporate standpoint of how the initiatives affect investors,” he said.

A farm foundation

Hernandez, in fact, brings a business perspective to the culinary enterprise and its sustainability program. He majored in agricultural business and economics at New Mexico State University, with minors in marketing and management.

At the university, he served as president of the National Agricultural Marketing Association chapter, was committee chairman for the Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management Association on campus and was an ambassador for the College of Agriculture and Economics.

“I went into agriculture primarily because my family background was in agriculture,” he said.

Read the Las Cruces Bulletin article

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