Many fast casuals incorporate "green" concepts into their operations, but possibly none with as much panache as Le Pain Quotidien. From its name, which translates into "daily bread," to the communal tables and even the paint on the walls, sustainability flourishes at nearly every level of the Belgian company's operations.
Originating from Brussels, this nearly 20-year-old boulangerie has been serving its West European-style, eco-friendly fare to Americans since 1997. Chef Alain Coumont originally founded his authentic bakery-cafÃ© concept in an effort to recreate the quality, artisanal breads of his youth. And sustainable, fresh ingredients and materials are a primary ingredient of the Le Pain Quotidien concept.
"Our values have always been aligned with green and sustainable," said Patrick Jenkins, vice president of operations for Le Pain Quotidien. "Not only food that is wholesomely and organically grown but energy, paper products — any way we can illustrate our values in a good way. Organic (for us) is another way of saying â€˜How your grandmother used to do.'"
Take one interesting and telling example. Le Pain uses Belgian artisan Karel Van Beek to refashion each communal table from discarded materials within all Le Pain's 35 U.S. locations. Van Beek hunts through European landfills to convert aged box cars, old hospital and apothecary furniture — among other items — to create all of the cafÃ©'s dining furniture, Jenkins said. Much of each restaurant's walls and floors are made of genuine plaster and reclaimed wood as well.
"It's really a quality orientation and harkening back to earlier times and it's been that way since 1991," Jenkins said. "The furniture is retasked in Belgium and is as authentic and real as you can get."
Although Le Pain Quotidien has been a Certified Green Restaurant only since 2006, the company's concept remains unchanged since the first unit was opened in Brussels. Menu items include local, farm-fresh produce, handmade organic breads and fresh herbs and cheeses, but Le Pain's variety steps beyond even the typical organic fast casual fare.
The chain's menu features dishes such as Toasted Paris Ham & Gruyere Croissant with organic mesclun and mustard trio for breakfast, Atlantic Smoked Salmon tartines with chopped dill for lunch and sesame-crusted salmon with miso glaze and organic oat risotto and edamame for dinner.
"It's not just how to be green, but how to be delicious. Thatâ€˜s the trick," Jenkins said.
Food & drink
Le Pain manages to stay true to its organic roots though its menu, said Maria Caranfa, director of restaurant market research firm Mintel Menu Insights. And that's a smart move when it comes to marketing the concept.
In a January "Attitudes Toward Dining" report, 40 percent of diners said "knowing that the restaurant follows sustainable food practices" is an important aspect of their favorite restaurant or more clearly, it represented the second highest priority. Additionally, the National Restaurant Association found in 2008 that "62 percent of restaurant patrons choose a restaurant based on their commitment to the environment."
"Sustainability is really inevitable," Caranfa said. "Although the economy is in a depressed state right now all industries, including the restaurant industry, are taking a look at it even if they are putting in place other efforts to increase sales. (Sustainability) always needs to be on the to-do list or agenda. Consumers are still interested in sustainable practices."
In many cases, sustainability can cost more to implement, resulting in thereby higher prices to the consumer. Mainstream customer acceptance for green products must be found via more competitive costs, according to a recent Mintel sustainability report.
Le Pain's environmental efforts, such as the installation of water- and energy-efficient low-flow spray valves, in general, cut costs on their own, Jenkins said. And if not, well, that's OK too, he said.
"There's more than one way to evaluate costs," Jenkins said. "There are the environmental costs, social costs, business costs. It can be a lot more expensive in one way than another."
Because "the commitment to organic is important around the world" as well as to Le Pain's roots, Jenkins said the privately-held global outfit will continue to enact even greater environmental standards beyond its current practices of supplying organic cotton T-shirts to crew and using plant-based soaps in the restrooms, biodegradable disposables and in-store recycling programs.
"Certainly there are more ways (to be sustainable) than you can shake a stick at," he said. "We're not perfect. We're greener than most but there is plenty more we can do."