How Restaurants Are Coping with the California Drought

California is facing one of the most severe droughts in recent history, and everyone is being challenged to reduce water usage — residents, businesses, and notably restaurants, which are finding creative conservation tactics in the front and back of house.

Chris Duggan is the Director for Local Government Affairs at the California Restaurant Association, and he says in his hometown of San Diego, where the drought is especially palpable, restaurants have stepped up to the plate.

“There’s a lot of forward thinking from southern California,” he says. “Down here in San Diego, they wanted us to conserve 16% — we conserved 24%. We’ve been down here fighting this battle for the longest time, so we’re a little bit ahead of the curb.”

Restaurants are being asked to reduce their water usage in a few ways, from the dining room to the kitchen. The restriction that’s felt most strongly is a new drinking water law, requiring that guests ask for tap water instead of being served automatically.

Because it impacts consumers directly, this restriction is by far the most publicized — but John Cox, Chef of the Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar restaurant in Big Sur, says it doesn’t actually result in a huge savings. “That saves about 10-15 gallons of water per day, so as far as the savings it’s pretty negligible,” he says. “But it does bring a great amount of awareness to the issue, so that’s great.”

We asked Chris and John all about how restaurants are cutting back and getting creative with new water-saving solutions. Read on for their tips, plus a new innovation from John that’s gaining traction in restaurants across the country.

Water-Wise Solutions

Ultimately, says John, there’s not one golden solution to saving water. Instead, success comes when a handful of small changes are adopted by the entire restaurant community.

The Post Ranch Inn is self-sustaining with water, thanks to a couple of wells and a holding tank on the property, so he’s acutely aware of how much water they’re using at any given time. “We’ve been looking for creative solutions across all of the departments — anything that can chip away at water savings.”

Install water-wise facilities.

Over the past six months, Chris says restaurants that did not have water-wise components in the back of house and in restrooms have taken advantage of rebates from local water authorities to install water-wise faucets and low-flush toilets. Many are using low-flow irrigation systems for landscaping and staying on top of leaks, indoors and outdoors.

Utilize machines fully.

Many restaurants, including Sierra Mar, have multiple water-using machines on site, such as dishwashers in the kitchen, glass washers in the bar, and laundry machines. “You’re going to use the same amount of water whether you’re running one espresso cup or whether you’re running an entire rack full of plates,” says John. He makes sure that his team is fully utilizing that resource each time they cycle it. He also uses a three-compartment sink for pots and pans instead of putting them through the dishwasher, which stretches 25-30 gallons of water through a whole afternoon of washing dishes.

Defrost in the refrigerator.

Many restaurants defrost products under constantly running cold water before using them, which is incredibly water intensive. By planning ahead and defrosting items in the refrigerator, you’ll save a significant amount of water, John says.

Use drought-hardy ingredients.

Chris says he’s seen restaurants deliberately seek out ingredients that don’t require much water to grow, forgoing thirsty avocados and tomatoes. At Sierra Mar, John takes it a step further. He focuses his menu on indigenous products and wild foods that thrive in the local arid environment, such as wild arugula, yerba buena mint, yucca plants, and wild radishes.

“By really focusing on these drought-hardy ingredients that naturally grow in this area, not only do we save water but we also create more of a culinary identity for our restaurant,” he says. “It’s kind of a win-win situation.”

Educating Guests

The water-upon-request issue poses a challenge for fine-dining restaurants that pride themselves on providing exceptional hospitality. Educating guests is critical. Some restaurants use table tents to message the crisis; others include a line on their menu explaining the regulations. Training front-of-house staff to explain the reasons behind water service is a great way to start the dialogue. Alternatively, some restaurants have included bottled or filtered water service in the price of the menu.

Innovations with Air

Restaurants use a massive amount of water when night cleaners come in to spray down the kitchen. That’s what John noticed when monitoring the tanks at Sierra Mar. He bought a $250 air compressor on Amazon and brought it into the restaurant to see if they could use it to use the kitchen instead, since it’s better for the equipment and uses less water.

As he was storing it underneath the dish station, he noticed the pre-rinse nozzle in the dish station running constantly to spray off plates and thought, what if we used the air compressor instead? Since the pre-rinse nozzle is used solely to knock food off the plate — not to clean or sanitize — it made sense. He took the air gun off of the compressor and ran it behind the sink. “I said, if we can go through one dinner service and my dishwashers haven’t walked out and all my plates are still clean, then that will be a success.”

It was a success. John saw that his team was saving 700-800 gallons of water per day just by making this small change to the pre-rinse process — 25% of his overall water use. He predicts that he’ll save 250,000 gallons of water this year.

There are about 100,000 pre-rinse nozzles in use in California (including office buildings, hotels, schools and more), and if each of those could save at the same rate, the overall savings would be about 30 million gallons of water per year. According to John, that’s about the same as the entire residential water use of the United States for one day, or the amount of water that every individual and family in California uses for seven days.

Since then John has gotten calls from people from New York to Hong Kong, who are interested not just in water savings but also in composting more and protecting old septic systems. He’s working with an engineer to design a unit specifically for restaurants that can switch from all air to all water to a mix — “an incredibly high-powered mist,” as John describes it. He says there’s a huge list of people who want to put the unit in their restaurants but don’t want to rig it up on their own.

“I don’t think the air compressor is going to be the answer for everybody by any means,” he says. “But I think that as chefs and as restaurateurs, it’s our responsibility to be aware of what we’re doing and how it affects the environment, whether it’s the products we’re sourcing or the way that we’re washing dishes. As the 30 million gallons demonstrates, collectively we do have a pretty major impact on not just water, but on the environment in general.”

Photo Credit: Kodiak Greenwood; last image courtesy of @chefjohncox on Instagram.