It’s only 9:30 in the morning, and there aren’t any stores open in Bayview Village Mall.

You wouldn’t know it, though, if you peeked in the window at South St. Burger Co. The restaurant’s already abuzz with activity—two engineers stand beneath the kitchen’s extractor hoods with antennaed gauges, talking quietly and recording measurements. Kitchen staff prep ingredients for the lunch rush.

And, behind the cash register, South St.’s VP of operations, Tom McNaughtan, is drying wine glasses.

South St.'s wine and beer menu

After all, the restaurant is anticipating that their liquor license application is going to be approved today, and they want to be ready. The cooler’s already full of Mill St. Brewery beer and a selection of red and white wines.

McNaughtan had a free hand, so he pitched in.

“I do a little bit of everything,” he laughs.

Not just a greasy spoon

Microbrews and VQA bottles might seem like an odd offering for a burger joint, but South St. Burger Co.’s no ordinary burger joint.

Jay Gould, founder and president of both South St. Burger Co. and New York Fries, explains it this way.

“We decided that the things that go best with what we already do were burgers—and, as it happens, those are the two most-purchased food items in the business,” Gould says, leaning on the counter that, in a couple of hours, will showcase more than 25 toppings that include mango chutney and goat cheese.

Going into premium burgers turned out to be a forward-thinking decision.

“Fast forward six years, and you can’t walk down Yonge Street without seeing a new premium burger joint on every corner,” Gould says. “Without a doubt, not just in Toronto but all over North America, it’s the hottest food concept.”

Energy efficiency and green products

But South St.’s not just your standard premium fast-food eatery. They’ve managed to distinguish themselves in a now-crowded market by emphasizing not just fresh, locally-sourced ingredients (they have those, too) but by designing and constructing their restaurants with as much attention to environmentally friendly measures and mechanisms as possible.

That includes Energy STAR-qualified appliances, recycled paper products (where it’s possible), water-cooled ice-makers, and LED lights. They use low-VOC paints and environmentally friendly cleaners.

And that’s just the beginning.

South St. Burger Co.'s Don Mills store, which garnered the chain a Green Leadership Award and an ARE Sustainable Design Award

Eight of South St. Burger Co.’s stores are powered by clean, wind-generated electricity, courtesy of Bullfrog Power. Two use solar power for water heating and supplemental electricity. And all have high-tech heat-recovery grill hoods, heating incoming make-up air, reducing heating requirements by 300 cubic meters of gas per month.

LEED certification—an uphill battle

With all this investment, they’re working on getting LEED certification for the Bayview Village store—which is turning out to be a struggle, not because they don’t meet the criteria, but because of the incredible amount of documentation required.

“A bunch of our stores would meet LEED certification criteria, at least at the bronze or silver levels,” says Gould. “We decided to go through the process this time with this store, but I’m not sure we want to keep doing that. It’s onerous, and expensive, and although we’ll follow the same design and material schedule in our next store, I’m not sure we’re going to do it again.”

Patrons want sustainable eating

Bureaucratic hassles aside, why the commitment to the environment? Mostly it’s a question of giving the market what it wants.

South St.'s signature hamburger

“The world at large is still going to eat out a large part of their meals,” explains Gould. “And whether it’s us, or whether it’s Chipotle doing fresh Mexican in the States, people want better quality. You know, our kids are growing up, and they’re not screaming for toys and value-based, kid-based meals.”

Gould adds that people who value the environment tend to act with their wallets. “People have money, but it’s not just a money-driven decision—they want to do the right things, and they want to eat the right things.”

He laughs.

“I don’t think the 17-year-old kids who come in here looking for a huge cheeseburger necessarily get that, but there’s enough of our market that does, so I think we’re on the right track.”

Investing in green technology

Being environmentally friendly is a major financial commitment, though—especially in up-front costs. Gould estimates that putting up a South St. Burger Co. franchise costs up to 20% more than a traditional fast-food joint, simply because high-efficiency products tend to cost more.

That being said, though, he can see paybacks down the line.

The heat exchangers in the grill hoods, for example, will pay for themselves in four to seven years. That may seem like a long time, but, based on the fact that New York Fries—Gould’s first foray into premium fast food—has been going strong since 1984, Gould anticipates being able to see the fruits of his investment many times over.

“We sign a minimum of ten-year leases,” he points out. “We’re around for the long haul.”

Follow South St. Burger Co.’s example

So what advice does he have for aspiring green restaurateurs?

“Don’t do it! Don’t even think about it!” He laughs.

“Seriously, though—unless you’re well-versed in the equipment and the products, find somebody to help you through the process. Not even the certification process—just find a designer who knows their way around the proper equipment.”

Anyone thinking about incorporating green technology into their restaurant should start before the restaurant opens, because, as Gould points out, it’s difficult to retrofit.

South St. Burger Co. uses LED lights wherever possible

“And be prepared to spend a lot of money up front—probably a 15% premium when you factor in the building and equipment,” he says. “These heat exchangers, for example—they save us a ton of money, but they’re an extra $20,000. LED lightbulbs last ten times as long as regular ones, but they’re ten times as expensive, too.”

In the end, though, it’s worth it—both from an environmental and marketing standpoint.

“Hey—we make no bones about it: we’re doing this for a reason,” Gould says. “We think it’s a good idea, but we also think our customers think it’s a good idea, and it would be a wasted opportunity if we didn’t tell them about it.”

Images credit: South St. Burger Co.