Separating fact from PR can be a challenge when assessing how green a company’s efforts are. In the case of , however, the proof is in the flooring. And chairs. And lights, walls, countertops, paint—really every square inch of the place.
As celebrates the with a ribbon-cutting ceremony today, guests may not notice that the physical place, from the bottom up, is a cutting-edge model for sustainable design, featuring everything from bamboo floors and efficient LED lights to creatively repurposed building materials and high-tech energy-efficient appliances.
Architect Gary Wiggle, of Keisker & Wiggle Architects, said that LYFE CEO Mike Roberts asked his team to start by writing a sustainability platform from scratch.
“That platform made us stop and think about it very early on, so it didn’t become an afterthought and a band-aid approach—gee, 'what can we do to save energy, what can we do to have a small carbon footprint?’” said Wiggle. “It became sort of the base of our thinking.”
The story begins with the demolition. The existing site was a teeth-whitening dental suite with concrete block sidewalls. The demo team salvaged and re-used 75 percent of that material, leaving the sidewalls fully exposed and untreated in the final design and significantly reducing landfill waste.
With the shell ready for build-out, the design team turned their attention to the interior.
Bob Kuchimski, who led the space planning and kitchen design efforts, said kitchens are notoriously mechanically intense and waste a lot of energy. LYFE Kitchen’s back-of-the-house is stocked with Energy-Star appliances, including a state-of-the-art dish machine that just came to market, said Kuchimski.
“It has condensation hood on it, so we’re capturing the heat and it goes in to reheating the next cycle,” he said. “So we’re only using three quarters of a gallon of water on each cycle, not having to generate any power. A typical cycle uses one and a half gallons.”
In addition to saving on water, the gas-heated machine requires a smaller-than-average heater, therefore saving big on energy, he said.
What’s more, LYFE commissioned a series of time and motion studies from the Synergy Group to look at how staff move around a kitchen.
“The cooks make money with their hands, not their feet,” said Kuchimski. “The idea is to keep them on the balls of their feet so they’re not moving back and forth. So there’s a whole art of pulling that together and keeping the kitchen as tight as possible, because real estate being what it is, you want to be a very efficient kitchen.”
A smaller kitchen, he said, is also easier to clean, and allows more space in the front of the restaurant for seats.
That dining area brought its own unique set of challenges for the design team. Margee Drews, who led the interior design, said their decisions carefully adhered to GreenGuard standards, which certifies indoor air quality in buildings like schools and hospitals.
To reduce off-gasing of toxic fumes, Drews found sustainably harvested, formaldehyde-free Vietnamese bamboo for the tabletops, coated with polyurethane instead of vinyl.
“PVC has off-gassing and can trigger asthma,” she said.
On the ceiling, large, decorative wood planks are the remains of old bleachers torn out of the University of San Francisco. One of those bleachers was kept intact and used as a bench, and all the chairs are made of recycled milk and juice cartons.
Even the wall paint, floor adhesive and tile thin set was carefully selected for their low emission of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
“Notice, you do not smell a new restaurant,” said Drews. “It’s smells really good. It smells like nothing.”
Despite the fresh thinking around green design, said Kuchimski, the final plan did not carry the high price tag sometimes associated with sustainability efforts. That’s because his team was told to keep it simple, he said.
“We worked very hard at trying to not be too elaborate in what we had, and let the materials be very natural—just take the simplicity and the beauty of the space and let the people and all the activity of the cooking and everything going on here almost be sort of the art in the space.”
said he was surprised at the results. After a lengthy career as a top McDonald’s executive, designing a green restaurant from the bottom up was bound to be a unique experience.
“I didn’t know this was all possible,” he said, but he’s a believer now. “You can have an environment that’s been created that is gentle on the earth and contains a low carbon footprint.”
For Roberts and the rest of the LYFE executive team, being green is a core element of their corporate philosophy.
“LYFE Kitchen is about do good, feel good, eat good. Do good is about caring for the earth. All of us who are part of this are committed to this.”
That commitment led Roberts’ team to have to find new suppliers, for example, in order to offer grass-fed beef.
“As soon as we found out that the product we were using could not be called ‘grass fed beef,’ that the cow consumed corn the last 90 days, we searched and probably entertained 20 different suppliers, and found one, the Hearst Corporation farm in San Simian.
Another interesting challenge, he said, is finding a new kind of straw that allows people to drink hot beverages, like coffee, without it melting, like corn starch straws do.
“So we’ve got to find out what this supplier can do to make that right,” he said.
The list of green design choices goes on and on, from LED overhead lighting to an outdoor refrigeration rack to energy-efficient glass in sliding doors that open to let in cool air.
“Everything you can see or touch, it fits our sustainability platform,” said Magee Drews.
Kuchimski agreed, adding that the platform really required unlearning some of the rules that typify American culture.
“We live in a disposable society,” he said. “and it’s like, ok, we’ll buy chairs and in a couple years we’ll throw these away and get new chairs. We didn’t look at it that way. It fills up our landfill. So we looked at trying to make things that were durable and long-lasting and more timeless.”
Now that LYFE Kitchen has opened its doors, Kuchimski, Drews and Wiggle can sit back and enjoy the food. This puts the pressure on Mike Roberts and the restaurant staff to ensure that the business itself is as long-lasting and timeless as its design.