Threesomes usually are the stuff of cross-the-line personal ads. But for Pat and Dan Conway, co-owners of the Great Lakes Brewing Cleveland, Ohio, Company (GLBC), a three-way approach into running their operation is anything but risqué—or risky. At the microbrewery and restaurant the brothers opened in 1988, business is steady and strong because the Conways never take their eyes off what’s been dubbed the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit.
Think of it as a dollar and sense vision of how to do well while doing good.
Putting equal emphasis on financial, environmental, and social outcomes is a model that’s been steadily gaining traction in business culture. Dow Jones created Sustainability Indexes that reflect all three components. Instead of considering only net revenue as the measure of success, companies committed to this approach also factor in their ecological and human impact. “From the start,” says Dan, “we decided that we weren’t just going to look at the obvious and immediate costs to us when making decisions. We want to be environmental stewards and act responsibly towards our employees and our community. So, we focus beyond the bills on the bigger picture, considering the larger, long-term costs of things like pollution, energy consumption, and unhealthy workplaces.”
They see record-breaking sales in every division of the company, which consists of a craft brewery that produces all natural, award-winning beers; a brewpub restaurant; a retail store; and a banquet services operation. Located in a group of renovated buildings in Cleveland’s historic Ohio City neighborhood, facilities include a taproom, dining room, cellar pub, tasting rooms for private parties, and the brewery itself. The conversion of an outdoor patio to an all-season, 44-seat beer garden with retractable roof embodies “green” building strategies such as straw bale construction, an economical radiant heating system, and the use of natural light to reduce electricity demands.
Another restaurant might think nothing of spending $30,000 on advertising; GLBC chose to put that amount into building an experimental passive-solar greenhouse that runs without any supplemental heat or light. “We got a great deal of media attention for the project,” Dan continues, “which generated interest and good will throughout the community... and we have a steady year- round supply of fresh high-end herbs for our kitchen.”
Don’t Lose It, Use It
Innovate or die is a standard business aphorism. The Conways are redefining what that means by taking a sustainable approach to food service and refuting the notion that it costs too much to care. Much of what they do differently is surprisingly low-tech—and affordable. According to Dan, replacing standard light bulbs with compact fluorescents, for example, and installing an “air curtain” to stop heat loss as customers enter and exit the brewpub represent “low hanging fruit.”
The centerpiece of GLBC’s operation is their Zero Waste Initiative. Pat calls it a “full circle philosophy.” The ultimate goal is to establish a closed-loop system that imitates nature. Reduce, reuse, and recycle is the mantra, and it takes many forms.
The semi-truck that delivers beer to GLBC distributors and a shuttle bus that ferries customers back and forth from the nearby downtown baseball stadium, run on bio-diesel fuel made from used fryer grease. It costs approximately $1.25 per gallon, requires only filtering to be tank-ready, emits 40 percent less soot than diesel, and runs 25 percent cleaner. There was a one-time cost of approximately $2,000 for each engine conversion kit. Pat even put one on his 1980s era BMW, where now the wonderful aroma of french fries wafts up from the car’s exhaust system. The smell prompts the occasional joke but never any complaints. “With the hike in gas prices,” says Dan, “this is an investment that keeps on giving.”
Instead of going into the garbage, spent grain from the brewing process becomes a valuable commodity for local food producers who supply the restaurant. It’s used in livestock feed, as a growing medium for shiitake and oyster mushrooms, and to make the brewpub’s signature pretzels and bread. Recycling cans, glass, paper, and plastic from the brewery, restaurant, and offices is standard practice.
“We’re a business, and we can’t stay in business if we’re not making money,” says Dan. “Sending less to a landfill actually helps us do that. We’re using things instead of paying to get rid of them. As a result, we’ve cut our refuse bills by two thirds in the past couple of years. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that this is a smart choice in every way.”
Sorting kitchen waste, explains Executive Chef Kurt Steeber, who came on board in May 2005, doesn’t create extra work for him and his staff, “it’s just a different way of working.” Steeber, a “disciple” of Chef Jeremiah Tower, an early and vocal advocate of fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients, took the GLBC job because of the Conway brothers’ earth-friendly commitments. Some kitchen scraps, along with cardboard and spent grain end up at the worm farm in the brewery basement, as food for the squirmy critters. The by-product of their digestive process, called castings, is a rich, organic fertilizer that nourishes herb and vegetable plants grown for the restaurant in a nearby community garden. “This is a constant, free source of high quality fertilizer,” says Christine DeJesus,
a former server who’s now the official company gardener. “It has significantly increased the yields from the two 20 × 20 plots I tend for Great Lakes.” DeJesus meets with the chef in early spring to plan her crops. She’s raised tomatoes, zucchini, chard, and edible flowers for plate garnishes. This year Steeber also asked for sorrel and poblano peppers. In Steeber’s strictly from-scratch kitchen, nothing is wasted—not even time. “I teach knife skills to anyone interested in learning,” the chef explains. “Since I’ve been here, four dishwashers have taken on pantry and prepping duties. They prefer being busy to sitting around with nothing to do, and feel good about themselves and their jobs. This reduces turnover and allows us to build a cohesive, consistent team.”
When it comes to the people portion of the triple bottom line, the Conways believe that taking care of staff begins “at home.” That’s why they instituted a complete smoking ban in 2001. “The decision was prompted by our concern for the staff’s well-being,” explains Pat. “Customers can go elsewhere, [workers] can’t. We knew it was a risk, especially in the taproom, but it actually improved business.”
With a view that employees are resources to be developed, not costs to be controlled, the brothers implemented a profit- sharing plan in 2005 and made the first contributions—5 percent of the annual compensation for every employee who has been with the company a year or more.
Good Will Gains
The brothers take every opportunity to tell the public about their philosophy from printing a message on their menus that thanks patrons for helping them support local farmers to sponsoring the Burning River Fest, an annual celebration of eco-activists and their efforts to protect air, water, and soil in the region. In Cleveland, the company name has become synonymous with what Pat describes as “righteous business practices.” Not every customer cares that the beverage napkins are made from 100 percent recycled paper, or that many of their ingredients are free-range or organic, but for those who do, it provides an extra incentive to go to Great Lakes for their burgers and beer. Or one of the kitchen’s signature dishes, such as pretzel-crusted chicken with a mustard ale sauce, potatoes and spinach ($16); salmon sous vide with leeks ($17); fresh Lake Erie walleye in a Porter tempura batter ($9); and other hearty specials. The bar offers more than 40 different kinds of beer, including exclusives such as Barrel Select Pils; Lake Erie Monster Double India Pale Ale; Pumpkin Ale; Bourbon Barrel Aged Series; Grand Cru and more, plus seasonal beers that reappear each year.
Despite doing very little traditional marketing, restaurant sales in 2005 were up 9.6 percent from the previous year, banquet sales showed a 14.9 percent growth for the same period, and brewery revenue was up 21.5 percent.
“All our promotional activities are driven by our environmental and social agenda,” Pat explains. “ It’s a “love marketing” approach. People like what we stand for and feel good about supporting us. They know that we’re committed to environmental stewardship and sustainable take-make- and-remake practices, and that gives them even more reasons to patronize us.”