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Conservation on the Menu: Study Can Help Decrease Water Usage in Restaurants

It's no secret recipe: Restaurants use millions of gallons of water every year to whet our appetites.

Recent research by a Kansas State University doctoral student can help restaurants decrease water usage without dampening dinner.

Matthew VanSchenkhof, doctoral student in hospitality management and dietetics, St. George, is studying the amount of water used by casual dining restaurants in Kansas.

VanSchenkhof received his undergraduate degree in hospitality management and dietetics at Kansas State, and then worked 15 years in the restaurant industry before returning to Kansas State for his doctoral degree. He admits that he wasn't the most water-wise when working in the industry, but his outlook changed when he started teaching a sustainability class at Kansas State.

"It really spoke to me when I saw how difficult it is for people in other countries to access water," VanSchenkhof said. "Plus, estimates indicate that by 2050, 85 percent of Kansas counties are going to be under some sort of water stress, so there is no way we can continue with the amount of water we are using."

Restaurant kitchens use 25 times the amount of water per square foot than the average commercial industry, according to national studies. When VanSchenkhof also noticed a lack of research that quantified water usage specifically for Kansas restaurants, he wanted to study the topic further.

"When we looked at the restaurant industry, we only found anecdotal evidence of reducing water usage," VanSchenkhof said. "That means that equipment claimed to reduce water usage by 70 percent, but no research showed exactly how much water was used before and how much was used after purchasing the equipment."

National studies indicate that the highest water usage in restaurants is for sanitation, followed by food production, ice machines, bathrooms and drinks served to customers. For restaurants that irrigate grass and surrounding landscape, irrigation uses the most water.

Ice machines use a lot of water because many older ice machines are inefficient, VanSchenkhof said. Older machines can require as much as 175 gallons of water to get 100 pounds of ice because they use a water-cooling system to create the ice. Newer ice machines conserve much more water -- as low as 25 gallons of water for 100 pounds of ice -- because they use an air-cooling system to create ice.

VanSchenkhof is studying such water usage in Kansas restaurants to understand where the most water is flowing. He is looking at casual dining restaurants, which he defines as restaurants that primarily use wait staff, serve alcohol, and have an average check between $10 and $25 per person. Fitting this description in Kansas are 908 restaurants, and VanSchenkhof wants to obtain data from at least 250 of them.

When beginning his research, VanSchenkhof conducted a pilot study of 10 restaurants in Manhattan, and found the average water bill for those restaurants to be $6,000 per year. The restaurants used an average of 1.56 million gallons a year.

"While that number is still a lot lower than it has been in past decades, it still tells us that we are using a lot of water," he said.

The pilot study also showed that the restaurants use just under a gallon of water for every dollar of sales they receive. The gallon amount increases dramatically if the restaurants irrigate.

Now VanSchenkhof is talking with Kansas restaurant managers and owners across the state to collect data for his research, including water usage, interior square footage, number of employees and number of seats in the restaurant. By doing so, he can create baselines for Kansas restaurant water usage and help develop significant efficiencies and ways to decrease water usage.

"The baselines we're creating here are going to be baselines that we can transcribe or use for other industries like hotels or commercial laundries," VanSchenkhof said. "If we look at water per square foot and water per employee and water for each dollar of sales, then we're going to figure out the efficient and inefficient industries and we can decrease water use."

VanSchenkhof's faculty adviser is Elizabeth Barrett, associate professor of hospitality management and dietetics. He will present his research at the 2011 International Council on Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Education in July in Denver. VanSchenkhof was also selected to present his project, "An Investigation of Water Usage in Casual Dining Restaurants in Kansas," earlier this year at the Capitol Graduate Research Summit in Topeka.

Matthew VanSchenkhof,

Matthew VanSchenkhof | Newswise Science News
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