Chicago’s Hottest “Fast-Serve” Mexican Restaurant A Beacon of Sustainability

Monday, October 3rd, 2011
Photo Courtesy of XOCO

Photo Courtesy of XOCO

Owner/Developer: Rick Bayless

Architect: Farr Associates

General Contractor: Goldberg General Contracting

By Garratt Hasenstab
Most “foodies” associate the name Rick Bayless with innovative Mexican cuisine, however now Bayless also stands out as a leader in Chicago’s sustainable development scene.

First came the groundbreaking gourmet Mexican restaurant, Frontera Grill. Then Bayless brought Topolobampo to the scene, which has been making a killing among the business crowd and foodies alike.

But for a special 21st century Bayless bistro, the chef / green developer has pulled out all the stops by bringing to market XOCO (pronounced [sho-ko, from the Aztec for ‘little sister’), Bayless’ newest and hottest restaurant offering in Chicago.

XOCO is not just any newly completed restaurant. XOCO is one of only 38 restaurants in the world that has achieved LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) – a significant achievement in the realm of responsible and sustainable real estate development and sustainable business.

Bayless has not only embraced sustainability in his newest endeavor, he has completely set a new standard. Another of XOCO’s distinctions from the average restaurant is that it has recently been named the Greenest Restaurant in Chicago by the Green Restaurant Association.

The Green Restaurant Association set out with one simple goal 20 years ago: to make the restaurant industry environmentally sustainable. Now they are the industry-wide leader of third party certifications for eco-friendly operation restaurants. They take into consideration seven different aspects of restaurant operations and build out: disposables, food, energy, water, waste management, chemical reduction, and furnishing/building materials. There are currently six other three-star certified restaurants in Chicago (two of which are Frontera Grill & Topolobampo), however, XOCO earned the highest point total among them all.

XOCO is located in the heart of the city at 449 North Clark St. in Chicago. This 2800 square-foot restaurant earned the prestigious LEED Gold certification for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI) from the USGBC, which means that when you find yourself within these flavorful confines, you are experiencing a much more healthy indoor environment than most. This includes better indoor air quality and ventilation, improved personal comfort for temperature and lighting, and greatly reduced energy consumption.

XOCO, Bayless’ first restaurant designed to achieve LEED-CI certification, is a space that is both healthy for its occupants and the environment. The LEED-CI certification covers all of a piece of real estate’s interior elements such as floors, walls, finishes, lighting, furniture, mechanical systems and individual comfort.
Farr Associates, the project architect, worked closely with Bayless to make this project come to fruition.

“Designing and certifying the restaurant to green building standards honors our commitment to sustainability,” Bayless said. “I was impressed with the efficient lighting and kitchen equipment that is now available, and delighted by the local and green finishes that Farr proposed.”

XOCO is very different from Bayless’ other restaurant offerings in several ways. First, it is a “fast-serve” restaurant. Yes, like fast food, but of course with the greatest attention to quality and speed of service. One might ask, “Fast food? How could that be sustainable?”

“I never wanted to offer take-out before because of the packaging waste,” Bayless said. “But we found biodegradable packaging that I’m comfortable with, and there’s demand for this type of high nutrition. Sustainability every day includes eating and living healthily, even when you’re on the go.”

XOCO’s focus is to bring to market authentic Mexican “street food.” All of the culinary delights you will find at XOCO are made using all-electric appliances and induction pilotless cook tops for reduced space cooling. Additionally, variable-volume vent hoods reduce energy consumption by almost half during times when hoods function in low/no action periods.

“At XOCO, the whole restaurant revolves around sustainability, from locally sourced materials and nontoxic paints to solar panels for heat, and this incredible range hood that makes the whole place more energy efficient,” Bayless said. “Broadening our goals made us more creative; we approach our business in active, positive and thoughtful ways. We value people. And we came to learn that sustaining our business also meant developing long-term relationships with members of our community; their creativity and energy fuels our commitment to environmental and social sustainability.”

Now, back to those many innovative green elements of XOCO that one might never learn about while eating there—I mean really, who pays attention to the electrical consumption of the kitchen or the recycled content materials in the dining room when you’re just trying to grab some tasty Mexican fast food, right?

There’s much more than meets the eye in this very green eatery which has been designed for daylighting—you’ll find the space bursting with natural light. Where additional light may be needed, occupancy sensors and dimming controls reduce energy demand. Additionally, water use is reduced an exceptional 40 percent over baseline standards through low-flow plumbing fixtures.

Additionally, XOCO features greatly improved, high-performance envelope insulation with increased R-value storefronts to keep the space comfortable at all times. The restaurant also includes Energy Star roofing and appliances, which perform at a minimum of 20 percent greater efficiency than standard fluorescent and LED lighting. Forestry Stewardship Council certified wood products and low-VOC (volatile organic compound) materials made of regionally available recycled content are also used.

Bayless said a great deal of electricity is conserved by XOCO’s induction cook tops. The flat, sealed “burners” generate electro-magnetic waves to heat a metal pan or pot atop it, which in turn cooks the food. The process is viewed as being more efficient than the use of a conventional gas or electric coil burner, which indiscriminately radiate heat into the air.

Those valuable energy resource savers are a great complement to such kitchen components as a variable-speed cook top hood. Because the volume of air handled by the device can be adjusted for the volume of food being prepared for the clientele, its energy consumption can reduce by half the electricity needed for a conventional single-setting vent, according to Farr Associates.

Another great feature that makes XOCO stand apart from most any other restaurant in the city is the 1,000 square-foot rooftop garden, which provides some of the tomatoes and peppers used in XOCO’s Latino-style soups, sandwiches and empanadas.

And what’s really great is that these conservation and sustainability efforts don’t end when customers walk out the door. Some of Bayless’ other innovative conservation efforts include composting. The staff separates food scraps from the trash in order to create a valuable, nutrient-rich soil-additive rather than adding this as waste to the landfill. When organic waste goes to the landfill, it decomposes an-aerobically, which results in the production of methane: one of the most destructive of all greenhouse gases. By composting, XOCO is not only reducing waste generation from its operations, but is also preventing additional environmental degradation.

Furthermore, XOCO’s takeout containers and food wraps are biodegradable, and dine-in customers are provided with silverware and dishes rather than disposables. And say goodbye to the days of non-recyclable plastic take-out containers. As a XOCO take-out customer, you’ll find your food wrapped in compostable materials, or products made from natural materials such as corn, soy or cellulose—any of which do not emit toxins while your leftovers wait for you to get hungry again. As an eat-in diner you’ll be using real silverware and dishware, which is a great if you’re used to eating at take-out establishments that offer plastic utensils that break in two upon first attempt to spork something. Even XOCO’s used cooking grease is recycled to power a local waste recycler/composter vehicle fleet.

“Now we’re creating approximately a quarter of the waste generated by most restaurants,” Bayless said.

Bayless has successfully made great strides in flipping the paradigm of sustainable fast food right on its head. Restaurants have a very significant impact on our global environment, from where they are sourcing their food products and efficiency of their facilities, to the energy/water they consume and the waste they generate. Reducing these impacts not only adds economic value to these business ventures, but also presents a significant opportunity to make a powerful impact from the triple bottom-line perspective, incorporating social, environmental and economic value to the communities they are part of. Rick Bayless is part of the next generation of leaders in this industry, bringing a commitment to sustainable practices to an industry that has long overlooked this key element to success.

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