WOOSTER, OHIO — Jay Larkin, the corporate chef for Buehler Food Markets here, drives to the retailer's 13 stores to oversee its restaurant operations in a Volkswagen Jetta TDI. The Jetta normally runs on diesel fuel, but for the past six months it has been using a different kind of fuel — waste vegetable oil (WVO), taken from the stores' kitchens.
Known affectionately at Buehler's as the “Greasel Car,” the Jetta is a mostly white station wagon with a green stripe around the bottom and an illustration of a peanut-shaped mascot named Greasel with french fries for hair. On the rear door, and next to Greasel, the car announces that it is “powered by recycled vegetable oil.”
Besides being free, WVO used as fuel generates less greenhouse gas emissions than diesel oil. Fittingly, the front door of the Jetta states, “Smart to be Green,” while the license plate reads, “BF Green.”
The Jetta experiment worked so well that last month Buehler's converted one of four tractor-trailers — which are used to pick up and deliver local produce — from diesel to WVO. “We expect the truck to use 250 gallons of WVO per week,” said Scott Buehler, vice president of real estate and new store development, and a grandson of the company's founder. More semi trucks may be converted, depending on the amount of waste oil produced.
The use of WVO as fuel is just one of many environmental initiatives undertaken by Buehler's. Its emphasis on selling local produce is another. Between April and October, 30% of the produce sold by Buehler's is purchased by Dave Graf, its produce buyer, from local Amish growers. Last year, he spent more than $2.1 million on local produce.
Waste reduction is also emphasized by Buehler's. In 2008, the retailer recycled more than 2,660 tons of paper and cardboard, as well as nearly 43 tons of plastic bags. It has started a composting program at one store that removes about six tons of waste products weekly. Even its weekly ad insert is printed on 30% post-consumer recycled paper with soy ink.
To reduce its carbon footprint, Buehler's has installed skylights in one store and LED lights in frozen cases throughout its 13 stores. It also switched to energy-efficient T8 and T5 lamps in its main office and warehouse.
Refrigeration is another area in which the retailer is proactive, installing secondary loop medium-temperature refrigeration systems in about half of its stores. Eleven of the 13 Buehler's stores have been recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program, and next year its two newest stores will apply for Energy Star certification.
For its willingness to experiment with alternative fuels, its focus on local produce, and its energy and refrigeration initiatives, Buehler's has been selected to receive SN's 2009 Sustainability Excellence Award in the independent category.
Produce is not the only product category that Buehler's buys locally. All of its fresh poultry comes from local producers, and Buehler's also patronizes local bakeries, wineries and meat-processing facilities — more than 40 Ohio-based companies in all. The company operates its own warehouse here to receive local products, though it still relies on wholesaler Nash Finch to supply the bulk of its grocery items.
“As long as the quality meets our guidelines, we take every opportunity to buy local,” said Buehler, who serves on the Food Marketing Institute's Sustainability Leadership Committee. “It's good for [customers'] health, it's good for our carbon footprint, it helps the local economy, and it's always been how we've built our company.”
Another local relationship struck by Buehler's is with a composting company near one of its stores here. This year, the retailer purchased a compactor into which goes remnants from the store's produce, floral, meat, seafood and deli departments, and the in-store restaurant. The waste is brought to the composter, which turns it into compost and sells it. The plan is for some of the compost to be sold at Buehler's store.
Right now the cost of composting is about the same as taking the waste to a landfill, but once the store starts selling compost, “the program is intended to break even or save us some money,” said Buehler. He plans to add another store and his central kitchen to the program and eventually compost 10 to 12 tons of waste per week.
Buehler's latest recycling effort is directed at getting store employees to recycle magazines, beverage cans and waste paper. After a pilot at one store in June, the company last month began equipping stores with signs, waste containers and green paint for their employee lounge.
The company also takes great pains to save water, installing water aerators in all production and hand faucets, and using waterless urinals. All hot water is generated by reclaimed heat from refrigeration compressor motors.
Buehler's also offers public collection and recycling of metal, paper, plastic and glass at several stores. Last month, one store allowed shoppers to drop off old computers and other electronics for recycling. At two stores where UPS store franchises are operated, customers are welcome to recycle Styrofoam packing material.
In another shopper initiative, the retailer has sold almost 82,000 reusable bags since late 2007; 5-cent refunds for each reusable bag used have grown by 70% over the past year, said Buehler. Plastic and paper bag consumption is down 10%.
Buehler's has made a major push to switch to LED lighting in frozen cases. LED lights, from ElectraLED, Largo, Fla., have been installed in 25% of existing cases; GE LED lights are now ordered with all new cases from Hill Phoenix.
“We see reduced maintenance with LEDs, which do very well in frozen cases, with energy savings and enhanced visibility,” said Buehler. “We're working toward retrofitting all frozen cases with them.” LEDs are used in walk-in freezers, though that is a more costly application. Buehler does not think LEDs are ready for parking lots yet.
The retailer uses anti-fog freezer film on frozen-food cases in three stores and now orders the film with new cases. “It allows us to shut off the heater in the doors,” he noted, adding that the film is most effective in non-summer months when the humidity is not high.
Buehler's has installed 106 skylights in one new store. “It's hard to measure the impact, but we're confident that it's saving us money,” said Buehler, noting that internal lighting is reduced as natural light increases. “We like the idea for future stores.”
Buehler's has begun a program to reduce its refrigerant emissions. Its secondary-loop refrigeration systems help to limit leaks by using much less refrigerant and restricting it to the compressor room. But the company has undertaken a study over the past two years to measure leaks to determine a baseline, and now plans to work with refrigeration vendor Hill Phoenix on further reductions.
Buehler's also plans to join the EPA's GreenChill Advanced Refrigeration Partnership, which helps retailers measure and reduce refrigerant emissions.