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She’s a green bean-counter Sustainability for the food service
industry.Woman helps restaurants recycle waste, add local items.

By Nedra Rhone

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Monday, June 08, 2009

The story of how Holly Elmore became a champion of sustainable food service
practices is filled with plot twists and turns. Most are detailed on her
eclectic resume, except for the light bulb moment when her seemingly
illogical career decisions crystallized into the perfect opportunity.

It came during a conversation with Patrick Gebrayel, executive chef of
Dunwoody Country Club. “I loved food. I always tried to be conscious. There
was a flame inside of me, and he lit it,” Elmore said.

That flame was her desire to move the local food service industry toward
more sustainable and green practices in both food preparation and disposal.
She began with an informal meeting attended by 30 local chefs and Ron Wolf,
CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association (GRA). When a second meeting drew
90 chefs and representatives from several Atlanta institutions, Elmore knew
the time was right.

The Green Food Service Alliance was born.

Elmore is founder and executive director of the organization, which
currently operates as a division of the nonprofit GRA, provider of some
financial assistance and political muscle. Initially, Elmore simply hoped to
encourage more restaurants to use locally produced foods by linking chefs
with area farms and educating them on the benefits of the slow food
movement. But in just a year, the Green Food Service Alliance has gained
national attention and support from the Environmental Protection Agency for
creating a program to reduce and recycle waste from food service providers.

“On the sustainability side, restaurants have been trying for years to get
more local foods onto their menus. The barrier was always the sense that it
had to take on incremental cost,” Wolf said. “Holly was instrumental in
breaking down some of those [barriers] and figuring out how to get things
done.”

Wolf was impressed with Elmore’s passion and commitment. “Her willingness to
educate herself was just remarkable. She has immersed herself in
understanding everything from composting to recycling.”

Still, sustainability is a fast-growing movement, even for Elmore, who 28
years ago planned to make Atlanta a four-year stop on the way to somewhere
else. She had hopes of becoming a CFO but quickly learned what the late ’80s
glass ceiling was all about. So she did what many bean counters would never
do —- opened a catering company even though she had never so much as boiled
an egg. She gained major corporate clients and later opened two event
facilities but after 15 years, she moved on.

“I knew I wasn’t going to get a job. I wanted to create a lifestyle that was
fluid and flexible,” Elmore said. She embarked on a series of experiences
including stints as sales and marketing director for Wine South and
advertising director for Restaurant Forum, the GRA’s official magazine,
which all prepared her for her current role.

Elmore, as the sole staffer of Green Food Service Alliance, is as likely to
give presentations to food service partners about energy-efficient
appliances or nontoxic cleaning supplies as she is to organize chef tours to
local farms such as a recent trip to Sweet Grass Dairy in Thomaston where 20
Atlanta chefs spent the day making cheese, observing farm operations and
enjoying lunch.

While Elmore believes chefs are on the front line in educating the public on
sustainable food, she also recognizes the need to manage things from the
other side. She drafted a proposal for a waste reduction and recycling
program, lobbied a friend to create a brochure and received funding from the
Environmental Protection Agency.

Within months, downtown Atlanta became the first Zero Waste Zone in the
Southeast with 13 participants, including the Georgia World Congress Center
and the Georgia Dome, the Westin and Hyatt hotels, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse
and Ted’s Montana Grill. Member organizations have three months to comply
with standards such as collecting spent grease to be used in the local
production of biofuel, donating excess food to feed the hungry, using
organic waste for composting and recycling common materials.

Participation enabled Ecco restaurant to discontinue use of Dumpsters. Part
of Fifth Group Restaurants, Ecco in Midtown was sending three 8-yard
Dumpsters of trash to the landfill each week, said partner Steve Simon.
Seven months ago they began a complete recycling program including glass,
paper, plastic and metal and three months ago they began composting. Now the
restaurant generates just a few bags of trash each week. “It was shocking
for us,” said Simon, who serves on the Alliance board. “The best part of it
for us is it hasn’t had to come at a financial expense.”

Larger operations such as GWCC found they were able to better direct their
green efforts. “If green is a mountain, there are a lot of different paths
to get up the mountain and there are efforts going on everywhere,” said
Kevin Duvall, assistant general manager of the GWCC. “[GFA] brings a
knowledge base to the equation that says, ‘It’s OK, you can go this way, but
have you thought about this way?’ ” GWCC invested in a baler to make it
easier to recycle corrugated board and the company began composting.

Elmore’s strategy is to appeal to economic sense as well as a sense of
responsibility. She encourages companies to get involved because they want
to and because, she believes, years from now everyone will wonder why they
are not doing it anyway.

For now, Elmore says her goal is to see Green Food Service Alliance through
the entrepreneurial phase. But down the line she envisions it as a national
resource with case studies and prototype programs showing how it’s done.

The era of sustainability, she says, is here to stay —- and so is she, until
the next venture calls.


-- 
Dr. Teri Hamlin
North Region Agriculture Education
Georgia Department of Education
204C Four Towers University of Georgia
Athens, Ga 30602
706-542-3679 / 706-540-0032
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