2010 Green Awards: Dan McGowan

THE INCREMENTALIST // Big Bowl

Dan McGowan

There is no reason why Big Bowl, the Chicago-based chain of eight Chinese-Thai restaurants, would seem an obvious candidate to go green. On the other hand, why not? Big Bowl’s president, Dan McGowan, saw an opportunity when he was charged with reinvigorating the brand in 2004, the year Lettuce Entertain You bought back the franchise from a large restaurant corporation. The 43-year-old McGowan, who credits the birth of his daughter with igniting his passion for the environment, says he knew he wanted Big Bowl to become natural, local, and sustainable—and that transformation would begin with the food.

It started with coffee. One day, the daughter of a regular customer explained to McGowan how the practice of fair trade helped poorer nations compete their way out of poverty—coffee being but one example of in-demand goods that can be bought responsibly. “At Big Bowl, we sell more tea than coffee, but we do sell 100 pounds a week,” says McGowan, who switched to fair-trade coffee right away. “It led to more conversations with my partners, who said, ‘OK, now what can we really do?’”

McGowan next tackled the stir-fry bar, which accounts for up to 20 percent of all dishes sold at Big Bowl. Going to all-organic vegetables would be prohibitively expensive or logistically impractical. But buying tomatoes, peppers, pea pods, onions, herbs, corn, and other produce from local farmers during the harvest months? That would work. Then McGowan traded so-called commodity proteins for heirloom pork, wild organic Scottish salmon, and natural beef and chicken. In some instances, he had to coax along middleman distributors to carry these niche products just for him.

But McGowan didn’t stop there. The company turned its attention to bottled water ($25,000 worth of annual sales eliminated in favor of triple-filtered taps); plastic carryout containers (replaced by recycled paper); chemicals in the kitchen (now nontoxic and aquatic friendly); and staff uniforms (a durable, lightweight polyester made from recycled plastic bottles).

McGowan estimates that these changes—mostly the added expense of better-quality raw ingredients—cost at least $300,000 annually, on top of several one-time investments early in the process. He’d like to believe that customers notice, but getting credit isn’t why Big Bowl went green. “We set out to do it because I want my daughter to have the right lesson,” McGowan says. “If I can do things in my company to represent what I think is right and good, then that business is going to make a difference. And if other businesses do a couple of things—not a lot—then little by little, we can make changes.”

 

Photograph by Ryan Robinson; Assistant: Mark Doddato  Styling: Courtney Rust  Hair and Makeup: Ashley Condron and Carley Martin/Artists by Timothy Priano

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4 years ago
Posted by Rupert

I find it hard to believe Dan McGowan when he says they made these changes to set an example for his daughter. This guy is all about making money and above all, keeping up appearances. (He buys $250 blue jeans and makes sure any philanthropic corporate move he makes is public record.)

I nearly fell over when I read that bit about him just trying to do what he thinks is right and good and maybe others will follow his lead...Dont lie to us and tell us you're a wholesome fella just trying to do your part.

I think its obnoxious for Chicago Magazine to pander to this ego maniac and portray him as a saint....a title it appears the other recipients actually deserve.

3 years ago
Posted by FynRytr

I have not yet eaten at Big Bowl in Reston, VA, but I have three compelling reasons to try it, which I'm planning for next week:

(1)I have a medical need for organic foods and have found it's difficult to dine-out organically. Big Bowl is one of only three that I've found in anywhere near me that's even trying. I applaud this effort and hope it succeeds...so others will follow its corporate lead.

(2)Even if Bib Bowl is not 100% certified organic [there's only one around that is, it's expensive and is a long drive into Washington, DC, for me], least I, personally, have a fighting chance of eating out with my family, healthfully.

(3)The more I learn about how seriously we've damaged our environment and food supply with bad farming practices and giving animals antibiotics and modifying genetics, the more concerned I am for what my grandchildren will eat...and how toxic it will be. At least by being able to dine out with them at places committed to concerns for the environment, human health and fairly traded farm products, I know that I'm doing something for their health and supporting sustainable practices that can make the planet they will inherit safer and healthier.

I appreciate what Big Bowl is doing and look forward to seeing how they keep expanding their drive toward sustainable practices and healtly eating.

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