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