By Sara Perez Webber

green giant

with its award-winning sustainable practices, SAVOR…Chicago at McCormick Place Convention Center shows that even big facilities can make big, eco-friendly changes

When you eat lunch in a place that serves about 2,700 people a day, you may not expect to find ingredients such as honey that was harvested from hives onsite, or beets, kale and peppers that were grown on the rooftop garden. Yet that’s exactly the kind of fresh, local food served at the largest exhibition and meeting facility in North America, where SAVOR…Chicago at McCormick Place is setting the standard for sustainable practices in large-scale catering.

Since taking over foodservice operations at McCormick Place in 2011, SAVOR—a leader in convention center catering and part of SMG, the largest public facilities management company in the world—has embarked on a mission to make the facility “the world’s greenest convention center,” according to Kevin Jezewski, director of sustainability and special events for SAVOR…Chicago. Last October, SAVOR…Chicago was honored with the 2014 State of Illinois’ Governor’s Sustainability Award, which recognizes “the organization in Illinois that demonstrates a commitment to the economy, society and the environment through outstanding and innovative sustainability practices.” SAVOR…Chicago was also the first institution to receive the Green Seal Certification from the University of Chicago’s Green Restaurant Research Team, the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition and Green Seal, Inc., for environmentally responsible food purchasing, operations and management.

It’s no easy feat for a foodservice operation with about 600 employees and 17 permanent outlets to implement sweeping practices designed to lessen its environmental impact, yet the team at SAVOR…Chicago is committed to the mission.

One of the company’s most impressive initiatives is developing and maintaining the Midwest’s largest rooftop garden, in partnership with the Chicago Botanical Garden, where 17 crops of 51 vegetable and herb varieties are grown. The 20,000-square-foot garden atop McCormick Place’s West Building yields 8,000 pounds of produce and herbs each year. The bounty shows up in McCormick Place’s three Green Seal restaurants, in Green Meeting Packages, and at McCormick Place’s newest restaurant, the 23rd Street Café, in summer menu items specially marked as “Windy City Harvest” (examples include the Tuna Croissant with Lemon Dill Aioli & Rooftop Carrot Slaw).

The garden is designed, planted and maintained by members of the 9-month Botanic Gardens Windy City Harvest program, which teaches students about urban agriculture. This program attracts a diverse group of students, including career-changers, young adults with a history of incarceration, and those with a significant barrier to employment. The rooftop is also home to 20,000 honeybees that produce 50 pounds of honey a year, and 2,000 red wiggler worms that create 200 pounds of vericompost a year.

In the kitchen, all SAVOR…Chicago chefs take food scraps and toss them into compost containers. All grab-and-go food is prepared in compostable containers. When preparation is done, dishes are cleaned and workspaces sanitized with two chemicals generated sustainably onsite called Ewater and Sanewater.

Great care is also taken with the waste generated at the convention center—which adds up to 800 tons a year. SAVOR has created “a robust back-of-the-house recycling program that captures everything from paper, aluminum, wood and grease, and a new front-of-the-house recycling and guest education program called the ‘Green Angels,’ which has helped to significantly increase diversion rates,” says Shaun Beard, SAVOR’s senior vice president.
The company says 65 percent of its trash is diverted out of landfills each year. There’s a cork reharvest program, 100% of cooking grease is recycled to bio-diesel fuel, and 20,000 pounds of food are donated to a local food shelter. After eating, guests at McCormick Place can follow green footprints to Green Angels, attendants who take their trays to help sort, compost and recycle the waste.

SAVOR…Chicago is also focused on utilizing local ingredients beyond its rooftop gardens. Catering menus demonstrate the city’s cuisine is more than “pizza and beef,” says Jezewski, showing off the rest of the area’s bounty. In addition to purchasing antibiotic-free chicken from local vendors, “we have a Green Meeting Package that highlights local, organic and environmentally preferred products,” says Jezewski. “This package allows a client to have an event that is green from start to finish, with sustainable coffee, bulk dispensers, diversion reporting, electronic communication to eliminate paper, etc. We have also focused on local beverages in Chicago, from craft beer to local spirits, included in our bar packages. We are looking to highlight the region’s food though our menus.”

In fact, SAVOR…Chicago just earned an international APEX/ASTM certificate for its foodservice operation at McCormick Place. “This means our entire operation is certified as a sustainable foodservice provider, and you can host an event that is entirely green,” says Jezewski.

While SAVOR’s improvements to retail foodservices at McCormick Place go beyond sustainable practices—since 2011, for example, the company has introduced to the convention center such outlets as LaBrea Bakery, Lounge at 2.5, two branded Starbucks locations, Jamba Juice, and the SAVOR-branded The Market, a grab-and-go concept, and 23rd Street Café, with an innovative new ordering system, bilingual menus and expanded meal service periods—it continues to find ways to make its operations even greener. This year, for example, aquaponics is coming to McCormick Place, with fish and hydroponically grown vegetables thriving in a symbiotic environment. Without the hindrance of a Chicago winter, these vegetables will be showing up on SAVOR…Chicago’s menus year-round. 

From opposite top left, counterclockwise: McCormick Place’s rooftop garden yields bountiful produce utilized by chefs in the kitchen. SAVOR…Chicago also participates in the Illinois Restaurant Association’s ProStart Job Shadow Day, giving high school culinary and hospitality students hands-on experience in a convention catering kitchen.

Clockwise from opposite top left: The catering team at SAVOR…Chicago mentored more than 30 high school students in the ProStart program in March. The convention center’s “Green Angels” help guests sort, compost and recycle the waste from their food trays.