Sunday, February 12, 2012

My Interview with Dan McGowan of Big Bowl

After reading the great feature story “Restaurants Take Fresh Look Near Their Own Backyards” in today’s Chicago Tribune, I dipped into Healthy Dining Chicago’s archives to pull up my interview with Dan McGowan, current president of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, from April 2009. Read on to check it out.

Make Dining Out Special…One Bowl at a Time
Have you been to Big Bowl lately? If not, you may want to especially if you love Mother Earth. For a while now, Big Bowl has been on a journey committed to introducing sustainable practices to just about every level of their operation. They’re serving direct trade coffee, artisanal noodles and locally grown produce (when possible). They’ve switched to eco-friendly cleaning supplies and post-recycled paper products, saving more than 800 trees each year. Their menu is printed by a local business and even their cocktail napkins are unbleached and printed with nontoxic ink. Bottled water is banned. If you drive a hybrid car, you can valet for free and if you bike, you'll find installed bike racks. Big Bowl even entered into a legally binding contract to reduce and offset their carbon output by 100 percent by finding ways to pollute less and funding environmental initiatives such as wind and solar power, sustainable farming and reforestation.
When I heard what they’ve been up to, I sat down with their president Dan McGowen, a 23-year Lettuce Entertain You (LEY) veteran.
Dan, what's behind the eco-friendly changes at Big Bowl?
We just feel it is the right thing to do. We want to try to make any positive impact we can on how and what people eat as well as limit our environmental footprint on our neighborhoods and the community in general.
What's the biggest frustration or roadblock you've faced on this road to sustainability?
Really none, our staff and guests have been very excited and supportive of the direction we are going.
How many locations does Big Bowl currently have?
There are currently four Chicagoland locations including two in the city, one in Lincolnshire and one in Schaumburg.
Update: Big Bowl now has eight restaurants and 12 express locations.
What advice would you give someone who wants to open their own eco-friendly dining establishment?
I think the most important thing is to take that first step. Don’t get too overwhelmed with everything you can or should do but rather start to make small improvements that over time really add up.
What's your favorite local non-LEY eatery and why?
Chipotle. It has a great focus on natural and local ingredients as well as sustainability.
Did you ever consider a different career than the restaurant business?
I graduated with a Psychology degree and frankly I use it everyday in this business.
Do you have a favorite quote?
If you want to build a strong culture, hold every manager accountable for the culture he or she builds.
I hear you're doing something special for folks that eat at Big Bowl on Earth Day. Care to share the details?
We are giving away free reusable tote bags with every carryout order. The size is great so you can reuse them to go grocery shopping, carry books to school, papers to work. Also, if you bring it back to pick up your future carryout orders, we will deduct 50 cents from your bill for the life of the bag.
Anything you can't live without?
Laura: Me, too!
Trivia question: What’s Big Bowl’s most popular dish?
Answer: Pad Thai.
Big Bowl is one of more than 40 city and suburban eateries listed in Healthy Dining Chicago’s Go Guide. For more information on the Go Guide, visit
Laura Bruzas is the founder of Healthy Dining Chicago, an all-volunteer community effort launched in 2003 to offer practical information and valuable resources to help time-pressed, health-minded consumers make informed choices that are kind to Mother Earth and all of her inhabitants. Laura may be reached at

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