Small business owners of all kinds are realizing that environmental awareness and eco-friendly business models are not only appealing to their customers, but are also beneficial to their bottom line.

Dunkin’ Brands knows their franchisees are no exception. In 2012, the brand used its Corporate Social Responsibility Report to announce its commitment to using better and more sustainable approaches in their stores. In late 2014 Dunkin' Brands announced the launch of DD Green, a unique green building certification program that will help franchisees build energy efficient and sustainable restaurants. The goal? To build 100 new DD Green certified restaurants by the end of 2016.

The seeds for this ambitious program were planted in Florida, home to three inaugural shops designed and built to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards as designated by the U.S. Green Building Council. Two are located in St. Petersburg, on Florida’s west coast, and the other is owned by long-time franchisees Pat and Peter Barnett, whose development area is in Edgewater, Florida, about 20 miles south of Daytona Beach.

For the Barnetts, going green wasn’t necessarily their first thought. “It was time for us to remodel and we had to relocate so we could build a store with a drive-thru. That’s when the brand became involved and asked if we would like to build a LEED store,” says Pat Barnett.

The couple operates a network of six Dunkin’ locations, but because this was their first experience with a LEED store, the Barnetts wanted to make sure they had a full understanding of what that meant and if it made good business sense. They knew coffee and they knew baked goods, but they wanted to know more about the green options for building and running their business. In advance of the groundbreaking, the couple spent countless hours meeting and working with the construction team and the contractors who would be involved in the project.

Since the early 1990s, LEED certification has been considered the construction and real estate industry standard for building high performing and sustainable buildings. The U.S. Green Building Council developed the rating system through which a building earns points for meeting certain environmental standards. The number of points earned determines the rating: Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum. Once the building is complete, the rating is awarded.

The new DD Green program follows a similar protocol, but one customized for Dunkin’ stores. Franchisees and their building partners will follow a five-stage program that includes site development, store efficiency, healthy indoors, sustainable operations and innovation and community. Each stage focuses on sustainable strategies for the restaurants.

Costs of constructing a green Dunkin’ can be anywhere from one to three percent higher than a traditional shop, according to John Herth, the brand’s senior director of construction and design. He told, “Many of these additional costs are associated with strategies that have an impact on energy and water reduction, which we expect will pay for themselves over time.”

That was the pitch Dunkin’ made to the Barnetts for their Edgewater location. Peter says the brand offered to cover the cost of construction, materials and the LEED application in exchange for the Barnetts paying monthly rent to them. It sounded like a great opportunity, but the couple was still eager to see if their specially-outfitted restaurant would truly lower energy costs. Because the shop they were replacing didn’t have a drive-thru, it was difficult to draw an even comparison of the expenses each location generated. But Peter says, since it’s opened, sales at the new Edgewater shop are up and expenses are down.

“We’re saving money on the power costs, water bills and so on. So you can see fairly quickly that it’s beneficial in terms of cost. We’re going to save over the years to come,” he says.

It’s been a learning experience—albeit a fascinating one the couple says. They enthusiastically describe some of the features in their green Dunkin’ shop, from smart lighting to better insulation.

Pat calls the smart lighting “phenomenal,” noting the benefits go beyond longer light bulb life. The restroom and office lighting goes out when nobody is in the room and high windows in the dining area allow the sun to light the store during much of the day. As the sun sets, the lights brighten automatically. Other environmental elements that improve their restaurant's efficiency include a rainwater harvesting system for the outside plant wall and low flow plumbing fixtures along with a waterless urinal in the men's restroom. Greywater, recycled water from washbasins which saves on water usage and sewage costs, is used to irrigate the planter areas around the store.

The Barnetts and their 25 employees are inviting their guests to be part of the eco-friendly process. Dunkin’ Brands has partnered with TerraCycle to help recycle some of the brand's packaging. There is a program under development where guests at the Edgewater restaurant can return their empty one-pound coffee bags in exchange for a discount off their purchase of a new bag. Going forward, the program may be expanded to include other brand packaging.

Pat and Peter Barnett have taken the green initiative one step farther to connect with their community. They are working with a local Girl Scout Troop to plant a vertical garden wall inside the patio area in the front of the restaurant and another vertical garden wall behind the restaurant, where vegetables and herbs are grown and then donated to a local homeless shelter. They get gardening help and tips from The Urban Farming Company, a local group made up of U.S. military veterans. In the spring, they’ll plant flowers that the Girl Scouts will care for and then deliver to area nursing homes and hospitals. The plants are watered with a solar powered pump that uses rain water.

“We thought this was a good way to utilize the LEED part of our store to connect with the community, to do more and give back,” Pat says.

What do customers think? Some have commented about the lights; others have noticed the garden and asked (jokingly) if the couple is planning to start selling vegetables. (They’re not!).

The Barnetts are proud of their new shop and are confident its innovative design and features are having a positive effect on the environment. Now that they’ve been through the exhaustive process of obtaining LEED certification for a Dunkin’ shop, the Barnetts say they’d do it again if the opportunity presented itself.

“This is a long term investment not only for us, but for the community, too,” says Peter, but he’s quick to point out that their number one priority remains serving delicious beverages and tasty food items to their customers.