It has a kind of intentional quaintness, a mixture of rustic and chic somewhere between barn and Pottery Barn, like a hand-stitched pillow on a leather sofa. As I walk through the dining room of Ted's Montana Grill, across the mosaic tile floor to my mahogany-paneled booth, I feel comforted, and I haven't even gotten to the comfort food yet.
Ted's is an eco-friendly restaurant, founded in 2002 by media mogul and environmentalist Ted Turner and restaurateur George McKerrow Jr. And as I gaze up at the handsome tin ceiling and contemplate my dinner options, I realize that environmental friendliness is just one of the charms Ted's Montana Grill has to offer.
Based in Atlanta, there are Ted's restaurants across the United States, as far north as New York, and as far west as — you guessed it — Montana. Ted's aims to be a 99 percent plastic-free establishment; it seems a lofty goal, but with the green tools it's implementing — resurrecting the paper straw and using corn- and potato-starch based to-go cups and cutlery — it's well on its way. In fact, the only plastics I observe while I'm there are maybe, maybe the handle of my steak knife (but then, it could not be. Materials are mischievous that way), the coated sticker on the eco-friendly hand dryer in the restroom and my own credit card, which I use to pay for my green meal.
"Green has been part of the Ted's Montana Grill mission from the word 'go,'" says Gena Weaver, vice president of marketing for the company. "Our co-founder, Ted Turner, is and has been an environmentalist his entire life, and he continues to work to protect the planet through his foundations and other initiatives. So it was important that his restaurant company stand on the same principles." And Ted's has done more to protect the planet than many businesses — even other green restaurants — can claim. The staple menu item — as well as the centerpiece of the company's logo and the friendly, furry face staring down at me from his mount on the wall — is bison.
"It's really delicious," Weaver says. "Bison tastes similar to fine beef, but with a slightly sweeter, richer flavor. The meat has lots of protein and nutrients, but less calories and fat than beef or pork, and a greater concentration of iron ... it's distinctive and can be served so many different ways." This is all, of course, true; for instance, I had the bison pot roast and enjoyed it very much, but even beyond its nutritive value, bison is a more environmentally friendly meat. Ted Turner and his Montana Grill have greatly upped the popularity — and the population — of the American bison.
The beast that so defined a nation had dwindled in number to less than 1,000 at the start of the last century. Now there are more than 250,000 bison in the United States, and Ted Turner owns a fifth of that number, much of which goes to supply his restaurant. "The animals are raised for most of their lives on grass where they have room to roam, and they're not supplemented with growth hormones or chemicals," Weaver says. To put it into even more perspective, roughly 50,000 bison were processed for consumption in 2007. About 125,000 head of cattle are processed under USDA inspection every day. It seems that at Ted's, you can eat your "greens" without even touching a vegetable (not recommended).
Ted's Montana Grill is at the forefront of the "Green Restaurant Revolution," as Turner calls it; he's touring the country under that name in hopes of inspiring other restaurants to go green. But where — aside from the compact-fluorescent bulbs and Boraxo powdered hand soap and all the other green alternatives I've not even touched on — is Ted's going?
"We're always evaluating new technologies," Weaver says, "like a system that's now in test in Atlanta, which extracts liquids from food waste to reduce the weight of garbage produced in our restaurants. We have a 'green team' that meets regularly to discuss what's working and to brainstorm." Many of the restaurants are undergoing conversions to low-flow water systems, and the Tallahassee, Fla., Ted's is run largely on solar power. Ted Turner's own Captain Planet would be proud.