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Fire on the Mountain makes a sustainable impression in Highland

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Fire on the Mountain came into Denver determined to make a difference. Owners Andrea West and Craig Oberlink followed the lead of the restaurant's three counterparts in Portland, Oregon, and decided to create their wing joint/bar with sustainability in mind. "We had this amazing opportunity to start as a blank slate with this restaurant," says West. "We really wanted to make sure we were starting green from the beginning."

They got help from Certifiably Green Denver, a city program that's worked with other progressive restaurants, including 1515 and Snooze. And yesterday, Fire on the Mountain introduced itself as the first sustainably-certified restaurant in the Highland at a happy hour at Fire on the Mountain.

"The event is designed to kick off a campaign with Councilwoman Shepherd, who's here, and the Denver Energy Challenge and Certifiably Green Denver," West said at the gathering. "Our goal is to try to create a sustainable district in west Highland. We want to show people what we've done here and show how easy and affordable and feasible it can be to undertake this certification, and how important it is as business-owners and as concerned consumers alike." Fire on the Mountain invited local business owners to the happy hour, as well as representatives from every level of their operation. She spoke highly of Aron Rosenthal from Waste Farmers, a company that's created a market for compost taken from all over Denver by making high-quality potting soil. She also gave a shout-out to the representative from Red Bird Chicken, which supplies the all-natural, free-range chicken breast and wings that Fire on the Mountain sells. On top of that, Janet Burgesser from Certifiably Green, Todd Bevington from Denver Energy Challenge and representatives of the Denver Department of Environmental Health and the Mile High Business Alliance were on hand all evening for other business owners to talk with. During a break from the free food and local beer, Susan Shepherd, the area's representative on Denver City Council, commended Fire on the Mountain, describing its environmental consciousness as a "triple bottom line that is right for profit, right for the environment and right for the community," and one she hopes will spread across her district. "I'd like to get to a point where consumers are conscious of how they spend their money to go to businesses and restaurants who make this commitment," she said. She also noted that businesses can get up to $5,000 in rebates from the city for instituting sustainable practices.

Fire on the Mountain was "very smart when they contacted me back in December when they bought the place," Burgesser said. "They did a complete renovation and started composting and recycling right from the beginning, so the staff was educated."

For those businesses interested in following Fire's lead, she offered some roadblocks to watch out for. "The toughest part of the certification is twofold, depending on the type of restaurant," Burgesser noted. "Small businesses in general have owners that are wearing five hats at a time, and it's hard to concentrate on these changes." West and Oberlink have gone to great lengths to be as sustainable as possible, and take great pride in the amount of waste they're able to divert from the landfill. "We compost and recycle total about 80 percent of our waste, and 65 percent is compost," West said. "We're really able to effectively separate all of our waste so it all goes where it should."

Added Oberlink, "Along the same thread, being able to support as many small businesses in the city as possible, like Waste Farmers. We see how much effect we can have in a positive way on how those businesses are able to succeed, whether that be baked goods...or the beers we select. Upslope is a sponsor of this event today, and they support the rivers and river guides...so indirectly we try to support businesses that are doing great things for the environment and for the environmental community."

To show some of Fire on the Mountain's extra efforts, West gave little tours around the restaurant. Starting in the bathroom, she described the low-flow toilets and sink, and the importance of "signage" that encourages the public to play a role in the efforts. Signs scattered around the restaurant remind customers and employees to turn off lights, close the freezer door completely and make sure to differentiate between compost, recycle and, as a last resort, trash. Fire on the Mountain also only uses CFL or LED lights, and even incorporated a thin film into the windows to keep the restaurant cool without air-conditioning.

The kitchen is equipped with energy-saving appliances that are kept clean to ensure full efficiency, including a high-efficiency dishwasher that uses the least amount of water and chemicals while still cleaning the dishes.

Almost all of the products that Fire on the Mountain uses are compostable or recyclable, including the packaging on raw food and tiny sauce cups for the customers. West and Oberlink stress that sustainability is a team effort. "The front lines of the people doing this are getting paid eight dollars an hour, and we have to make them care as much as we do," West said. Fire on the Mountain emphasizes local endeavors as much as possible. The owners work with local distilleries and breweries to capture the flavor of the area; local artwork brightens the walls. The bike rack outside was created from reclaimed scrap metal; the beautiful bar where the drinks were being poured yesterday is unfinished, natural, beetle-kill pine.

Fire on the Mountain isn't done yet. The owners want to "issue a challenge to other businesses to see what it looks like to take the next step," West proclaimed. It may be more expensive in the short term, but "the environmental risk of using products that are completely unsustainable needs to be factored into the equation," she added. "Though some of the products that we buy are a little more expensive, we also are seeing a lot of saving from energy and water efficiency."

And customers who join in the cause can also enjoy savings: Fire on the Mountain offers a 5 percent discount for any customers who use human transportation, such as walking or biking, to get to the restaurant.

For more information on the program, visit Certifiably Green Denver or the Denver Energy Challenge.

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