Environment
10:05 am
Tue January 14, 2014

Valley Air Cleanup Targets Restaurant Charbroilers

Matt Billingsley, the general manager of Dog House Grill, says the eatery cooks up 1,200 pounds of tri-tip daily.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

People in Central California love barbecue. From backyard grills to popular new restaurants featuring tri tip, ribs and brisket, it’s one of the biggest food trends in the valley. One Fresno destination is so popular, a line wraps around its building daily.

Dog House Grill, near Fresno State on Shaw Avenue, isn't just popular among college students.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

Fresno’s Dog House Grill is Valley famous for tri-tip, pulled pork and their family recipe barbecue sauce.

Connie Nicholson and her husband visit Dog House weekly.

“I like the Barbecue sauce, it’s really good and the tri-tip’s always just right,” Nicholson says. “I get the tri-tip sandwich every time.”

But it’s not just the flavor that draws customers like the Nicholson’s in, it’s also the smell. The smoky aroma of beef permeates the area surrounding the restaurant. And when the outdoor grill is at full flame taste buds salivate, doors open, and a line forms.

Matt Billingsley is the eatery’s general manager. He says smell is at the core of the restaurant’s identity.

“A lot of people say you know I was on the freeway and I smelt the barbecue pit burning, I smelled the wood, smelled the food and I had to come by,” Billingsley says.

"A lot of people say you know I was on the freeway and I smelt the barbecue pit burning, I smelled the wood, smelled the food and I had to come by." - Matt Billingsley

But with that smell comes smoke. On most mornings, a large plume from the restaurant can be seen rising into the air above Shaw Avenue. And it’s this smoke, from Dog House and other valley restaurants, that has attracted the attention of the Valley Air District, in the ongoing to attempt to clean up the region’s air.

“We understand that you drive by and you get this mouthwatering smell. We understand that and we want to talk to them we want to figure out if there is a way we can have some of that, the smell, but not the smoke,” says Jaime Holt a spokesperson with the district.

She says it’s just one part of a plan to bring down fine particulate pollution, or PM2.5 to federal standards by the year 2019.  And as other sources of particulate pollution, like diesel trucks are becoming cleaner, the impact of restaurant charbroilers on air quality is significant.

Bill Welch is an engineer with University of California, Riverside. He studies particulate pollution emitted from charbroiled food.

“You would have to drive that brand new diesel truck 143 miles to put out the same mass of particles as one charbroiled hamburger,” Welch says. “Compared to the average diesel truck you would have to drive 10 miles to put out the same mass of particles from one charbroiled hamburger.”

Matt Billingsley is the general manager of Dog House Grill. He says smell plays a large role in his business.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

He says it’s crucial that regulators address restaurant charbroilers because they’re “probably the single last unregulated source of primary particulate matter emissions in California.”

And according to Welch, efforts now underway to regulate charbroilers here in the valley could have national implications: “people are looking here to California to show the way to reducing these emissions.” 

Exactly how the district plans to reduce those emissions remains unclear. Holt says while the specific solutions aren’t yet in place, getting there will be a three step process: demonstration, testing and regulation with incentives.

“We’re hoping that we can get the ear of the restaurants,” Holt says. “We need to really to understand what’s going on in their business with the hood system and their cook surfaces and figure out how we can first put a demonstration project into place where we will pay a restaurant to install some of these new types of technologies and then see how well they work.”

"The smoke is a form of advertisement in the idea of the smell and all of that, but I think for the most part there are other ways to incline your business." - Matt Billingsley

She says dialogue with restaurant owners will be critical.

“We want to work with them and see what they are willing to do,” Holt says.

It’s all part of the district’s effort to meet goals from the EPA.

“If it’s a question of us meeting the goal or not meeting the goal then we need to meet the goal,” Holt says. “Otherwise we face a variety of actions from the federal government. The same type of action with regard to the one hour ozone plan that ended in a $29 million annual penalty against the Valley.”

But not everyone is comfortable with the air district’s plan. Adenike Adeyeye is with the San Francisco based environmental group EarthJustice. Last year her organization asked the district to immediately begin regulating restaurants that use charbroilers, like other parts of the state.

Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

“The air district is saying that the Bay Area hasn’t yet addressed all charbroiler controls, and that when the Valley Air District does implement its rule it will be broader and address more of the charbroilers,” Adeyeye says. “But at the same time that rule will take another four or five years to develop and in the meantime the Valley is doing nothing to control these emissions.”

While some restaurant owners we talked to expressed concerns about the coming regulations, or declined to comment, Billingsley with Dog House grill says that businesses shouldn’t fear the rules.

“I feel as if you are going to be successful you are going to be successful in regulations, doing things correctly making sure that your product speaks for itself and that yes the attraction of the smoke and the idea of the smell does help the overall,” Billingsley says. “The smoke is a form of advertisement in the idea of the smell and all of that, but I think for the most part there are other ways to incline your business.”

Holt says the district is looking for restaurant owners who are willing to work with the district to develop standards that will not only create tasty burgers and beef, but breathable air for those that live in California’s fertile Valley.

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