Restaurants going green as part of organized dining districts

Donna Walden, right, hands Tim Healion of Laughing Planet a circular display for joining the Reno/Sparks Green Dining District.

Donna Walden, right, hands Tim Healion of Laughing Planet a circular display for joining the Reno/Sparks Green Dining District.

“Sustainability” can be an empty catchword some businesses use to capture eco-conscious customers. It can also be a word businesses take seriously and apply to day-to-day operations in an ongoing effort to care for the only planet humans have.

“I want to support people that are kind of working on the same trajectory that we are. I’m not going to say we’re perfect, flat out. We’re not perfect, man, but we try really hard,” said Tim Healion of Reno’s Laughing Planet cafes.

The 64-year-old talked and moved with a scrappy energy. The Laughing Planet team and other restaurants in Northern Nevada are at the center of a collaborative process aimed at greater sustainability. That process has yielded green dining districts in which member restaurants work with a local nonprofit to achieve best practices in recycling, waste reduction and other environmental issues.

Nevada’s first green dining district took root in downtown Carson City in 2019 thanks to the efforts of greenUP!, the nonprofit that focuses on environmental education and green networking. In 2022, post-pandemic, the Reno/Sparks Green Dining District was born. The two districts have some overlapping members such as Great Basin Brewing Co., which has locations in Reno, Sparks and Carson, and Squeeze In, which also has locations in Reno, Sparks and Carson.

More information about members and the green dining district is online:

“It’s a continuous improvement process. You educate yourself. You take more steps,” said greenUP! President Donna Walden.

Laughing Planet is the newest member in the Reno area. Healion, who described himself “as the guy in town to do everything” for Laughing Planet, has been in the sustainable fare space for a while. From 1985 to 2006, he ran Deux Gros Nez off California Ave., a coffee house featuring natural foods.

“When we opened, there was a line out the door around the block, as there was here, by the way,” he said. “Deux Gros Nez was very much a community-based cultural icon. It was a weird place, and we were busy the whole time.”

The idea behind Deux Gros Nez was to offer healthy food as opposed to cheap casino food or what Healion termed the “institutional food” of large chain eateries.

“We tried to do the best we could with local sourcing,” he said. “Back then, you got carrots and potatoes.”

One of Deux Gros Nez’s employees at the time was Franz Spielvogel, Healion said, and Spielvogel would later become CEO of Oregon-based Laughing Planet. Jump ahead a couple decades, and the two men collaborated once more to open Laughing Planets in Reno including the midtown location in 2014 and the UNR location in 2016.

Donna Walden of the nonprofit greenUP! at Laughing Planet in Reno on March 5.


Featuring eclectic burritos, bowls, soups, salads, specials and seasonal items, Laughing Planet has always focused on local sustainability and worldly flavors, Healion said.

“It’s the evolution of such,” he said. “Everything is better, and there are a lot more opportunities to do what we were trying so hard to do back then (at Deux Gros Nez),” he said. “So, it’s easier to find a ranch that harvests beef that ate what a cow is supposed to eat as opposed to getting stuffed full of corn in a feedlot. You know, grass-fed animals.”

Healion said some sustainability advocates consider local food anything harvested within a particular watershed. He has a different definition.

“A local source for me is as far as I can ride a bike, and I rode a bike to Sacramento once,” he said.

While Laughing Planet will rely on Mexican avocadoes during winter, 80 percent of its ingredients are locally sourced, Healion estimated, pointing to the Sacramento Valley as an important region.

“That’s local. It’s way more local than Chile or China or Florida,” he said.

Joining the green dining district entails a waste audit and ongoing assessments. It can help steer restaurants away from “green washing,” what Healion described as lip service to sustainability without follow through.

“Restaurants are users. Restaurants in general use a ton of energy … We use a lot of water. We throw a lot of crap down the drain,” Healion said. “You know what it (the green dining district) does? It helps us coach our employees as to the game we’re playing. We’re doing this anyway, yet these are some tools that make it easier for the employees to grasp what we’re doing and why and how. Training employees in any business is a key to success and maybe the hardest thing to do.”

Thirty-one-year-old Kay Young, co-owner of Squeeze In, also knows about training employees. When talking, she had an air of youthful optimism mixed with seasoned authority.

“We’re a business that likes to demonstrate our values, not just talk about our values,” she said.

Squeeze In is a local favorite for its breakfast and lunch cuisine and for its origin story. The original Squeeze In opened in Truckee in 1974 in a narrow space that gave rise to its name. Young remembered visiting the restaurant as a kid from Reno. Her parents, Gary and Misty Young, purchased the business in 2003, and Kay and sister Shila came aboard in 2008.

Young said of Squeeze In, especially for kids, “There’s something on every corner to look at, to marvel at, to have a story around, to have a conversation about. It always felt very whimsical to me.”

The family opened its second location in northwest Reno in 2008. From there, the brand grew with more locations in Reno and Sparks. In 2015, the company began franchising and has since spread to three states.

Young’s parents retired in 2017, she said, and the sisters co-chair the company board and oversee more than 200 employees. New locations are planned for Fernley this spring and for Gardnerville in the near future, Young said.

“We’d like to see 100 units in the next eight years,” she said.

Kay Young of Squeeze In showcasing vegan dishes at the northwest Reno location on March 5.


With growth and success, Young described staying true to the brand and its mission of sustainability. The company’s website mentions the restaurant’s “undeniable hippie vibe,” and Young pointed to the green dining district as a way to maintain this. Squeeze In has been a member of the district since the program’s inception.

“Being on the ground floor of initiatives like this I think are what help to underline that undeniable hippie vibe. The hippie spirit, if you will, is not just about décor. It’s about core values,” she said.

Sourcing locally can be a challenge for a restaurant that uses so many eggs for breakfast dishes, Young said, but the company recently found a new orange juice supplier in California. Other measures have included cutting down on waste, using compostable paper products and helping to spearhead greenUP!’s reusable container program.

In fact, Young and Healion were exploring a new mobile app that can be downloaded and used for reusable containers at participating restaurants.

“The program, called Green Box To-Go Nevada, aims to reduce single use materials by providing a system to professionally sanitize, recirculate and reuse take-out boxes,” the nonprofit said in a press release.

More information is online: The nonprofit is offering a $10 discount for the program through April with the code “EARTHMONTH.”

“Now the emphasis is to get the customers aware of it,” added Walden.

“I believe especially Gen Zs and millennials are looking for places that practice what it is that they preach,” said Young. “So, seeing these things in action, seeing these partnerships with community partners like green dining, allow the new markets that are emerging, the new spenders coming forward, to know that we are the type of place that adheres to what we say we’re going to do.”

Young described herself as a values-based buyer who likes Laughing Planet, Great Full Gardens and other members of the green dining districts.

“I am the millennial that is out there purchasing from places that I know are doing good by the environment, doing good by their community,” she said.

A better community and a better planet are the ultimate goals of the partnerships, both Young and Healion maintained.

“I think it helps to show the community members what organizations are dedicated to contributing back to the community,” Young said. “Keeping a healthy planet is all of our responsibility. Restaurants create so much waste, but we have a responsibility, I think, to look to our left and look to our right when it comes to restaurants and say, ‘Are we shoulder to shoulder with the other organizations in town that also uphold our values?’”


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