Did you know that reducing food waste can give you ~$8 dollars of savings for every $1 you put in, reduce pressure on local ecosystems, help push food prices down by reducing demand, offer modern marketing opportunities, and contribute to your brand’s image?
It’s not the most exciting topic to discuss, but it’s important. As of 2014, over 80% of unused food ends up in the trash, and according to the EPA, 25-40% of the food that is grown, processed, and transported in the U.S. won’t be eaten.
As restaurant owners and food-service professionals, the burden falls on us to close this gap, but before we cover exactly how you can start reducing food waste, let’s talk a bit more about why it should be a fundamental concern of all food providers.
Why restaurant owners can’t afford to ignore food waste reduction
Your customers care about how you handle food waste
This matters from both an environmental and business perspective. 72% of U.S. diners said that they care about how food waste is handled according to Unilever. That means consumers are paying more attention to how your restaurant interacts with its environment, and that will only continue in 2020 and beyond.
There is vast economic value to be gained from food waste reduction
“Reducing food waste goes hand in hand with reducing costs. We view fighting food waste not only as an opportunity to create a better world, but also a great business opportunity. We’ve been able to significantly reduce food waste in our restaurants by setting short-term, actionable goals.” – Michael La Cour, Managing Director at IKEA Food Services AB.
One of the most prominent advocates for reducing food waste is the Rethink Food Waste group. They’ve identified $1.9 billion in business profit potential through food waste solutions specific to restaurants. These include initiatives like introducing smaller plates, waste tracking, and more.
Here is a table showing the potential impact of each solution offered:
There is more government support than ever for reducing food waste
While reducing food waste does present complex problems, the solutions and support systems available are better than ever. For example, restaurants can write donations off to receive tax benefits, and the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act removes liability for “persons and gleaners” who donate in good faith to nonprofits that serve the needy.
Reducing food waste is a trend that’s here to stay
Chefs are giving more attention to the enormous food waste that happens across the restaurant industry every year. Sophisticated chefs now look for opportunities to utilize all of their inventory, determining different ways to use the entire vegetable or animal product and are finding ways to discard as little as possible in the food preparation process. Consumers will reward you for your food waste work, and so will the savings benefits you will reap.
Now, let’s cover 29 tips you can use to start reducing your food waste.
29 Tips for Tackling Food Waste in Your Restaurant
Tap into the cost-reducing and environmental benefits of food waste reduction by using these 29 tips.
#1 Think about food waste as three categories
Start by thinking about waste as the three main categories: pre-consumer waste, after-consumer waste, and packaging or disposables. By categorizing waste as such, you’ve already taken the first step to understanding your restaurant’s relationship with food waste.
#2 Conduct a waste analysis to figure out your present situation
You can’t know where you’re going without knowing where you are. Zoom out and look at your processes around waste holistically. Use a journal or spreadsheet to outline every touchpoint your employees and customers have with the waste that is accumulated, and then measure the weights and types of waste you get rid of over the course of a month.
#3 Keep track of your busy days, times, and weather.
You can’t forecast without data. If your sales tend to spike by 10% on days above 60 degrees, it’s helpful to know that so you can order the right amount of food. Start tracking or analyze past sales cycles to figure out what your busiest days, times, and weather are like.
#4 Give staff meals to avoid throwing away food
If you have extra food around that isn’t going to get sold, treat your staff to a free meal. It’s a win-win situation that will leave your employees feeling grateful.
#5 Update your equipment if necessary
Shoddy refrigerators or bad humidifiers will increase food waste. By replacing equipment sooner, you’ll reduce your overall waste burden.
#6 Buy imperfect fruit and produce for dishes that don’t rely on their aesthetics
See if your food sources offer discounts on imperfect produce. If they do, use those in dishes where you shred or blend those products anyway. You will save money and help your sources reduce their food waste.
#7 Train your staff to pay attention to the food itself, not the sell-by dates
Sell-by dates are designed to get food off the shelves. Make sure you educate your employees on how to recognize the signs of bad food and encourage them to wait until they see those signs, even if it’s past the date set by the source.
#8 Label everything
Labeling is especially important for anything removed from its original packaging – label exactly what and when food was made, every time. The more you can remove from your employees’ guesswork when it comes to expirations, the better.
#9 Consider commercial greywater
For bigger operations, it may be worth looking into a commercial greywater system. This uses special enzymes and products to break down food waste into soluble greywater that can be flushed into the sewer system. For more information, go here.
#10 Inspect all food orders that come to your restaurant
Sometimes distributors will attempt to put almost-rotting produce at the bottom of deliveries. Make sure each delivery is the quality you need and can rely on, otherwise you’ll find yourself throwing away a lot more food than you need to.
#11 Switch away from tray dining if you’re a cafeteria
ReThink has observed that trays encourage more food consumption, so by eliminating trays you make it harder for customers to get more food than they need.
#12 Let hot foods cool before putting them in the walk-in
Hot foods placed directly in a walk-in have a higher chance of spoiling due to more active bacteria. Let them cool before placing them in storage.
#13 Donate food that doesn’t meet your standards to food banks
If you can’t serve a batch of apples or a pot roast that didn’t meet your food standards, don’t throw it out! Partner with a food bank. These organizations will often come to you to pick up your waste, and it’s a great way to support your community.
#14 Simplify your menu if appropriate
If you have a bunch of menu items that have unique ingredients and don’t sell very well, then it may be time to say goodbye to them!
#15 Offer discounts to incentivize customers, e.g., reusable mugs
If you have any sort of product that you can involve your customer in, then do it! This is easiest for coffee shops.
#16 Implement reusable and greener alternatives
Implement compostable straws and reusable silverware instead of plastic to cut down on your disposable waste.
#17 Give scraps to local farmers for feed
Pigs love food scraps! Contact your closest farmers and see if there is a need.
#18 Reduce food displays
Food displays can look great, but if no one is eating the food then you don’t need an extensive window! See if there’s anything you can cut down while still keeping the marketing impact you desire.
#19 Educate your staff and make food waste training an integral part of future hires
Your restaurant is never going to succeed at waste management unless you get your staff on board. Make sure they are passionate and understand why this is something they should care about, and then build that culture into the restaurant. This ensures that each new hire will understand that proper food waste is non-negotiable.
#20 Use forecasting to avoid over prepping
Besides looking at sales, look at your individual dish sell rates to ensure that you aren’t over-ordering.
#21 Make sure your inventory system uses FIFO
First-in-first-out is a core strategy employed by many businesses all over the world. The idea is simple: organize your inventory so the oldest ingredients are easiest to grab and first to be used.
#22 Make recycling and composting part of your typical day
Add this to your list of daily duties and don’t compromise.
#23 Use proper categorization to make recycling and composting easier
First, divide it by recycling, landfill, and composting, but then take the scraps and divide them out by food type. This helps you get an idea of what food you’re wasting the most.
#24 Double-check your storage temperatures and humidity levels
Food will spoil faster if it isn’t contained correctly. Double-check that your humidity, temperature, and seals are correct for each restaurant location.
#25 Conduct an inventory analysis
Keeping a close eye on your inventory will let you know exactly when you’re over-ordering. Track each dish and the ingredients you’re using daily. This will give you the information you need to make decisions like creating a special that uses inventory surpluses.
#26 Avoid batch cooking
It’s not always possible, but try to avoid cooking big batches before the demand arises. As much as you can prepare to order, do it.
#27 Turn scraps and leftover food into new dishes.
There are so many great ways to use leftover food and turn them into new dishes — especially in salads and pestos that include greens. Take Dan Barber of The Third Plate, for example:
“This evening, I’m putting a ravioli on the menu that is braised lamb with a fine mince of diced spring vegetables and a little bit of ricotta cheese,” Barber said. “But the lamb is left over from the braise last night, the vegetables are leftover from extra prep in the kitchen yesterday, and we are cooking it today. So, essentially, what I just described is ‘waste’, but we are calling it a ravioli.” – Source
#28 Use specials to get rid of extra ingredients
Don’t be afraid to whip up some new dishes to get rid of ingredients you know will spoil. Let your chef put on their creative cap and brainstorm some ways to use extra ingredients.
#29 Use smaller plates
A clever way to reduce food waste is to give patrons smaller servings on smaller plates. When executed correctly, patrons will feel like they are getting their money’s worth, will feel full, and won’t waste as much food since you are serving less. Be careful not to underserve your portions, but definitely take a close look to see if you are overserving.
There you have it! Now you just need to make an action plan and get to work.