Fact: food waste accounts for 7% of all greenhouse gas emissions. It’s an issue that’s important for restaurants operators for a couple of reasons. Not only is food waste a massive environmental problem — from climate consequences to resource efficiency — it’s also costing restaurant businesses money. If restaurateurs can expand margins by being more efficient and producing less waste, their profits will grow.
So how big is the food waste problem?
Andrew Shakman is the co-founder and CEO of LeanPath, a company that builds tools to help restaurants track, monitor and reduce food waste. He estimates that between 4-10% of the food that an operator purchases ends up as pre-consumer food waste — over-production, spoilage, expiration and trimmings, and a small amount of items that have been burned, dropped and contaminated.
Beyond that, the number is hard to measure because in some restaurants food may be eaten (and wasted) offsite. But Andrew estimates that pre- and post-consumer waste combined can add up to 15-20% of all food purchased, and of that, 75-80% is caused by overproduction and expiration.
Andrew says, “Most operators should look at their food spend and say, what’s 5% of my food spend, and is that meaningful to me to put back into my pocket or into investment into my business?”
How to tackle waste
There are a few ways to reduce the amount of food waste in your kitchen. Andrew is the first to admit the solutions aren’t rocket science (many are intuitive) but they do require significant changes to all of the little things you do every day.
Cook to order. “The more you go entirely cook-to-order, the more you start to slay that dragon of overproduction,” says Andrew. The amount of advance prep you do is directly correlated to the amount of food waste you produce, because you can never know exactly how much people are going to eat of a given dish or product. Even if you get the number of diners right, you won’t always nail the breakdown of orders. Obviously braises and roasts may need to be prepared ahead, but move to a single-piece production model to the extent that you can to cut down on waste. And when you do produce in batches, make them as small as possible (bonus: your product will also taste fresher).
Trim efficiently. There will always be some waste associated with trimming meat and produce, like strawberry stems and other inedible items. But often cooks don’t trim as efficiently as they could, lopping off more of the edible product than is necessary. There’s a big opportunity to make sure you’re yielding correctly on the fresh product you’re bringing in, simply by changing behaviors and instilling better habits.
Change your par levels. If you’re seeing a lot of food waste, you may need to adjust your purchasing. Do you really need the amount of product you’re ordering and re-ordering? Take note of what’s being wasted and make changes. Also, look at your pack sizes; are they too big? You may think buying in bulk is a money-saving solution, but ideally you should match your pack sizes to consumption sizes. Cooks may not take the time to re-wrap a bag of product properly after using a small amount of it, leading to spoilage.
Examine your menu for excess. Take a hard look at your portion sizes to see if certain dishes always end up with food left on the plate. You may also find that some dishes take more advance prep than others and lead to more waste in that way. The key is to be cognizant of the waste created by each dish, so you know how much you’re losing and are able to react.
Pay attention to “sneaky waste.” Most chefs are already tuned in to the center of the plate, because that’s where their most expensive proteins are. But sides and starches often get overlooked because they don’t seem critical to the overall food cost. In reality, they are. Rice, potatoes, and other standard veggies are huge sources of waste, as are breads and pastries. Watch out for menu transitions, too. “If you go from breakfast to lunch you’ll see a whole lot of eggs and breakfast meat getting thrown away,” says Andrew.
Get creative! As long as food is safely stored, you have an opportunity to reuse it or re-work it into a new dish. Andrew cites one restaurant that was selling pie by the slice, and once it lost its luster they packed it into parfaits. The parfaits sold better than the pie. Preserving is growing in popularity among restaurants, and Dan Barber’s WastED series even made high-end culinary theater out of scraps. There are two models to consider: If your menu is constantly changing, you can create dishes that leverage product you already have. If your menu is more static, product might still be sellable a day later if you care for it properly. Either way, you have opportunities.
Talk about waste openly. In many kitchens waste is approached in a punitive way; chefs scold cooks for not being efficient enough. But every kitchen has some food waste, says Andrew, and the best ones are those that discuss it transparently. “The whole purpose is to shape culture and raise awareness and create engagement,” he says. “Not in a negative, beat-people-up sort of way, but in a totally positive, we-can-do-better kind of way. When you show people data about what they’re throwing away, what it’s worth, and its environmental impact, they behave differently.”
More steps to take
Composting. When you’re not preventing waste, composting is key for reusing it; you’re putting it back into the product you serve. However, it’s not a significant money-saving tactic. Utilities are a relatively small percentage of a restaurant’s costs compared to food and labor. Start by preventing food waste, then prioritize composting when it occurs.
Donations. When it comes to donating leftover food, many restaurants are worried about liability. Andrew’s message is clear: don’t be. As long as you’re donating food in good faith that you believe is safe, you’re protected legally. That said, logistics like keeping food cold, dealing with pans, and transporting food are still hurdles. Apps like Zero Percent are making strides in connecting restaurants with people who need food, and the Food Donation Connection continues to be a good resource.
Family Meal. A great way to use up leftover food is to feed it to your staff. But be careful in looking at family meal as a waste reduction tool. “I would prefer that people budget for family meal and figure out what they actually want to spend, and produce for that, than they do it by accident,” says Andrew. “That family meal may be costing you a lot more money than you would like.”