Recent studies on food waste have piqued the ears of food industry professionals, leading to an overhaul in ordering, menu design and recycling practices. Why is this issue a big deal? For one, the costs are astronomical. Restaurant Hospitality estimates that food waste costs the restaurant industry $25 billion each year. As industry professionals dig into the data more, they’re realizing that food waste reduction is a key competitive strategy for restaurants, catering outfits, and others.
With 12.5% of the U.S. living without food security, food waste reduction is also a moral issue. The Food Waste Alliance went in-depth on the causes in a 2014 study, finding that restaurants discard 84.3% of their unused food items, meaning very little gets recycled or donated. Many are also considering the impact of food waste on the environment. Wasted food not only contributes to the overproduction of items that go uneated, but also ends up in landfills, requires additional transportation, and depletes clean water.
Given these costs, many in the food industry are looking for innovative ways to reduce the amount of food they waste. We’ll examine a few of their favorites below — but first, let’s learn more about the issue. .
The Impact of Food Waste
Let’s think about the journey of any food item from farm to landfill. Farms across the globe raise livestock and plant crops based on the demands of the market. Restaurants order the amount they believe they require from food distributors, which is then shipped to them by truck. If a particular menu item goes underordered and leaves a surplus of meat one evening, and there’s no space to store the excess amount — or if it has lost its desired freshness — the meat is discarded. That discarded meat then travels to a landfill via truck.
Without a reliable way to predict order volume for different menu items or a method of reusing meat that goes uncooked, the restaurant loses whatever money they spent on that meat, not to mention any costs devoted to shipping the meat, storing it (when they could’ve been storing something more in demand), and disposing of it. The entire process raises greenhouse emissions and water use as well.
Donating leftovers to local charities and kitchens is a complex issue in the U.S., as local laws concerning food donation often dissuade restaurant owners from going the charity route. Some states, for instance, may have different rules for food that was put out for a buffet versus food that was kept in the kitchen. Others may require specific labeling for donated food. While these laws are intended to ensure donated food is safe to eat, many food businesses don’t have the resources to donate food in accordance with those laws. As a result, they may look to cut waste further up the supply chain, such as by shifting their ordering strategy or by adding new menu items that can incorporate excess ingredients.
Skeptics should take note that many food businesses have indeed found profitable ways to cut food waste. ReFed, a food waste non-profit driven by some of today’s top businesses, foundations and government leaders, recently found that for every dollar a restaurant spends on cutting food waste, they save approximately $8. They also report that the restaurant industry as a whole could see a profit increase of $620 million by going all out against food waste.
5 Profitable Ways to Cut Food Waste
Choosing the right ways to cut food waste in your restaurant depends on the size of your business, resources at your disposal, and corporate structure. For instance, if you’re part of a franchise chain, your food waste reduction strategy may have to align with initiatives driven by HQ. Smaller, independent restaurants on the other hand rarely have the same resources to devote to the cause as a bigger company might, but may have greater freedom to work with local suppliers or adjust their menu seasonally to avoid waste. The point is, nearly any business can make some kind of change to reduce food waste. Each step falls into prevention, recovery or recycling efforts. Here are five to consider.
1. Donation Liability Education
As we mentioned above, the fear around donating excess food sends more waste into the garbage than necessary. Complex state, local and federal laws concern business owners about liability issues. But food donation organizations are willing to educate restaurant pros on how to navigate the laws around giving away excess food, as well as take advantage of the tax deductions some donations qualify for.
Restaurant managers can reach out to their local food recovery organizations — like the ones listed below — to clarify their rules for accepting donations. They can then work with staff to build a repeatable process for food donation that keeps them in compliance with relevant laws.
If restaurants are low on time or manpower to facilitate this donation, many organizations will schedule pickups of excess food or help you find an organization to do so. These include:
Organizations like these can make it easier for you to implement a food donation program.
2. Waste Analytics
Several apps and software programs exist to help restaurants track and reduce the amount of food they waste. Food waste costs — especially those that come after an item is tossed — add up throughout the meal prep process. Food waste reduction apps help businesses swiftly gather data on how much they’re throwing away every day. These data-driven insights can then inform the restaurants’ decision-making processes and help them track their waste reduction progress on future orders. ReFed predicts that the restaurant industry as a whole could save 571 tons of waste with better analytics, with cash savings of around $2800 per ton.
3. Inventory Management
Deciding which ingredients and in what quantities goes in and out of your kitchen is one of the hardest parts of planning and maintaining a menu. Gathering stronger data on the process could cut nearly $1,200 per ton of saved food. Changes in inventory practices may include processes as simple as reorganizing produce to follow the first-in, first-out model. The earlier an item goes into a pantry, the sooner it must be used. This protects against older meat or produce going to waste.
Chefs can also integrate food into their menus that has a longer shelf life or is easier to store. Restaurants across the country are also pulling in customers with creative, eco-friendly dishes that specifically aim to use every part of the vegetable and animal in their dishes. Software programs like Lavu or Loyverse provide automated databases to tracking inventory and making informed purchases.
4. Traffic Log System
Carefully tracking fluctuations in customer traffic can inform ordering decisions throughout the year, especially for food businesses with high seasonality. For example, by implementing a uniform method of tracking how many customers you served on each day, it will be easier to avoid over or under-ordering when similar times of year roll around. While some restaurants simply base their data on the time of year and holiday schedules, others also note the weather on the day and any other factors that may have contributed to an increase or decrease in customer flow.
5. Creative Menu Design
Rebuilding menus with sustainability in mind is not only cost-effective, but can also increase a restaurant’s brand reputation with the foodie and eco-friendly community. Instock, a restaurant in Amsterdam, pulls in customers by offering meals made up of only food waste from stores across the country. While you dont have to go that far, flexible and creative menu items make customers feel that they are having a unique experience when dining with you. Tweaking your menu based on available pantry items also saves money and waste. For example, when bakeries only cook a set amount per day, demand rises on popular baked goods while keeping items fresh and reducing waste. It can also increase customer retention, bringing them back again for a unique menu they haven’t tried.
Involve your employees in menu building, as they are the ones witnessing the different points of food waste throughout the meal. Which items are continuously getting tossed? Which create the most waste during initial good prep? Move past items on the plate and into the bar menu as well. Can stems, herbs and peels go into your cocktails? The menu replanning process can become a full-team collaboration.
The First Steps Toward Reducing Waste
Cutting food waste in your restaurant or food business begins with gathering data on your own process. Begin by auditing your own ordering, storage and food prep practices to see how much comes in and goes out of your restaurant. Where along the production chain can further food waste education benefit your bottom line? With one-third of our food going to waste, tackling this crucial problem makes an impact both on your business’s bottom line and the world as a whole.