August 11, 2021

86 Food Waste: Get customer buy-in through messaging

Buffet-style restaurants can remove trays, use smaller plates, and encourage guests to help themselves to food more than once to prevent overloading plates.

The National Restaurant Association’s 86 Food Waste initiative highlights actionable steps to help restaurant operators reduce food waste. It was developed in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and with the support of Essity/Tork

Eliminating food waste in restaurants requires participation not only on the restaurant’s part, but also from customers. And while establishing food waste reduction policies with staff is fairly straightforward, motivating sustainable behaviors in customers takes a bit of persuasion. Restaurants need tried-and-tested communication techniques to convince customers to help in the effort.

Communication tips to encourage customers

1. Keep Messages Short
According to the National Restaurant Association’s State of Restaurant Sustainability report, the most effective means of conveying your environmental actions and commitment is by:

1. Printing it on the menu
2. Including it on your website
3. Printing it on packaging and supplies (e.g., napkins, to-go containers)
4. Sharing it on social media
5. Showing it on wall plaques or posters
6. Having staff tell them about it

2. Educate customers on food waste
In operations where customers self-bus, provide the containers and set up the area to clearly mark how they can separate recyclables, food waste (for composting) and regular trash. Signs with inspirational messaging, about how they’re helping the environment, gives them a positive, quick and easy way to “do their bit.”

3. Consider “nudging”
While many of the customers at Milk + Honey CafĂ©, Museum of the Bible, Washington, D.C., voiced strong support for sorting waste, some expressed concern about sorting items incorrectly, while others completely ignored the messages. In “Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness” researchers Thaler and Sunstein state that customers with low interest in reducing food waste are not likely to be swayed by economic or ethical appeals designed to increase awareness. But they might respond to “nudging,” a concept that’s proven effective in restaurant contexts, as well.

For example, they suggest buffet-style restaurants remove trays, use smaller plates, and encourage guests to help themselves to the buffet more than once to avert guests’ tendency to overload plates. In their study in 52 hotels, decreasing the plate size by a little more than an inch reduced food waste by nearly 20%; encouraging guests to make multiple visits to the buffet reduced food waste by 20.5%.

4. Accentuate the positive
In “Promoting Sustainable Behavior,” Rachel James, lecturer in climate science at University of Bristol, U.K., suggests that making people feel bad won’t contribute to sustainable behavior. “You have to help them to help.” People are more likely to be persuaded by someone they like, and they want to feel good about their actions.

For more advice on reducing food waste in restaurants, see the full 86 Food Waste report.