April 01, 2024

Working to reduce food waste

Many operators are tracking food waste as a waste prevention method, but there’s an opportunity to positively impact the bottom line too.
Food Waste Composting

If facilities and infrastructure are available to you, composting could contribute to a comprehensive waste diversion strategy.

With an estimated 11.4 million tons of food being wasted every year in the United States alone, food waste is an issue for residents and restaurants. For operators, consequences of waste are financial, social, and environmental, impacting the business and the planet.

With food costs representing 28% to 35% of sales in restaurants, preventing pre-consumer food waste boosts profitability. For every dollar invested in food-waste reduction, restaurants could realize approximately $8 in cost savings.

Tracking waste to reduce it, practicing safe food donation, and composting where available, are some ways restaurateurs could reduce food waste without impacting the customer’s dining experience.

The way food is used or wasted affects supply chain costs, energy and waste hauling expenses, employee engagement, and even a restaurant’s reputation. How does an operator build food-waste prevention into a business’s internal culture? 

The Food Waste Reduction Alliance and ReFED advise restaurateurs to make slow, steady, cost-effective moves, such as rolling out two or three amended standard operating procedures instead of integrating all changes at once. Pitching them as more management efficiency tools, rather than as food-waste reduction initiatives, may resonate more concretely as well. A good strategy includes:
  • Finding the right food waste reduction champion 
  • Collecting and analyzing data stored across your entire enterprise
  • Building and leveraging cross-functional teams (e.g., corporate supply chain pros and unit-level inventory managers)
  • Deploying consistent training that sticks with employees 
  • Creating incentives to promote waste reduction
“Culture is at the root of any result,” says Dan Simons, co-owner of Founding Farmers Restaurant Group. “Goal setting is easy. What really matters is integrating habits, routines, processes, and measures. For us, this starts at orientation, and even before that—during the interview process. Shared values are the fastest path to alignment.”

Here are five suggestions to help reduce food waste and operate more efficiently.

1. Build an internal food waste prevention culture. Education can help shift the thinking at your company. Everyone, from inventory managers to chefs to food preparers, dishwashers, and waste haulers, plays a role in preventing food waste. They might understand it differently, but all must be held accountable for meeting the necessary goals and targets. Teamwork is essential to making waste reduction part of the business culture, and that starts with creating a common language that all team members understand.

2. Recover and redistribute surplus food to feed people. Work with nonprofit partners to improve and expand your efforts to donate food. You’ll enhance your community impact and feed hungry people in your area.
  • Take time to become familiar with the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which provides liability protection, and tax legislation allowing enhanced deductions for food donation. 
  • Make sure to partner with a food-donation matching organization that can identify appropriate recipients based on when and what you can donate, assist in picking up and transporting the food, and ensure all applicable food safety guidelines are followed.
    • Look into programs like Too Good To Go, an app-based program that puts your end-of-the-day surplus food straight into the hands of paying customers happy to get it at discount.
3. Measure your waste or it won’t get managed. Tracking the food that’s thrown away could increase awareness of food waste within your company and cut food costs between 2% and 6%
  • Conduct an audit to establish your food-waste baseline.
  • Consider using waste tracking systems that capture the weight, type, and source of the food waste, and use that information to improve your kitchen operations.
  • Speak with chefs, cooks, and dishwashers for insight into where and why food waste occurs. The collection of strong data will make the case for investing in food waste prevention efforts and win buy-in from your executive team and staff.
4. Focus on inventory management and production planning. Look at what sells in your restaurant to determine shrink, markdown, and food loss. Use historic sales data and future considerations, such as annual events or slower seasons, to improve demand forecasting. 
  • Get your culinary teams to use waste-tracking data to adjust stock ordering and improve production planning.
  • Use software systems that go beyond simple inventory management, and link demand forecasting with menu plans and recipe ingredient quantities.
  • Adjust ordering and supply to reduce waste and improve the system.
5. Consider composting. If facilities and infrastructure are available to you, composting could contribute to a comprehensive waste diversion strategy.
  • Research composting facilities and regional organics recycling laws.
  • Seek out vendors—both haulers and end-market companies for composted waste—to partner with you.
  • Provide proper training to prevent pests, odor, and workplace injuries. It’s important to educate your team members, especially the employees who have to de-package products for diversion.
  • Place kitchen food-waste containers in convenient locations to maximize food-waste capture. Use small clear containers at each food station instead of in one location to encourage employees to recycle food trim and leftovers.
  • Design clear visuals that feature images and words promoting proper organics separation and showing which items go into each bin.
“We compost at several of our restaurants,” Simons says. “Once your staff is educated on the why, how, and impact on the environment when humans don’t compost, you can be successful with it. There is some cost, so it’s valuable to tell your guests about the steps you take. Since you’re doing it for the community, it can serve as a marketing message.”

Managing food waste isn’t simple, but if you can control internal expectations and start small, you could make a significant environmental and social impact, while cutting costs.
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