Food waste is an all too real problem in the United States, accounting for 30% to 40% of the country's food supply. The US restaurant industry alone is estimated to produce around 22 to 33 billion pounds of restaurant food waste each year. Globally, the cost of wasted food amounts to $1 trillion annually according to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.
Food waste also presents a serious environmental problem. The World Wildlife Fund reports that around 11% of greenhouse gases generated by food production could be eliminated by simply reducing food waste.
If there is a silver lining to the crisis of food waste, it's that there's a strong impetus to solve the problem from both an ethical and business perspective.
For example, for every dollar restaurants invest in food waste reduction efforts, they stand to generate up to $8 dollars in cost savings. For restaurant owners, this could translate to thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars saved each year.
This is hardly surprising. In profitable restaurants, food costs typically account for 28% to 35% of total sales. This presents an opportunity for restaurants to generate substantial savings by reducing pre-consumer and post-consumer food loss. Solutions such as restaurant food waste tracking, analytics, and waste audits could give restaurants and foodservice businesses a massive boost in profits amounting to over $1.6 billion annually.
Apart from the obvious financial benefits, reducing food waste can also improve a restaurant's reputation. A Unilever study revealed that 72% of US diners are concerned about how restaurants waste food and 47% would be willing to spend more to eat at places that observe sustainable restaurant food waste practices.
Fortunately, there are clear and proven ways to cut down on food waste. For example, about half of restaurants already implement waste tracking as a food loss prevention measure. But there are several other ways to take things even further.
1. Redesign the menu
It's estimated that restaurant diners leave, on average, 17% of food uneaten on their plates. Restaurant operators can crack down on this wastage by redesigning their menus around minimizing food loss.
A simple but effective tactic is to limit the number of items on their menu, which, in turn, also limits the range of ingredients used across dishes. This opens up opportunities for cross-utilization using the same ingredients (or different parts of the same ingredient) for multiple dishes.
For example, bone-in chicken thighs can be deboned and roasted for salads and flatbreads while the pulled meat can be used for salads. Leftover bones and scraps can be used for chicken stock.
2. Optimize the inventory
Much of a restaurant's pre-consumer food waste can be eliminated by conducting food waste audits to order optimized quantities of food at precise intervals. The key is to work closely with suppliers.
For example, a restaurant can negotiate with a supplier to order quantities of food smaller than their required minimum (e.g., 25 pounds of produce instead of the required 50). One way around this problem is by signing long-term contracts with suppliers to gain flexibility.
Bottom line? Communicate with suppliers and work out a win-win situation for both parties.
3. Offer portion size options
Many people overestimate their portion sizes when dining out, which inevitably results in leftovers. Restaurant owners can solve this problem by offering different portion sizes (for example, small, regular, and large), allowing customers to select a portion that matches their appetite or taste.
Another tactic is to allow customers to choose which sides they prefer with their mains/entrees. For example, a steakhouse can offer the option of pairing a ribeye with a salad, fries, or mashed potatoes. This goes a long way towards reducing small amounts of food scraps that can quickly add up over time.
4. Use smaller plates
In one study of guests at hotel restaurants, switching to smaller plates was found to help reduce food waste by as much as 20%. The theory is that plate size influences how much food people think they need to have on their plate. A larger plate encourages people to pile as much food as they can, leading to leftover food scraps. Conversely, smaller plates often mean smaller portions and a lower chance of leaving uneaten food.
5. Relax cosmetic specifications for fruits and vegetables
Imperfect produce (or what some would call ugly fruits and vegetables) are estimated to be responsible for 40% of wasted produce each year. Because of strict USDA guidelines that grade produce by factors such as size and color, tons of fruits and vegetables with cosmetic flaws end up being rejected each year mostly by supermarkets and restaurants.
Restaurants should consider relaxing their requirements for off-spec produce, provided it meets their food safety and quality standards. A banana with spots on the peel, for example, does not need to be tossed in the trash when it's perfectly safe to eat.
6. Adopt waste tracking tech
Finally, restaurants and other food businesses can use new technologies such as waste tracking, inventory management software, and analytics to reduce food waste. Consider using waste tracking solutions that can photograph, weigh, and sort food items by both category and source. Data analytics can then provide restaurant operators with insights such as-
- How much food (by weight) they're wasting daily, weekly, and monthly
- The type of food that's wasted the most
- Whether food is wasted before or after the consumer (i.e., pre- and post-consumer food waste)
Tackling restaurant food waste is something any establishment can do with planning, foresight, and the right data. When businesses learn to reduce food waste, they will not only be doing the environment a favor but will also enjoy cost savings in the long run.
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