An unfortunate reality of the restaurant industry is that food waste is often viewed as a "cost of doing business." In other words, it’s a necessary evil relegated to the fringes of operational concerns. But should it be?
Each year, US restaurants generate an estimated 22 to 33 billion pounds of food waste annually. That means a single restaurant produces an average of 25,000 to 75,000 pounds of food waste each year. And, to make matters worse, only a minor percentage of that waste is either donated or recycled.
Food waste in restaurants isn't merely an environmental concern; it's a blatant economic drain, eating away at already narrow margins.
Let’s explore the causes of and solutions for food waste in restaurants.
What are the major sources of food waste in restaurants?
As a restaurateur, wasting food means losing out on potential revenue.
According to the National Restaurant Association: “Commercial kitchens typically waste 4% to 10% of the food they purchase before it ever reaches the customer’s plate.” To put this into concrete numbers, if a restaurant’s budget is $100,000 per month on food inventory, up to $10,000 is wasted monthly.
That said, this problem goes deeper than just the direct costs that impact your bottom line. There’s also the opportunity cost spent on the labor that went into purchasing, inventorization, and prepping that unused food.
Additionally, these costs only speak to the front end. Generally speaking, there are five major contributors to food waste in restaurants:
1. Spoilage – Improper handling, storage, and packaging can make food unfit for consumption. This often results from poor inventory management or inadequate refrigeration.
2. Overstocking – Buying in bulk might seem like a cost-effective strategy, but it can lead to excessive inventory, increasing the chances of spoilage and waste. In the long run, the costs associated with wasted food and storage may outweigh the initial savings from bulk purchases.
3. Increasing portion sizes – Portion sizes have continuously increased since the ‘70s, particularly in America. While you don’t want to have customers leaving the restaurant still hungry, overly large portions contribute to waste and shrinking profit margins.
4. Spillage – Whether it's a server dropping a tray or a prep cook spilling ingredients, these accidents contribute to food waste and financial loss. While some spillage is unavoidable, it’s essential to minimize spillage via effective staff training and operational protocols. The costs of spillage go beyond the lost food. You must also factor in the time and labor required to clean up and replace what was lost.
5. Send backs – Another issue restaurants need to actively minimize is when a plate needs to be sent back to the kitchen to be remade. Whether it's due to an incorrect order, an undisclosed allergy, or a dissatisfied customer, a send back essentially doubles the cost of producing that plate. Not only are ingredients wasted, but there's also the added labor and time costs of remaking the dish.
How can restaurants reduce waste?
So, what are tangible steps for reducing restaurant waste? Consider the following:
Perform a waste audit – Conduct regular reviews of what's being thrown away to identify the key hot spots that contribute to waste. This provides actionable data you can leverage to inform your various waste reduction strategies.
Embrace technologies that monitor food waste – Invest in software or devices that track food waste data in real-time, allowing for more immediate adjustments to ordering and preparation practices.
Practice inventory control and management – Implement a system that tracks the age and amount of inventory to ensure that older stock is used first and that perishables don't expire. Ideally, with data analysis, you can fine-tune ordering so that you’re not over-ordering.
Make an effort to donate and recycle – Establish relationships with local food banks and recycling programs to ensure that surplus food and materials are used beneficially rather than going to the dumpster.
Store food properly – Use proper storage techniques such as vacuum-sealing, correct refrigeration and labeling, and a FIFO (First In, First Out) system to extend the shelf life of ingredients.
Use “ugly” produce in dishes where appearance is not crucial – Incorporate misshapen or blemished fruits and vegetables into soups, stews, or sauces where their visual appeal won't matter.
Employ composting for organic waste – Set up composting bins for food scraps and organic waste, turning what would be waste into valuable compost for gardening or farming.
Set up a staff training program to focus on waste reduction – Educate your team on the importance of minimizing waste, from portion control and proper storage to the economic and environmental benefits of doing so.
Reduce waste with ghost kitchens
Food waste isn’t just an environmental concern—it's a stress on your bottom line. Taking proactive steps to minimize waste is not only socially responsible but also financially savvy.
With ghost kitchens, you're joining a movement that prioritizes both operational efficiency and environmental stewardship.
Food Print. The Problem with Food Waste. https://foodprint.org/issues/the-problem-of-food-waste/
Harvard EDU. Foodbetter Waste. https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/files/foodbetter/files/fb-infographic-waste.pdf
NCBI. The Contribution of Expanding Portion Sizes to the US Obesity Epidemic. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1447051/
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