By now, you are probably no stranger to the concept of food waste in some capacity. Whether you’ve read about how restaurants donate their unused/unsold food to local shelters, or how food waste is negatively impacting the environment, there are endless resources to learn about this problem. We explored the world of food waste in restaurants and how you as an owner, chef, or employee can reduce the waste that your foodservice business produces.

Lettuce food waste

Restaurant Food Waste Facts

The food service industry is unsurprisingly a large contributor to the problem of food waste in the United States. Did you know that consumer-facing businesses account for about 40% of food waste by weight (ReFed.com)? This means that companies such as restaurants, bars, and retailers are contributing almost half of all food waste. Not only do wasted foods have a negative impact on the environment, but it can also mean billions of dollars of wasted costs for businesses.

Full-Service restaurants waste about $16 billion per year, or seven million tons of food that is sent to landfills in the United States alone (ReFed.com). 

Foodservice businesses across the United States have seen the impact of food waste on their own bottom line as well as the industry impact.

Food costs are typically between 28-35% of gross income for a profitable restaurant, including things like waste, employee meals, and theft (Gourmet Marketing).

With pre- and post-consumer waste affecting profitability and the environment, businesses are starting to pay closer attention to the volume of waste that they’re generating. Not only can restaurants save money by limiting food waste, but they can work within their communities to donate unsold food to feed hungry people. As resources become more limited and businesses become more efficient, we’ll see more restaurants participating in food waste prevention programs.

Get to Know Your Food Waste

It can be intimidating to try and understand the amount of food waste your restaurant produces. Where do you even begin? Fortunately, while it is time-consuming, it’s not as daunting as it sounds. Taking the time to understand the food waste that you produce can save you significantly on food costs through the years.  

 

Where to Start 

Begin by tracking the waste that you and customers are producing in your business. The pre- and post-consumer waste numbers are both significant in understanding your volume. You can track your waste volume in several different ways, and don’t have to do it alone.  

Some ways to track food waste include: 

  • Set aside bins in your kitchen that are used only for organic material. Determine a regular schedule to sort through this (before it starts to go bad) to track what types of products you’re throwing away as well as the volume. 
  • You can also have waste management services pick up your food waste and weigh it for you. This can give you a rough estimate of your waste volume but does not offer segmented information on your waste like volume by produce. 
  • If you operate a full-service restaurant, encourage employees to keep an eye on the types of waste that they see when cleaning off tables. Are there any foods that customers aren’t eating? Do portions seem too large? This can help identify any menu changes that are needed.

Work with Suppliers 

Discuss with your food suppliers if there are types of food that you notice are going bad too soon or are being rejected for their quality by cooks. See if there are changes that can be made by either end to change food source or preservation methods to decrease waste. 

Tip: If you own a small restaurant, it may be beneficial to work with other small restaurants to gain efficiencies in food supply negotiations. You may save on food costs upfront, or you could split bulk purchases, so less food goes to waste by both kitchens. 

Work with suppliers to reduce waste throughout the supply chain by accepting off-spec produce (also known as ugly produce) and pre-trimmed produce. The more that you learn about the food that gets thrown out in your restaurant, the more that you can reduce your waste volume. Consistently track your food waste for a period and analyze your findings. This can give you an understanding of a new area of your operation that you may not have thought about previously!

How to Reduce Food Waste in Restaurants

Once you’ve gained an understanding of how much food your business is throwing out, you can develop a food waste reduction plan that fits your needs. Every restaurant is different and will use food in a variety of ways, so it’s important to consider what works best for your business. While you may not see immediate gratification in cost savings, creating a program to reduce your waste volume will set you up long-term to save money and food. 

 

Tips on Reducing Food Waste 

There are some businesses that produce zero food waste, however, often that’s not an achievable goal for your restaurant. These tips will help you to reduce the food waste that you produce (while still being realistic for your operation).

  • Train employees on techniques like batch cooking, portion sizes, and proper trimming in food prep. Ensure that they understand how to utilize every possible part of food so that you can cut down on waste.
  • If you utilize display cases for food, consider making small batches of items so you don’t end up with waste at the end of the day.
  • Partner with other restaurants to share produce throughout the season. This can gain you access to products that you may not normally have or can help to reduce waste from unused produced.
  • Offer small plates or shared plates on your menu to allow customers to try different food while limiting potential waste.
  • Look into offering customized plates on your menu – this provides choices to your customers and can eliminate throw-away of unwanted plate items. 

It’s important to work with employees consistently on your food waste reduction plan. Your plan can gain efficiencies through testing and small improvements. If something doesn’t work for your business, try another technique!

Onions growing in garden

Recycling Food

Many restaurants decide to recycle their food waste and using it as things like fertilizer or animal feed. Composting your food waste is beneficial to the environment and provides useful material for gardens or local livestock. If you choose to recycle your food, start with getting some large trash cans in your kitchen. You can also utilize smaller trash cans on your utility carts to collect food scraps while bussing tables.

We’ve compiled the types of foods that can and cannot be recycled to help with your efforts. Note: Some people choose to recycle food to feed to livestock. Please consult experts on what can and cannot be fed to livestock from food scraps.

Can Compost

  • Vegetables and Fruits
  • Grains and Pasta
  • Eggs and Shells
  • Plate Scraps
  • Food Soiled Paper and Cardboard (Pastry Wrappers, Bakery Liners)
  • Coffee Filters, Grounds and Tea Bags
  • Meat, Poultry, and Fish Bones and Scraps
  • Dairy Products (Cheeses, Rinds, Butters)
  • Biodegradable Packaging

Can Not Compost

  • Any Plastic Products
  • Disposable Cups or Cutlery
  • Non-Biodegradable Packaging
  • Fried Foods
  • Oils or Grease
  • Food Stickers

When to Consider Composting/Recycling Food

  • Currently you have or want to start a garden of produce
  • You want to create some quality fertilizer to use
  • Your business wants to keep food away from landfills and enrich local soil

Food Donation Programs

Some companies have programs set up with partners to donate unused/unsold food to feed underfed communities. Businesses like Panera Bread Co. work with local food shelters to donate food at the end of each business day to help feed their communities. Look into local food donation partners that can use your unused food and help to provide for your community. Organizations like Second Helpings are making a local impact by helping those in need. If you consistently have leftover food at the end of a business day that would normally go to waste, a donation partner is a great option. These partners ensure that your food goes to people in need of a good meal and allows you to cut down on your food waste. Why throw away food that can be enjoyed by others? 

Food Waste Fact: According to The National Resource Defense Council, if we were able to rescue just 15% of the food we waste each year, we’d save enough to feed 25 million Americans.” – moveforhunger.org 

Rescuing this food keeps it from being put into landfills and feeds people that would otherwise not have food. Utilizing food donation partners will ensure any food that you can’t use will go to a good cause and not end up in landfills. Below are some food donation partners that may be in your area. 

More on Food Waste in Restaurants

Want to learn more about food waste in the restaurant industry? Read our article on Effective Ways Restaurants Can Reduce Waste and What Food Can I Compost? for more tips on preventing food waste in your commercial kitchen!