You’d be hard pressed to find any foodservice operator who isn’t looking at their food-waste practices — from delivery and prep processes to serving sizes and disposal. Some are well entrenched in tackling their food-waste issues, while others are just starting to take a serious look at what can be done. There are common concerns every operator faces; however, strategies can vary considerably. A vegan restaurant or fast-food chain would have a different perspective than a steakhouse or institutional cafeteria.
Location can also factor into the decision. Urban operations can easily tap into local services, such as food banks and composting programs, to support their efforts. Those in more remote locations or smaller municipal-ities may have to rely more heavily on in-house resources.
Budget limitations are another differentiator, as solutions can range from basic recycling programs and local donations to advanced analytics and POS integration.
Tackling food waste isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition, says Chris Knight, consultant at The Fifteen Group in Toronto. “Everyone has a food-waste problem, from QSR to fast casual to full service.”
The constant in the equation, however, is food waste is not only an important social and environmental concern, it’s also a drain on the bottom line in a world where margins are tighter than ever.
“Everything wasted is money out of our pockets,” says James Rilett, vice-president, Central Canada for Restaurants Canada in Toronto.
A contributor to those shrinking margins and renewed examination is the rising minimum wage, he adds. “That’s when waste really started [appearing] on their radar. There might have been a time when profit margins were high enough to absorb some costs, so they didn’t get too microscopic on their operations. Now they’re looking at everything relating to costs.”
Key pain points that come up in Rilett’s food-waste discussions with restaurants are ordering and preparing the right amount of meals. “Most waste comes from having too much food that has to be thrown out. Obviously that’s lost profits. But it’s a hard line to walk between having too much and running out too soon.”
Bruce McAdams, associate professor, School of Hospitality, Food and Tourism Management at the University of Guelph, says when it comes to food waste, operators are clearly willing to make changes. “Chefs and kitchen managers are highly motivated to minimize the amount of spoilage and products going out of rotation and most do a pretty good job of that.”
In his mind, one of the biggest generators of food waste is serving overly large portion sizes to convey value, particularly at mid-scale and full-service restaurants. The other is disposal at closing time. “We speak to many chefs who end up throwing out unused product at the end of the day when they could make better use of it.”
An important challenge being overlooked is organic waste going to landfill, McAdams notes. “People talk about reusing and donating food, which is great, but a lot of plate and food waste is still going to landfill and not being composted.”
A 2019 Second Harvest report, The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste notes food in landfill produces methane, which is more than 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions.
“It has an incredible impact on our carbon footprint,” McAdams says. “When we do create food waste, we need to make sure it never goes to landfill. We lost our way a bit there.”
Sending waste food to landfill is a non-starter at Fox Harb’r Resort in Wallace, N.S., says Shane Robilliard, executive chef and director of Food & Beverage. “We’re a medium-size operation so there’s going to be food waste. The biggest challenge for us is our remote location, so there are only certain opportunities available to deal with that.”
As such, all food waste is managed internally, which is relatively easy given the resort has acres of gardens and greenhouse facilities. “We compost it all and turn it into fertilizer for our golf course, gardens and greenhouse,” he says. “All of it is done using natural processes. The only challenge is when there’s a bounty, we have to adapt and get creative.
In tomato season, we do a lot of canning and freezing.” Composting is a natural fit for a plant-forward operation such as Copper Branch. “We do have a lot of scraps from prep, but all that easily goes into composting,” says Rio Infantino, president and CEO. Because it operates in urban locations, the chain works with composting services, since its restaurant don’t have the space to manage their own.
The brand has also been able to get its ordering processes down to a fine art. Core items are ordered flash frozen so they can be defrosted on demand.
“It ensures food stays intact, gives us better control at the store level and minimizes waste,” says Infantino. Fruits and vegetables are ordered four times a week to help mitigate potential food loss.
The key for any restaurant seeking the right food-waste solutions is having the right tools in hand. These can range from basic recycling and staff training, to more complex exercises, including analytics, Knight says.
One critical metric that’s often ignored in targeting food-waste issues is calculating actual versus theoretical usage, he says. “There’s often a difference between the two. If you find out someone is hacking an inch off the end of an onion and two layers of peel for example, you now have 50 per cent versus a 70- to 80-per-cent yield. It’s surprising how quickly your margins start disappearing. In some cases, operators discover there can be as much as a five- or six-per-cent swing between the two.”
There are also advanced systems that can help operators with available budgets and time, from POS integration to inventory-management software, Knight adds. “Really, you can take costing [and analysis] to the ends of the earth.”
Ultimately, planning should start with three important basics, he adds. “Skills training, recipe costing and portion control can make massive differences in controlling food waste overall.”
Written by Denise Deveau