Not only is food waste a serious environmental problem, but it also has a significant impact on a restaurant's bottom line.
Let’s put this into context with some scary statistics:
- In Australia, restaurants produce about 1.7kg to 7.3kg of waste for each full time employee every day.
- In the US, restaurants produce about 150,000 pounds of waste a year.
- In the UK, pubs, restaurants, take-away shops and hotels generate 600,000 tons of food waste. Nearly a third of this comes from diners.
Photo: Dave Collier
Obviously various things contribute to food waste, including mistakes in the kitchen, spoiled food, fussy customers and portion sizes. But while some of these causes are unavoidable, there are preventative steps restaurants can take to address their food waste and protect their profitability.
Here are the main causes of food waste, and our favorite possible solutions.
1. Portions are too big
In a 2014 study conducted by The Guardian, 41% of diners said that meal portions in restaurants are too big. Interestingly, side items like French fries, vegetables and salads are most likely to be left uneaten because 1) Diners can’t finish 2) They want to leave room for other courses 3) They don’t want to appear greedy in front of their dining companions 4) They eat for the experience, not because they’re hungry.
Solution #1: Conduct a waste audit
Running an audit on how often customers leave these items aside could help your restaurant adjust its portion sizes.
The Unilever ‘Wise up on Waste’ app is a really effective tool for this. It allows you to monitor your exact food wastage over a set period, and then identify where you can save costs. You can download the app on your desktop, Android or iPhone for free.
Solution #2: Let customers choose their serving size
Many restaurants allow customers to choose their serving size when they order. Offering both full sized and entrée-sized dishes at a reduced price allows you to save on food costs while still satisfying the customer.
This option also accommodates customers who are dieting but want to sample your dishes and enjoy a meal out with their friends. However, consider how you phrase these options to avoid alienating customers. T.G.I. Friday calls its smaller menu items ‘right portions’ instead of ‘reduced portions’ or ‘healthy portions’, because those phrases are off-putting to many customers.
Solution 3: Reconsider your plate sizes
While plating food on a large white dish is visually appealing to diners, psychologists have proven that this can actually contribute to food wastage.
An optical illusion called the Delboeuf Illusion makes a meal appear smaller than it really is when more white space surrounds the food. This means that a larger plate can make a meal appear smaller, causing diners to order meals they will never actually finish.
Use this information to your advantage by serving your food on smaller plates, allowing you to reduce your portion sizes without making your customer feel deprived.
2. Mistakes are made in the kitchen
A study by the NSW Environment Protection Authority revealed that 74% of food waste in Sydney was thrown away before it even reached the diner.
While mistakes are unavoidable in a busy kitchen environment, it’s very likely that miscommunication between staff and managers played a huge role in that figure.
Solution #1: Assign one staff member to receive food orders
Assigning a senior staff member to be in charge of receiving orders will help you avoid accepting poor quality food. This staff member will be far more likely to complete thorough checks because they will be accountable if there are mistakes. They will also become familiar with what to expect from the distributor.
Solution #2: Educate staff about food waste
As David S. Peters puts it, most food waste occurs during the prep and cooking stage. If untrained kitchen staff are chopping vegetables incorrectly, adding too many ingredients or overtrimming meat, they could be unwittingly contributing to your food waste. Educate them about the consequences of food wastage so they are more conscious about their usage.
Solution #3: Use portable POS technology
Portable point of sale systems have a lot of advantages, if used correctly. For example many of them can generate reports on historical sales data, which allows you to track how much of each meal is ordered on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, and then plan your food orders accordingly.
POS systems also increase the accuracy of information passed from front of house to back of house, because staff don’t have to scribble on pieces of paper. Instead, they can enter exactly what the customer wants as they order it.
3. Customers are sending food back
Fussy customers are a fact of life in the restaurant business, and it’s impossible to please everybody. But there are some approaches you can take to avoid how often customers send food back to be thrown away.
Solution #1: Reduce wait times with a preordering app
The number one reason customers send food back is because it’s gone cold. And dishes go cold when members of the same party aren’t served their food at the same time. Obviously a well-oiled kitchen staff is going to do everything in its power to avoid serving in this manner (staggering meal preparation so dishes are ready at the same time), but even the best kitchens have their off days.
Introducing a mobile pre-ordering app can be a solution to this problem. When customers lock in their orders ahead of time, the chef has the notice needed to prepare dishes at the right times (and concentrate on preparing them well).
Some apps that do this include Allset, which is designed to cut down on wait times during breakfast and lunch, and Settle, which encourages customers to place food and drink orders while they're on their way to the restaurant. Find out which app is most commonly used in your area, and advertise its availability in your marketing so customers know that it’s an option.
Solution #2: Train wait staff to ask for clarification
It sounds obvious, but if wait staff don't clarify what a customer means when they make their order, they could end up with something they don't want, and they're going to send it back to the kitchen.
Train wait staff to double check how a customer wants something prepared when they order iffy dishes like red meat, spicy foods and eggs. Otherwise a confused customer might ask for a medium-well steak when they meant medium-rare, and you have to toss the whole dish and start again.
Some food waste is unavoidable, but instead of just throwing it in the bin, consider disposing of it in an environmentally friendly manner.
Brothi by Joost in Melbourne was 100% waste free because it transformed its food waste into compost using a Closed Loop compost system.
Mexican restaurant Mesa Verde has a rooftop worm farm to help break down vegetable off-cuts. The compost feeds the vegetables and herbs growing in the garden, and these are then served in the restaurant.
Photo: Kirsty Hall
Donating food to those who really need it is another ethical solution. An app called Yume allows restaurants that haven't sold small quantities of food to list these items online, where they are either donated to community food programs or sold to the public for half the original price. Items you can list include anything from a single muffin to a piece of fruit. Customers can then search according to their location to find the closest offers.
Your restaurant could be saving thousands of dollars every year by reducing its food waste. It’s just a matter of finding the strategy that works for you.
Tell us: what are you doing to reduce food waste in your restaurant?