How Can Restaurants Cut Down on Food Waste?

Woman Throwing Food AwayWhether it is to be better stewards of the environment or to cut costs, reducing food waste should be a priority for every restaurant. Even if done for no other reason than to reduce costs and allow the restaurant to be more competitive and profitable, cutting down on wasted food should be a goal for every manager or owner.

But how can restaurants cut down on food waste and still give customers value for their money, a great selection of food, and competitive prices? There are several ways to reduce food waste and remain competitive. In fact, done correctly it may actually save the restaurant money and add profit directly to the bottom line. Food waste at restaurants is alarmingly high and shouldn’t be.

Why are portion sizes so big anyway?

One of the easiest ways to reduce food waste is for a restaurant to seriously analyze portion sizes. Serving sizes of entrees are frequently enough for two people. The restaurant should take the time to look at what is left over on a typical plate. It would even be worth it to have an employee write down and monitor all returning cleared dishes for an entire shift. The restaurant can easily pick up a pattern, find out what is consistently coming back untouched, and reduce or eliminate that item.

Reducing portion sizes would also benefit diners, who frequently over-indulge with most platter-size entrees. With more and more diners splitting these oversized entrees at casual dining chains, restaurants should be taking the hint that food portions are entirely too large.

Another way to reduce food waste is to take many items currently included in the entrée and make them optional. Train the servers to ask probing questions like “would you like lemon?” or “what garnishes would you like for your hamburger?” instead of including them automatically on plates.

It may sound small, but over the course of a typical night, the simple act of asking first could prevent lots of untouched onions, lettuce, tomatoes, lemons, and more from going directly into the trash.  This would be a training issue for a restaurant, but one that would be worth it as it would easily help the bottom line.

Why do restaurants get caught in preparation overload?

Many restaurants fall victim to the trap of preparing too much of a selected item for fear of running out. This is especially true for a nightly special, and especially if it is heavily advertised. Adjusting the volume of food prepared is a great way to eliminate waste, especially with baked goods.

Many items, such as chicken and beef, can be refrigerated and used in another dish, but highly perishable items usually can’t. Baked goods are one of the highest areas of food waste for a typical restaurant and, sadly, don’t need to be.

Adjust baked goods volume to match demand. Don’t automatically prepare a certain number of bagels, for instance, but adjust the prepared offerings to match each day’s typical demand.

For instance, a major bagel chain cooked its normal Monday load of 540 assorted bagels at 4:30 a.m. to prepare for the day’s morning rush. However, no one at the restaurant used a calendar to see the simple fact that Monday was a legal holiday. Sales were horrible and 410 wasted bagels donated to a food bank were the result, all hurting the bottom line. If management had carefully planned output with historical sales and a calendar, it could have been avoided.

If a restaurant bakes throughout the day, stop baking earlier in the day if repeated leftover goods are noticed. It is a fine line between running out and overstocking, but carefully monitoring sales based on days of the week should help this. Many restaurants carefully plan exactly what they will be baking for each day of the week, especially taking into account holidays or local events. If your restaurant isn’t doing this, you are hurting your profitability.

How can I benefit from use-by dates?

Expiration stickers, especially for grab-n-go items, are very common. But many of these just contain a date. Smart restaurants eager to reduce food waste have added times as well.

For instance, a stack of five unsold yogurt parfaits are pitched by the morning crew because it has that day’s date on it when stocking for opening. However, the parfaits were actually made at 2 p.m. and are completely fine for the morning rush and should not have been thrown out. This is a typical example that occurs frequently in restaurants across America every day.

Restaurants should start using dates and times on expiration tags. Every little bit of goods not trashed early helps the bottom line—and adds to profitability and customer selection. It may only be a couple of dollars here and there throughout the day, but in the cut-throat restaurant business these dollars add up.

Some food waste is unfortunately inevitable. But restaurants taking the initiative to change this can expect lower waste and more savings.

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