How to Reduce Food Waste in Restaurants: Making a Food Waste Management Plan

When it came time to clean the Augean Stables, Hercules faced a seemingly impossible task: mucking out the mess left by thousands of cattle over 30 years. His success in disposing of that much waste is literally the stuff of legend, of myth.

And yet, if you've ever been the lone dishwasher on duty after a slammed college football Saturday night at a wings place, you probably can relate.

Food waste at restaurants is endemic. Maybe the new hire screwed up the prep recipe and now 10 pounds of potential tomato bisque has become creamy trash can slop. And during a three-day rush, several trays of raw chicken were misplaced and now it smells like the grim reaper himself has IBS. That overstock of molding fruits and vegetables? They’re starting to gurgle and become sentient.

Hey, it happens. We’ve all been there. Hercules had to divert an entire river to complete his labor. The rest of us poor mortals still face an endless, never-ceasing surplus of restaurant food waste. We struggle mightily. 

Strong employee communication and customer retention are often at the forefront of restaurateurs' minds when it comes to efficiency and profitability. Paying attention to what goes out the back door to the dumpster, however, is just as important. Reducing food waste in restaurants can be the very thing that helps your kitchen succeed like an Olympian.

What's the average food waste percent in restaurants?

The amount of food Americans waste is downright depressing. Each year, between 125 and 160 billion pounds of food (about 40 percent of our food supply) goes uneaten, according to the National Resource Defense Council’s 2017 report. That’s about $218 billion literally thrown in the garbage — amounting to about 20 percent of all landfill content.

For food service alone, the weight of restaurant food waste is between 22 and 33 billion pounds a year. Even before servers bring back uneaten portions or cooks throw away supplies, the pre-consumer waste — those vegetable scraps, that extra bit of an ingredient that doesn’t fit the recipe — constitutes between 4 to 10% of all the food restaurants buy.

Front of house waste further compounds the problem. Patrons leave about 17% of their meals unfinished, and less than half of those leftovers go home with them. That's another 10% of what you buy that hits the garbage bin in your own kitchen.

How to calculate food waste in your restaurant

Having spent time figuring out what all is coming in — customers, profit, supplies — figuring out what you're throwing out should be a piece of leftover cake. The technology and tools for figuring out food waste have developed far beyond simply measuring the weight of your trash cans or a scratch pad scribbled with the costs of goods sold (COGS) formula.

So how can restaurants reduce waste with a modern touch? You could try a simple food waste calculator. Or you could get innovative with your garbage. Companies like Lean Path and Winnow Solutions have developed AI software specifically tailored to the needs of anyone looking to do just that.

The solutions for restaurant food waste provide the same kind of in-depth, analytical tracking that has become integral to successful POS, reservation, and delivery developments. These products rely on visual imaging of leftover food — basically a scanner that learns to read what’s coming back on people’s plates — so using them will change up the workflow for your servers and bussers. But imagine the ability to pattern-find the foods that people aren’t finishing. You might change the way you present or cook menu items. Or you might overhaul your menu altogether, knowing what’s going unused. 

How to reduce food waste in restaurants

Preventative reduction of food waste has a huge benefit to your planet and your pocketbook alike. In its 2020 study, reFed found that being proactive with waste cuts down on almost 400,000 tons of waste and adds $620 million in business profit potential each year.

It can be hard to adjust to ever-fluctuating variables — a crazy dinner rush, a dead-slow lunch hour, a new hire afraid to admit he doesn't know what a bisque is. It’s impossible to waste zero food. Beyond simply trimming off your excess, however, a number of products and businesses have begun dedicating themselves to serving both restaurants with too much food and communities with too little of it.

Think of them as the upside-down versions of food delivery services and apps.

Companies like Goodr and Copia exemplify this positive trend in reducing waste and providing for the community. These and other business-focused apps provide the needed logistics and support to allow restaurants to arrange for the safe handling and delivery of extra food to communities in need.

Restaurant food waste composting

Natural scraps such as produce trimmings and egg shells don’t make a meal … for humans, at least. By composting, restaurants can reduce the food waste clogging up their trash cans and being sent to the dump.

While the composting craze is in full swing among at-home consumers, it’s been slow to catch on with professional food service. For one, restaurants worry about large-scale contamination by non-compostable items. But that concern may be overblown. A small 2019 study by Eco-Cycle found that among full-service businesses that implemented a compost program, only 1% of the end product had contaminants.

National, large-scale composting efforts are still in their infancy. For now, think about compositing as the counterpart to sourcing high-quality ingredients: the best stuff is local and fresh. Restaurants have numerous options available, including industry-size compost machines for both indoor and outdoor use, as well as private compost services ready and waiting to form partnerships. Leave it to Nashville to be at the forefront of such efforts.

Recycling restaurant waste

You’ve come up with a waste management plan, you’ve begun reducing food waste both by diverting food to others and creating a compost program. But there’s still some waste left. Now what? Reduce, reuse, and … yup, recycle.

Customer-facing recycling efforts are commonplace. After years of education and practice, everyone dining fast-casual knows why there are three different “trash” bins and what goes where.

Having the back of house just as eco-conscience as the front of house takes the same (minimal!) effort. The trick is to keep it simple. Start small with basic recycling for all the obvious items — glass, plastic, paper, aluminum. Make sure the bins are clearly identifiable so even employees in the weeds know exactly where to toss their extras.

Next, make sure everyone in the company has been briefed on the procedures. Do you wash the glass beforehand? Do milk cartons go with cardboard or paper? What happens if I don’t have time to recycle something right away?

Reducing food waste in restaurants is not a Herculean task. But the effort will make you a hero to your community, your customers, and your bank account.

​​[Photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash]