The ecological and economic cases for reducing food waste are clear. In the US, food waste estimates are based on the USDA’s Economic Research Service, which added up to about 133 billion pounds of food costing $161 billion in 2010 These numbers are scary, but scarier still is the idea that waste represents 30-40% of the American food supply.
As a restaurant operator, you already know waste is a thief that can steal your restaurant’s profitability, which is why more restaurants are finding creative solutions to reduce food waste. See how businesses, restaurants, and nonprofits across the world are teaming up to reduce food waste and increase profits.
Although it’s not technically food waste, disposable packaging has a huge impact on the environment – and our industry uses an immense amount of disposable packaging. Some of these items are unavoidable due to health codes – for instance, you have to cover some food items with plastic wrap before refrigerating them. But takeout containers, straws, and plastic flatware can easily be replaced.
Fortunately, there are more and more technological innovations available to restaurants looking to reduce their carbon footprint. For example, Edipeel is an invisible, tasteless product which protects food surfaces from the elements and increases its shelf life. In the future, this product and others like it may replace the plastic items that restaurants use today.
Even if your restaurant can’t afford these innovations, there are countless ways to reduce the packaging you use. Ancolie, a restaurant in Manhattan, serves up menu items in reusable glass jars. These jars are used as bowls for customers dining in, and as takeout containers for everyone else. Guests can even return the jar to the restaurant later, if they want to make the biggest possible impact. This is a great strategy for reducing waste, lowering the cost of disposable products, and encouraging customer loyalty. When they come in to return their glass jar, why not offer to fill it with another dish?
It’s a common practice for restaurateurs to run special menu items in order to use up excess inventory. Salt & Straw, an ice cream shop in San Francisco, takes this to the next level by building their menu around the excess inventory from other foodservice providers. This establishment receives food waste from local non-profit organizations such as Urban Gleaners, Food Forward, and Food Runners. The non-profits on this list are all dedicated to reducing hunger by redistributing food that would otherwise be wasted – usually by putting it directly in the hands of the needy.
However, even non-profits like these generate food waste. Salt & Straw takes this eco-friendly system even further, by designing ice cream flavors around the inventory they receive. This gives Salt & Straw the freedom to design exciting new flavors such as Lots a’ Nacho, an ice cream with avocado and salsa, and Berkeley Olive Grove Olive Oil, a creamy blend with a touch of salt.
This practice of reusing food isn’t just limited to restaurants. At Chesterbrook Elementary School in McClean, VA, an Eco team of 6th graders is in charge of helping other students sort trash, recyclable packaging, and food waste into separate receptacles. The food eventually gets donated to local food pantries. Students are learning about food waste both in and out of class; the science curriculums at Chesterbrook include units on reducing food waste in order to end hunger.
Thanks to restaurants like Silo, it’s become commonplace – even trendy – to compost food scraps in-store. Chef Douglas McMaster describes his flagship restaurant as “a preindustrial food system that generates zero waste.” From the moment customers enter the restaurant, they’re shown just how seriously McMaster takes this credo: the first thing they see is an industrial composter (nicknamed “Bertha”).
Composting food waste is a useful practice whether or not you have your own in-store garden. This fertile soil can be donated to community gardens, or even given away to guests as part of a promotion. Encouraging your guests to grow their own vegetables can become a valuable loyalty program – why not host a gardeners’ dinner once a month, or invite guests to post photos of their veggies to your Instagram?
However you choose to recycle your food waste, make sure you let your guests know what you’re doing. This will not only improve the way they think of your restaurant; it will also encourage them to do the same, exponentially increasing the power of your best practices.