food waste in restaurants

Reducing Restaurant Food Waste: 9 Tips for Food Waste Solutions

Smart restaurant owners can use these great tips to address the problem of food waste and reduce the amount of product that ends up in the dumpster out back.

Restaurant food waste comes from several sources. It may be food that spoils because it’s been in your kitchen too long. It may be food that drops on the floor and becomes unsanitary to serve. It may be food that your customers send back, either uneaten or as scraps of a satisfying meal. Whatever the source, reducing food waste will improve several parts of your business. It saves you money, gives back to the community and can even bring in some good press for a new restaurant or a rebranding.

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Note: This post was updated on 5/4/2017 with more facts and resources about food waste.

You’re well aware that keeping a restaurant open hinges on keeping costs down. The food you make costs money and the food you waste costs even more. Let’s be frank—money is the bottom line. And if you aren’t funding your living then you can’t continue to pursue your passion.

So let me ask you a difficult question: If you’re in the business of making money, why are you throwing so much of it away?

A few facts on food waste:

According to a University of Arizona study, commercial retail food establishments throw out 54 billion pounds or 27 million tons of food annually. It’s not uncommon for restaurants to throw away almost 10% of the product they buy. Not because it’s unusable, but because of bad policies all around. That combined with uneaten food, kitchen mistakes, and products not meeting particular quality standards comes to another 10%.

All in all, restaurants throw away on average 20% of their product, even though there’s nothing actually wrong with it. 

Do you know how much of a difference 20% makes to your company’s financial bottom line? How many other companies do you think buy products and then throw 20% immediately into the garbage? Well, pretty much every restaurant out there does this. Reducing food waste falls very low on the priority list in most restaurants, large and small. Things like customer service, portion size, speed of service and menu pricing are all a part of a restaurant’s key focal points to increase sales. Meanwhile, they quietly throw away an enormous amount of product and don’t even recognize this financial sickness taking its greedy toll every day.

What’s worse is that it’s not just your restaurant’s profit margins that are hurt by this irresponsible practice. 1 in 6 Americans are hungry every day, yet we waste 40% of the food made in America. That comes out to $165 billion in wasted food, as well as all the resources needed to grow, maintain, harvest, and transport that food. In fact, it costs $750 million in disposal of that wasted food alone.

Restaurant food waste alone accounts for 20% of the total food waste in this country, and that percentage rises every year. 20% of $165 billion = $33 billion. Your restaurant is a part of a $33 billion food deficit in this country. Can you imagine what good could be done in the world with $33 billion worth of food each year?

Feeling a bit on the queasy side after reading those depressing facts about food waste? Me too. But do you know what the absolute worst part is? This is easy to fix, yet most restaurants don’t care to change their habits and policies to do it. This is exactly why we’re having this discussion. You, as a restaurant owner, have the ability to change things.

 9 Ways To Reduce Food Waste

1. Learn Your Restaurant’s Facts On Food Waste.

The best way to do this is to work with the information you already have from your inventory, and the magic is in the numbers. You probably have a pretty good idea of what your inventory should look like any given week based on what you order and reorder. If you’re really going to change your restaurant food waste — ultimately leading to a significant increase in profits—then you’re going to need to do more than just order tracking.

Your kitchen staff will have to document how much of each product is thrown away and why, track quantities of waste because of mistakes and accidents, and differentiate from what is absolutely unusable, to what can be recycled or repurposed in some way.

It will take a few weeks of dedication from your management staff in the kitchen, but it can be done—especially once it becomes clear just how much of an increase in wages these savings can translate into. Which brings us to #2…

2. Get Your Staff On Board

Once you’ve figured out where and how your food is coming and going, it’s your job to reprogram your staff to be more aware of food waste and to think of and practice food waste solutions, rather than resorting to the habit of throwing things away. This goes for both the front and the back of the house. Although a hug portion of food is wasted in the kitchen before it gets to the dining room, you’ll want to have a clear picture of how much food is NOT actually eaten by guests after it’s ordered. When your staff pays attention to what’s getting thrown out, you can begin to adjust your intake of materials accordingly.

This won’t be easy, but again, money is the bottom line. And hey, it’s also is a great motivator. The entire staff will need to understand why proper waste management is so important to the restaurant, to the economy and to the environment, but in the end, the best way to motivate them is to sit down and talk money. If they understand that they can and will make more money by following better, more responsible practices and reducing food waste, they’ll begin changing their habits as soon as the meeting is over. If your restaurant is going to be successful in getting out of the 20% club of irresponsible waste, then you need your staff 100% on board.

Consider appointing a staff member as a waste manager to tell you how often and how much food goes out of the kitchen unused. It should be someone who is enthusiastic about coming up with new ways to reduce food waste, maybe with an additional passion for overall sustainability.

Now you are ready to start establishing new policies and that will allow you to fix the problem of restaurant food waste in your establishment.

3. Be Wary Of Buying In Bulk

Bulk ingredients carry the idea that you’re saving money, but spoilage can eat up much of those savings. Fresh food vendors know that, which is why they want you to buy in bulk. If you order supplies that always spoil before you have used the whole package, adjust your plate size to make sure it all gets used before it goes bad. If the vendor offers smaller packages of the item, consider buying the same amount in smaller packages, even if it seems more expensive up front. If you do the math, you might discover that whatever increase you pay for ordering smaller might be offset by the savings from not having to throw away excess food from a bulk package.

Make sure you know how much you need when you enter into negotiations with a bulk vendor. Also, don’t forget to negotiate; some vendors will be willing to do things for you in return for buying from them. Inquire about whether a vendor is willing to rotate their stock at the source and give you smaller but fresher deliveries rather than one giant drop-off.

4. Make Specials Special

Specials often drive business by hooking new customers and giving your regulars something novel to eat. Be sure to order the right amount of food to cover a special. It’s usually better to under order than over order when it comes to a dish like this. Customers are more understanding of specials being out by the end of the day, and you aren’t left with huge quantities of food that isn’t on your regular menu. Of course, if you do sell out that can be a good sign that you should consider adding the dish to your standard offerings.


5. Fridge Filing System

restaurant food wasteKeeping your refrigerator and freezer organized goes a lot way to ensure that the ingredients that have been in the kitchen the longest get used first. Clearly, label ingredients with ordered or opened dates to confirm the age of your supplies. Most restaurants use some kind of variation of First In, First Out. Assign specific shelves for specific items and then arrange those items starting on the left with the oldest and moving to the right with the newest. That way, employees can see at a glance what needs to be used first when the door is open. Though it takes a little organization in the beginning, this simple practice can be huge in reducing your restaurant food waste.

6. MacGyver Your Staples

Remember that show where the main character came up with scientific solutions to problems with just the items on hand? Your kitchen can be the site of similar experiments. Fast-food kitchens often use this trick with their monthly specials by combining ingredients on hand in new and different ways. Your chef is likely looking to experiment, so encourage the idea by coming up with specials that use things you already have in different ways. Consider using a new ingredient that might go bad if it isn’t used quickly. It’s rumored that such menu mainstays like nachos and buffalo wings were created by improvising like this. These creative food waste solutions could also result in new delicious menu items!

7. Portion Control

It’s not just for customers watching their waistlines. Be sure your employees are plating foods per your guidelines. If they need help, consider investing in portion scales for the food prep line to help them keep track of what they are using. Another solution might be cosmetic but effective; use smaller plates to decrease portions organically.

8. Go Green to Get Green

Food waste initiatives go hand in hand with many eco-friendly ideas. Energy efficient restaurant equipment, like new refrigerators, reduces the amount of food that spoils. Consider composting food waste and trading it with a nearby farmer for some locally sourced ingredients. Properly sorted and recycled garbage cuts down on waste. Partnering with local farms and co-ops using organic techniques not only gets you better, fresher food, it also shows your support of other local businesses. Additionally, programs like the National Restaurant Association‘s ConServe Program are already working hard to change the way restaurants of all sizes manage their waste management.
Addressing food waste in restaurants

9. Donate Unused Food to Local Charities

Most cities have food banks that need food all year round. Donations to these banks are big during the holidays because big meals are in the public consciousness. Food banks need donations throughout the rest of the year and working up a deal with your local bank can let you write off some of your written-off supplies as a charitable donation. Don’t forget to mention your partnership to your guests, too. Customers like to spend money at places that improve the community.

Additional Information About Restaurant Food Waste:

There are a lot of resources out there with even more detailed information on how you can begin managing your waste and saving money.


Restaurant Waste Stats

Restaurant Waste Management

Controlling food waste improves things for everyone involved in your restaurant; management, employees and customers. Management controls costs through waste monitoring, inventory control and going green. Employees enjoy innovating new dishes and keeping an eye on what sells. Customers feel good supporting a business that cares for the environment and the community. Food waste affects everyone, but it’s in your hands to do something about it.

Some things can begin immediately, and others will take a bit of time to get going. But within three months of beginning a more sustainable waste management program, your restaurant will be in full swing. Within six months, your profit margins will be noticeably better, and with any luck, your staff will start noticing the increase in their pockets as a result of their efforts as well.

Do your homework, get to work, then share the wealth. Give your staff raises. Donate food to the hungry. Recycle, reduce, and compost. Whatever it takes—do your part and give back a little. It’s sustainable living, and it’s a profitable business. Be the change that we need.

Featured image courtesy of USDA. Image “Food Waste Recycling” courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons