How to Reduce Food Waste in Your Restaurant

By: Kristi Turner

9 Minute Read

Dec 20, 2019

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Did you know that more food is sent to the landfill in the U.S. than any other single material?

Unfortunately, the restaurant industry is a huge contributor to this problem: A study by the Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA) found that 84.3% of unused food in American restaurants ends up as waste. 

Not only is this a problem for the environment, and for the people that could benefit from safe-to-eat surplus food, but this food waste issue means $2 billion in lost profits for restaurants.

Leaders in the manufacturing, retail, and restaurant industries have joined forces under the FWRA in an attempt to cut food waste in half by 2030 by promoting practices that prevent food waste, increase donations of surplus food, and recycle unavoidable waste.

The social, environmental, and economic benefits of reducing food waste are huge, especially for restaurant owners. Controlling food waste is one of the biggest opportunities your restaurant has to increase profitability. As your food waste decreases, your restaurant’s profitability increases; it’s a win-win.

Here are some practical ways to reduce food waste in your restaurant.

1. Conduct a Waste Audit 

Without conducting a waste audit, there is no way of truly knowing how much your restaurant is tossing out as a result of your current operations and what your potential cost savings are.

Yes, this does mean you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves and go through the trash. Here’s how to conduct a waste audit.

Every day for one week, before you prepare your trash for pick up, have a team open the bags and sort out the trash into the following categories:

  • Paper goods (paper towels, napkins, promos/flyers, etc.)

  • Takeout products (cups, plates, containers, etc.)

  • Produce (fruits, veggies)

  • Meat (this can include poultry and fish, besides red meat)

  • Plastics

  • Other (aluminum foil, broken plates, etc.)

Feel free to fine-tune these categories to fit your restaurant’s menu, offerings, and waste. 

Once everything has been sorted, weigh each of the piles on a scale and record their weights in a spreadsheet. Next, multiply each weight by the number of days your restaurant is open a year — this will give you a better idea of your annual waste in each of your waste categories.

Now that you’ve finished getting down and dirty conducting your waste audit, it’s time to analyze the results.

The waste categories with the heaviest weights are the areas that need the most attention. For example, if you find your meat or produce waste is heavy, it could be an indication that your current menu items aren’t as big of a hit as you’d like, or that your prep cooks aren’t being thorough enough in their produce and meat cuts, or that you’re getting poor quality products from your distributors.

The insights you will gain from a waste audit stand to positively influence many aspects of your restaurant's operations by showing you exactly what changes to make.

2. Start a Waste Journal

As you conduct your restaurant’s waste audit, document and track your restaurant’s efforts in a waste journal to reduce food waste going forward.

Have staff record the weight of trash and recyclables as they prepare them for pick up. Encourage staff to jot down descriptions of any noteworthy items that were disposed of, like broken pint glasses, pallets from deliveries, or rotten produce.

Your restaurant’s waste journal will enable you to track your progress over time and assess whether your efforts have put a dent in reducing waste in your restaurant.

3. Train Your Staff to Reduce Food Waste

Educate both front of house and back of house staff about ways to reduce food waste, and teach them tactics they can easily implement in their daily lives at your restaurant.

Teach your prep cooks cutting techniques that keep food items fresher for longer, as well as techniques that yield the most amount of product from a cut of meat, chicken, fish, vegetable, or other produce item. The more of a food item you can use, the less of that item will end up as food waste.

4. Stop Over-prepping

If your restaurant’s waste journal is telling you that you are throwing out gallons of salsa every two days, it’s pretty obvious that your kitchen is prepping too much salsa.

While some restaurant owners and managers would rather have too much of a product than not enough, by creating better forecasts, your kitchen will be able to predict busy shifts or days where they may need to stock up on specific ingredients, or forego ordering them that week.

Prepping more accurately will save your restaurant money on food costs and on the labor needed to prep that food.

5. Adopt the FIFO Method

To reduce the amount of spoilage in your restaurant, use the first-in / first-out method, also known as FIFO.

In a FIFO compliant kitchen, inventory will be organized and rotated so that the oldest items in your kitchen will be used first, cutting down on food waste as a result of spoiling.

Say you received a shipment of hamburger buns on Monday, and again on Wednesday. According to the FIFO method, the hamburger rolls received on Monday will be used first.

Adhering to the FIFO method may mean shipments take a little longer to unload, but moving the older stock to the front of the shelves and putting the new stock behind it will ensure that you are not wasting good product and throwing out unused food simply because of your order of consumption.

6. Store Food Properly

Make sure that all food items are stored in an appropriate container and at the optimum temperature. Label all perishable products with the date they were received, the date they should be considered expired, and the amount of servings within each container. In some kitchens, staff will use a color coded labeling system to make it easier for BOH staff to know what category of item is in which container.

If you’re a new restaurant owner unsure of how to organize and store food items in your kitchen, check out Toast’s Back of House guide.

7. Calculate and Control Inventory Days on Hand

Inventory days on hand (DOH) refers to the average number of days you hold inventory before selling it. This calculation can be applied to your restaurant’s inventory on the whole, or to individual inventory items.

For example, if you order 180 lbs of chicken and use 30 lbs of chicken each day, that chicken is ‘on hand’ for six days.

180 lbs of chicken ÷ 30 lbs of chicken a day = 6 days ‘on hand’

Food items that have a higher inventory days on hand ratio are not selling quickly, which could indicate that guests aren’t happy with the item’s corresponding dish on the menu.

Food items that have a lower inventory days on hand ratio are selling quickly; reach out to your distributor or vendor and negotiate a better deal for these items.

By paying attention to how your kitchen uses inventory on a weekly basis, you can tailor your orders with vendors to only include what you’ll use in between deliveries. If you’re receiving a quantity-based discount, talk to your vendor about storing the product in their space and only delivering as needed. This will ensure that you are freeing up your coolers, and the vendor will rotate out the product so that it’s fresh when you receive it.

Be sure to revisit your reports quarterly to make sure that you are staying on top of what’s selling, what’s not, and what costs have increased due to seasonality, market, trends, etc. 

8. Use Tracking Technology 

Your restaurant POS has the ability to track your inventory for you. Inventory management platforms give you real insight into how you’re actually performing to calculate your food cost percentage, reduce over-portioning, over-buying, and theft. Additionally, you can use your technology to update your menu quickly to manage items that aren’t profitable. 

 A kitchen display system can also help reduce your restaurant’s waste a great deal. Lost tickets result in thrown out food, double orders, and not to mention wastes tons of paper. Having an electronic ticket tracking system streamlines your kitchen and gives visibility into sales and fulfillments while significantly reducing food waste.

9. Multi-Use Menu Items

Finding ways to use a food item in multiple dishes will enable you to save money by buying in bulk; it will also help you reduce on that inventory item’s DOH ratio and cut down on food waste as a result of spoilage.

Let’s say you only use artichoke hearts in one salad recipe, and often find yourself throwing out a significant amount of the unused vegetable because it’s gone bad. You can either change the recipe to take them out, or find new ways to use them before they go bad, such as a pizza or pasta dish, or create a variety of seasonal offerings that feature artichokes. 

10. Pay attention to food seasonality

You may have an item that traditionally does really well in your restaurant, but at certain times of the year, you notice yourself tossing more than expected. This can be due to the seasonality of produce. Avocados, for example, have a peak season in the US from May to August. If you’re getting the same number of avocados from the same distributor all year long, there may be some batches that are quicker to go bad, resulting in thrown out product. 

Whether you choose to restructure your menu around produce seasonality or simply purchase less produce that’s out of season, you can make sure that you’re always offering the freshest items all year long and won’t be throwing out so much unused food. 

11. Run Weekly Specials.

Weekly specials and promotions are a great way to quickly repurpose unused food before it spoils and ends up as food waste.

Maybe business was slower than expected this week and you end up with too much chicken breast on hand: Try repurposing the chicken breasts by promoting them as a limited-time offer.

There are a variety of websites that provide recipes based on whatever ingredients you have on hand, like SupercookMyFridgeFood and more. Or, just consult your cooks and see what they’re inspired to make.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Small changes really can make a big difference. Implementing ways to reduce food waste in your restaurant each month will amount to a big change in how much waste your restaurant produces by year's end — and hopefully a significant boost to your bottom line.

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