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From Waste to Worth: 7 Methods to Reduce Food Waste in Restaurants

October 18th, 2023

Two chefs cooking in a restaurant kitchen preventing food waste | SkyTab | Shift4

Food waste — and eliminating it — has become a hot topic of discussion in the restaurant industry. And for good reason: According to ReFED, U.S. restaurants generated 12.9 million tons of food waste in 2021.

Alarming statistics like this are leading restaurant owners nationwide to commit themselves to reducing food waste. Not only does it hurt your bottom line, but it also hurts our environment.

Eliminating food waste begins with understanding what happens to the food we serve. How much leaves our kitchen, and how much is uneaten?

Whether it’s customers leaving meals untouched or unused ingredients in the garbage, restaurant owners must realize they’re wasting a significant amount of money by generating abundant food waste.

We’re diving into how food is wasted and what your restaurant can do to reduce that amount. Let’s get started.

Understanding Food Waste

Before you can eliminate food waste, you must first understand what it is and where it comes from within your restaurant. Generally speaking, food waste refers to food that is discarded, unused, lost, or uneaten by the customer. Many processes across the food supply chain can result in waste, from primary production to distribution and consumption.

Not only does the amount of food waste impede cash flow, but what makes it so precarious is that it remains hidden behind normal restaurant operations. From overstocking and over-prepping to spoilage and half-eaten meals, these are all costly forms of waste often concealed by regular restaurant operations.

Think about it. Does a busser let a manager know every time they toss a half-eaten entree in the garbage during a Saturday dinner rush? Does your chef tell you every time they toss out a half case of lemons because they are spoiled? The answer is: probably not.

The food service industry has two basic types of food waste: pre-consumer and post-consumer. Let’s look at the difference.

Pre-Consumer Food Waste

Pre-consumer waste (a.k.a kitchen waste) refers to food that never leaves the kitchen. For instance, an ingredient tucked away in the walk-in cooler past its expiration date is now money down the drain. Poor food prep techniques, such as improper slicing and dicing, can lead to added kitchen waste because you’re not getting the most out of the ingredients.

Post-Consumer Food Waste

On the other side of the food waste equation is post-consumer waste. Post-consumer waste is food purchased by restaurant patrons but not eaten. The most common example of this type of waste is leftover food on a customer’s plate.

Performing a Food Waste Audit

The best way to get a handle on the food waste your restaurant is producing is by conducting a food waste audit. The objective of an audit is to uncover places where you’re generating food waste so that you can implement strategies to help eliminate it. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has some great tools to help you with this assessment.

When tracking food waste, it’s essential to find its source. Keeping a record or journal of how much food is going to waste and how many guests are coming in to dine is the best way to understand your restaurant’s food waste problem.

Develop a system for the staff to keep notes on:

  • What is being thrown out?
  • Why is it being thrown out?
  • How much food is going into the trash or compost bin?

Depending on the size and logistics of your restaurant, you might want to have one or two dedicated employees tracking this information for the entire restaurant. Alternatively, each employee can monitor their assigned station.

Either way, find a method that works best for your operation. Collect data during peak and non-peak times over an extended period to get an accurate sample size.

Pay close attention to how much food your diners purchase but do not eat. For instance, note when a dinner party orders multiple appetizers and leaves most of their entrees untouched or asks for doggie bags. It’s worth evaluating this information to see how much it adds up.

Also, in your audit, remember to note what the weather is like that day or events happening around the community. Data like this helps determine your restaurant’s future customer volume and can help account for any anomalies in sales volume.

For example, your audit may show you have an average of 250 guests come in for Sunday brunch when it’s 80 degrees and sunny out, but that number drops dramatically to less than half that amount during the winter. Tracking this information allows you to identify customer trends and plan inventory purchasing around those findings.

Your food waste audit results should help reveal actionable data that you can use to help reduce food waste.

7 Ways to Prevent Food Waste in Your Restaurant

Restaurant employee using Lighthouse Business Manager to track inventory and manage food waste | SkyTab | Shift4 Prevention is the key to reducing food waste. Knowing how to prevent waste in your restaurant can help you save money and significantly cut food costs. Here are some ways to reduce food waste and increase your bottom line.

1. Properly Store Food

Using proper food storage techniques will substantially increase the shelf life of your inventory. First, ensure that you’re storing all food items in accordance with all applicable food safety codes. Use only appropriate containers for storage at precise temperature levels.

You can also develop a labeling system for your kitchen staff so that containers with perishable products have the date they were received, the expiration date, and the amount of product in the container.

Lastly, take the necessary precautions to prevent cross-contamination, such as storing raw meat on the bottom shelves of your walk-in cooler. Placing the raw meat on the bottom shelf will ensure the juices don’t run down and contaminate the food stored below it.

2. Utilize the FIFO Method

Another prevention technique along the same lines as proper food storage is the first-in-first-out (FIFO) method. Using the FIFO method, chefs will organize and rotate ingredients so that older items will be used before newer ones to help reduce spoilage.

For example, if pizza dough is prepared on Monday and then again on Wednesday, the remainder from Monday should be used before (first) the dough made on Wednesday.

3. Use a POS System to Manage Inventory and Food Costs

A restaurant POS system is a must-have for any establishment serving food. It facilitates the order process and communication between the front of house (FOH) and back of house (BOH). With the right POS system, you can also easily monitor inventory levels, food costs, margins, and purchase orders.

POS systems like SkyTab have automated tracking and reporting capabilities, providing restaurants with powerful business analysis tools. Your staff can better plan and prep for services because of the system’s ability to monitor stock inventory of all recipes and forecast inventory requirements based on menu and sales performance.

For example, a POS report can show you that you only use 25 pounds of potatoes weekly even though your weekly order is 50. It can also raise attention that potatoes are only used in ⅓ of your menu’s dishes.

By integrating with inventory management software, you will notice a significant reduction in unused food that minimizes over-purchasing and overproduction, resulting in increased savings. Ensure that your POS system supports third-party integrations to bolster its functionality.

4. Develop a Smaller Menu

A POS system can be a practical resource for analyzing the profitability and popularity of each item on the menu. Your POS menu should give you a streamlined view of your entire offering, making adjusting easier.

Moreover, the results obtained from a simple analysis will allow you to review and condense the menu. Shrink the menu down to only the dishes that are selling to help eliminate spoilage of unused ingredients.

You can also decrease the size of your menu by repurposing ingredients across multiple dishes. This can minimize waste and create a more sustainable menu. Use chicken from tonight’s dinner special for tomorrow’s soup of the day or yesterday’s bread that has gone stale as croutons for salads.

5. Monitor Portion Sizes

Your food waste audit should examine whether you serve guests huge portions. Use tools like portion scales and spoons so you and your employees know exactly how much food gets plated for each dish. Train kitchen staff and standardize recipes to ensure that portion sizes are plated consistently.

As for your menu, consider offering varied portion sizes for some of your larger or more popular menu items. For instance, you can charge $8.00 for a large bowl of chips and guac and $5.00 for a small bowl. Using your POS system, you can easily update your menu to reflect these changes.

6. Properly Train Employees

Speaking of training kitchen staff, the entire team must work towards reducing food waste. Offer chefs and prep cooks guidance on cutting techniques to get the most out of ingredients. Also, encourage employee feedback about ideas they have to help waste reduction efforts further.

Overall, your entire staff must be on the same page. You can dedicate a training session to reviewing techniques your employees, from chefs to bussers, can utilize to help reduce waste.

7. Zero Waste

If you still notice that your restaurant is throwing away ample food after implementing these changes, consider some alternatives.

Donate leftover food that is still safe for consumption to local food banks and offer food scraps to local farms to use as animal feed. Just because your restaurant no longer has a use for the food doesn’t mean it can’t be put to good use somewhere else.

Partnering with a local nonprofit to donate food can improve your community and generate goodwill surrounding your business.

It’s Time to Take Action

Understanding how to reduce food waste in your restaurant is an ongoing process and doesn’t happen overnight. However, with the right attitude and strategy, your efforts will pay off in the long run.

Food waste can be a challenging and tedious problem to fix. It’s essential that you:

  • Regularly monitor the waste produced in your restaurant and make changes to your strategies as necessary.
  • Utilize these resource tools the EPA offers to monitor and manage food waste.
  • Always pay attention to your customers' ordering behaviors and trends to ensure your menu is fulfilling their appetites and reducing waste at the same time.
  • Never waste ingredients or money on dishes that aren’t being ordered.
  • Make sure new employees are adequately trained and knowledgeable on food waste reduction.

Even after you put strategies into place and notice a significant decrease in waste, you should still find more innovative ways to continue your efforts.