Restaurant zero-waste initiatives gain momentum

As top concern, trend, reducing waste can help profitability, the earth

Restaurant zero-waste initiatives are a top trend, according to the What’s Hot 2019 Culinary Forecast. Restaurateurs and chefs seek to reduce their carbon footprint and the amount of trash they produce. Chefs in the fine-dining sector, in particular, have taken the lead on using as much food product in the kitchen so that total waste could be reduced to what fits in a bucket or jar. “Finding creative ways to use every part of an ingredient is a big part of sustainable practice,” suggests Erik Hopfinger, executive chef for Bamboo Asia, in San Francisco, and Top Chef alumnus.

“At Bamboo Asia, we use ginger peels to spice up and add a unique flavor profile to our homemade hot sauce. We (also) use the stems from Thai Basil and Cilantro for marinating our sous vide chicken or add (them) to stocks.” Waste can be a byproduct of cooking, certainly, but there are many more sources of added waste. Lack of preparation or good production planning can lead to greater waste due to food spoilage. Restaurant managers have typically been fond of visual inspections of produce and other perishable product to detect any lack of freshness.

Not handling food properly can lead to food “kills.” Especially In the fine-dining and casual-dining segments, lack of accuracy in taking an order or poor cooking execution can lead to dishes that end up being returned to the kitchen—some cannot be salvaged. Among the many other sources of waste, spoilage can arise due to poor inventory management and during foodservice distribution.

Waste comes in many forms, impacts restaurant segments differently

Chef Douglas McMaster visited Brooklyn this year for an event called Fitzcarraldo. Hailing from Brighton, England, this outspoken chef is known for being a zero-waste chef, seeking to maximize the utility of all food, as told by The New Yorker. “At his restaurant, Silo, in Brighton, England, he buys ingredients directly from farmers, to avoid grocery-store packaging, and returns peels and trimmings in the form of compost, creating what he calls a “closed loop.” His recipes strive to incorporate the whole vegetable. There’s a cadre of chefs that have refined zero waste. Hopfinger uses cauliflower stalks at Bamboo Asia to make cauliflower rice, which serves as a “low carb (menu) option” for his customers.


Waste, whether as a byproduct of food cooking and preparation processes, or because of errors and mismanagement, is lost profit dollars after all. Using as much of a food product to create a menu item that sells is profit-enhancing. There is so much opportunity, and it’s a call to action, not just by chefs and industry leaders, but by consumers, as well. More consumers want to spend their dollars in sustainable and environmentally-friendly restaurants. A significant portion of consumers determine their food occasions through criteria of purpose and mindfulness. Restaurants that are proactive in zero-waste efforts can increase sales with these types of customers as an added benefit.

By design, quick-service restaurants (QSR), including fast casual and fast food restaurants, can be prone to more challenges in controlling waste, whether it be plastic or food, due to the amount of food produced off-premise by suppliers. However, there have been efforts as of late to address packaging, and plastic, in particular. Starbucks and other chains have made the commitment to move away from all plastic straws over the next few years, and have invested in finding paper cups that will universally compost. Current efforts in the industry show that restaurant zero-waste initiatives are gaining momentum.

Using inventory management to reduce waste

Inventory can also be a particular pain point for QSR chains. Poor inventory management, lack of controls and repetitive turnover of staff can be big impediments to controlling waste from inventory.

In addition to being food for the environment, zero-waste initiatives can build customer affinity and increase sales and profitability.
In addition to being good for the environment, zero-waste initiatives can build customer affinity and increase sales and profitability. Photo by Roshan G.

“It comes down to having good inventory practices,” says Erik Cox, vice president of Product Strategy for CrunchTime. “When appropriate, minimize the frequency of counts for low cost, low turnover products so that managers can focus time and efforts on the high impact (high value or high usage) items. Organized storerooms can be counted more quickly and easily.” He also suggests counting inventory during slower operating days so that they can be counted quickly and in an environment of fewer distractions.

Of course, technology and digital tools are a big support in these efforts. Cox adds, “Mobile solutions will help save time by eliminating the need for recording counts with pen and paper. They also significantly reduce the risk of errors by eliminating the need to enter numbers into the system.” Integrating supplier data in inventory management solutions not only reduces potential for error, but helps catch mistakes that can lead to expired product or food spoilage.

CrunchTime’s Cox also offers up three suggestions in his own words: “(1) Focus on the dollars. Track and share the highest cost variances first. Once these are improved, focus on the next group. (2) Share data between locations and up the chain. Often smaller issues are visible for a single location, but can become obvious when seen across many restaurants. (3) Communicate internally. In addition to sharing information between locations, ensure your staff understands what you are trying to achieve and what the problem items are. Often the best ideas for improvement come from those on the front line.


Reducing waste in food distribution or in transition from distributors

Part of the challenge of getting to zero waste is just how many obstacles there can be along the food supply chain. Produce is a great example. Chain restaurants can suffer at the hands of practices that are beyond their control. Restaurant managers have typically been fond of visual inspections of produce and other perishable product to detect a lack of freshness.

Visual inspections, suggests Kevin Payne, vice president of Marketing for Zest Labs, are insufficient to detect product that may have sat on a loading dock somewhere in transit for too long. These types of breakdowns can reduce the shelf-life of produce by up to one week even before the restaurants receive it, he says.

Digital technology can propel restaurant zero-waste initiatives

Technology is helping track and monitor perishables from grower to distributor, and on to the restaurant. The industry has been embracing technology in restaurant zero-waste initiatives. It is up to restaurant chains to ask suppliers and distributors to implement such technology. IoT sensors, in fact, can go a long way toward this goal, monitoring cooling, freshness and the time it takes for produce to go from field to fork. Zest Fresh is an example of a technology solution that’s being deployed to help monitor and ensure freshness going back to the source.

Says Payne, “IoT sensors can add value to restaurant chains because they can autonomously collect data about a product’s condition and location as it travels from its origin to the restaurant. The data from the sensor can provide insights into product freshness, product origin and authenticity (such as whether it really is free-range chicken or grass-fed beef), as well as cold chain compliance to ensure food safety.”

Foodservice executives can expect to see rapid growth of sensor technology to monitor foods, including produce, beef, dairy, wine, spirits and packaged goods. In addition to helping avoid food spoilage, sensor technology can help detect sources of food contamination more rapidly, making it easier to conduct appropriate recalls.

“Digitize your inventory management procedures,” says Cox. “The most effective way to minimize mistakes is to integrate your inventory management solution with each supplier electronically. Also, you can save a lot of time (and keep costs low) in placing orders and (conducting) invoice reconciliation.” Mistakes can happen easily in a busy chain restaurant, and that can result in waste or lost inventory. Employees should clearly label food product that is prepared in house, using “made on” and “use by” dates in accordance with restaurant policy.


Creating an environment in which waste reduction efforts can flourish

At the corporate or support center level, cross-functional teams can add a lot of value to zero-waste initiatives by working with suppliers and management to develop policies to reduce waste. Marketing teams can use
whatever initiatives are in place to successfully engage customers who care about these issues. Restaurant chains will benefit from creating a top-down and hands-on approach to reducing food waste, even creating incentives for employees to produce new ideas and suggestions. Reducing the food and packaging that doesn’t get used by the restaurant or consumed by the customer is a team effort, but one that will reap long-term dividends.

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