Restaurant Waste: Three Ways to Save Green By Going Green

Cutting down on waste — can save your business money and even do some good.
crushed-red
Crushed Red, a fast casual pizza and salad chain, reduces waste by composting and using energy efficient appliances and LED lights. (Photo: Crushed Red)

Restaurant profit margins can be razor thin, so chances are, you’re always looking to save a little money wherever you can. Adopting a few green practices can help you do that.

Restaurants generate considerable waste, whether from discarded food, water use or energy. By finding ways to cut down on these expenses, restaurant owners can not only trim costs but also run a more sustainable business.

Stop throwing away food

Jim-Miller

“Wastefulness is a symptom, not an illness.” -Jim Miller (Photo: Jim Miller)

By far the biggest form of waste in restaurants, and the one that is most damaging to the environment, is discarded food.

According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization, 40 percent of the food in America ends up uneaten, despite the fact that farming accounts for 10 percent of our national energy budget and getting food to our tables uses 80 percent of the freshwater consumed in the United States. Much of the discarded food ends up in landfills, where it causes methane emissions thought to contribute to climate change.

Retailers and households throw away food constantly. Many fruits and vegetables don’t even make it to grocery stores because of small imperfections. But restaurants and food service play a big part in these losses, too.

Related Story: How To Change Your Restaurant’s Menu

Diners leave an average of 17 percent of the food on their plates uneaten, and more than half of these leftovers end up in the trash instead of a doggy bag. There’s food waste at the time suppliers bring food to restaurants before it even reaches diners, and there’s loss when restaurants don’t properly manage their inventories.

Jim Miller, managing partner at the Stir Group LLC, a food and beverage consulting company in Connecticut, said it is crucial to ensure that a restaurant’s processes are designed with waste reduction and efficiency built in. “Wastefulness is a symptom, not an illness,” he said.

Miller’s top tips:

Check for spoilage upon delivery.
Before deliveries are unpacked from suppliers, Miller said to check for over-ripe produce or spoiled foods, and weigh what you’re getting if you’re charged by weight.

Optimize your menu. Once the food has made it to the kitchen, the menu should be optimized to use as much of the fresh food as possible. For example, if one menu item uses only half a case of field greens a week, you should be using those greens in other dishes as well. If you are slicing tomatoes to make stacks with mozzarella and basil and discarding the tops and bottoms, consider using them in a salsa instead. Bones and vegetable scraps can be made into stocks, and leftover breads, into bread crumbs. Buying quality tools, such as knives that slice tomatoes more precisely, can mean getting more out of every food, Miller said.

Consider a smaller menu. The NDRC notes that extensive menu choices make it difficult to manage waste. Having tons of dishes requires a bigger inventory and thus poses more risk of items going unused.

Right-size your portions. Portion sizes have doubled and tripled over the last 20 years, according to the National Institutes of Health, both in the home and at restaurants. According to Miller, reducing portion sizes can save money and discarded food in the long run. If servers are constantly bringing food back into the kitchen, it might be time to downsize. “Remind [employees] that they are giving away everyone’s raise, including yours, when they over-portion,” he said.

Train the staff. Putting less-wasteful practices in place and rejiggering menus isn’t enough. You also need to ensure your restaurant employees are following suit. “Train and retrain, then make sure your staff understands that food is cash,” Miller said. “If they throw out more than they use, then they will not be able to use sharp knives or get a raise.”

Donate leftovers. While many Americans leave behind entire portions on their plates, one in seven people are “food insecure,” meaning they do not have adequate access to affordable, healthy food. Consider donating leftover or unusable (but still safe to eat) ingredients to food pantries in your area (Feeding America is a good resource to locate local banks) and nonprofit organizations like Rescuing Leftover Cuisine and Food Donation Connection. Not only do you help feed people in your community, but there are potential tax benefits, as well.

Reduce water usage

Restaurants go through a lot of water, whether it’s from rinsing vegetables and fruits, washing dishes and hands or in bathrooms. Every drop costs money. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the costs of water and wastewater services have increased beyond the consumer price index, and this trend is expected to continue.

By implementing water saving practices, restaurants can reduce their operating costs by as much as 11 percent, some estimates suggest.

To quickly reduce the amount of water you use, James Norton, a waste management consultant for the London-based Fantastic Waste Removal, recommends installing flow restrictors on all faucets. For between $5 and $15 each, these increase water pressure from the spout while reducing how much comes out.

Norton cautions against using running water to thaw food and advises running dishwashers only when they’re full (and properly loading them for maximum efficiency) and repairing any water leaks immediately.

The EPA recommends installing Energy Star and WaterSense-labeled toilets, faucets and urinals, which use less water, and reconsidering appliances such as dipper wells that are always running water.

Save on energy

In addition to using less water, installing Energy Star-approved equipment can mean major savings in energy-related expenses. At Crushed Red, a chain of fast casual restaurants in Missouri and Colorado that has been recognized by the Green Dining Alliance for its sustainability, locations not only compost food waste, recycle and use real linens and silverware to cut down on trash, they also use LED lights.

“The LED lighting change over alone has saved us quite a bit of money,” said Chris LaRocca, founder and CEO. “Our regular bulbs were giving us about 514 hours per dollar spent, but with the LED changeover, we get about 1,315 hours per dollar spent on bulbs.”

LaRocca said the company’s energy supplier reimbursed each location more than $1,000 after they implemented energy savings measures such as installing LED lighting and Energy Star appliances everywhere from the kitchen to the hand dryers in the bathroom.

According to La Rocca, with any waste reduction program, there must be training and consistency for it to be successful.

“As a manager, it is important to educate your employees on these practices,” he said. “It is engrained in our company culture, so from day one, trainees are taught all about sorting waste into the different receptacles. Our shift supervisors touch base with the staff every shift to be sure procedures are being followed. It is a constant learning opportunity.”

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