The magnitude of food waste in the U.S. is alarming, particularly in restaurants. The foodservice industry accounted for 10.8 million tons of food waste in 2019, contributing to the roughly $164 billion in surplus food in the foodservice industry alone that ends up in landfills, as compost, animal feed, or is incinerated. In the same year, full-service restaurants were responsible for 44 percent of waste in the foodservice industry while limited-service restaurants contributed to the problem with nearly 20 percent of food waste. And consumers have taken notice of the problem. In the most recent State of What Feeds Us report, the overwhelming majority of consumers believe that fast food restaurants have excessive food waste and are more likely to visit a restaurant that is environmentally friendly. 

Kitchen scraps and excess inventory might be the obvious culprits of food waste from restaurants. A less suspecting contributor is the disposal of takeout orders that sit out too long to be either enjoyable or safe to eat. It’s a growing problem compounded by the rise in mobile ordering and missed pickup windows, a surprisingly common occurrence. Remaking orders, as a result, is fundamentally inefficient and with soaring inflation and ongoing staffing shortages, it is also extremely costly and harmful to the environment, not to mention what it does to the customer experience. 

Customers expect their orders to be hot and ready upon arrival, but when they actually arrive is commonly unpredictable. Just because an order is prepared and ready for pick up, doesn’t mean the customer will arrive within the window provided and this only contributes to the food waste epidemic. It can be a very frustrating experience for both the customer and staff.

The good news is some brands are turning to mobile technology to boost customers’ order pickup experience. QSRs in particular are doing a better job at predicting a customer’s arrival with prompts and asking customers to proactively alert staff when a customer is on their way or arriving at the store so orders can be prepared and ready at just the right time. 

Implementing mobile arrival technology could help reduce the amount of restaurant food waste, translating to massive savings for brands. Making the customer journey more transparent and accessible to store staff would give brands an opportunity to improve the customer arrival experience end-to-end and help solve some of the food waste problem in America.

The food waste problem is multifaceted

First, there’s a mismatch between the demand and supply or consumption and production of food. Some of the reasons for this discrepancy include orders that are often prepared too early because the customer takes longer than expected to arrive, customers show up without ordering ahead which leads to orders that are not sequenced accurately, or customers are unsure of where to pick up their order. Mistimed food not only contributes to food waste, but it also means the potential for lost future revenue due to dissatisfied customers.

Second, with inflation at a 40-year high, menu prices have been steadily rising. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, restaurant menu prices rose 7.6 percent year-over-year in July. Limited-service menu prices increased 7.2 percent while full-service meal prices increased 8.9 percent. Rising inflation means that food waste costs exponentially more now than it did years ago. 

Finally, not only do brands have more access to data than ever before, but they are also beginning to utilize these insights so they can actually measure food waste. There’s much more visibility into how much food is being wasted, enabling brands to see the magnitude of the problem.

Timing is imperative to help ease food waste problems

The timing of orders is crucial, but there are numerous variables that make this difficult including how customers place orders, multiple pickup options like the drive-thru, curbside, and in-store, and operational disruptions such as a restaurant being understaffed. 

Adding to the difficulty, some customers might place mobile orders to be picked up at a specific time while other customers might order at the drive-thru or in-store and wait for their order to be ready. In some cases, orders placed through third-party delivery apps can take precedence over other orders. Worse is when third-party delivery drivers pick up orders based on who has tipped or not, creating a backlog of (non-tipped) orders sitting at the counter.

But again, customers are unpredictable. Sequencing can easily get thrown off in terms of orders if a customer jumps ahead in line or doesn’t arrive when they’re supposed to. Just because a customer places an order for pickup at a specific time doesn’t mean that they’ll arrive at that time. And customer frustration can mount when they arrive to see their order isn’t ready yet, it’s cold, or it’s ready but they still have to wait to receive it. The latest State of What Feeds Us report found that these wait time problems ranked as the top frustrations for consumers when picking up mobile orders.  

When brands don’t have clear visibility into the exact moment a customer will arrive, this can lead to food sitting out longer than appropriate which would then require it to be thrown out. Not only does this contribute to the massive food waste problem, but their brand reputation takes a hit as well due to customer frustrations. 

Solving the problem while improving the arrival experience

As off-premises ordering continues to soar, brands can be better equipped to minimize their contributions to food waste by implementing technology that addresses the arrival experience. A marquee arrival technology solution utilizes mobile location to deliver high accuracy that enables the brand to know when a customer is on the way and the exact moment they will arrive. It provides an ETA as the customer approaches the restaurant’s location and updates in real-time by taking into account travel time and traffic. This allows brands to prioritize the sequencing of orders so orders are fired off in a timely manner and at the ready when a customer arrives which limits the number of orders that end up sitting out for too long.

The solution enables restaurants to communicate with customers about their orders, including order progress (if the order is delayed or ready) and pickup instructions. It also allows staff to see when a customer has pulled into a curbside pickup spot, arrived in the drive-thru, or entered the store for pickup so staff can bring a customer their order upon arrival, minimizing wait time.

Combating food waste could help brands win customers

The latest State of What Feeds Us report found that consumers want restaurants to be more environmentally conscious. Three-quarters would be more likely to visit a restaurant that is environmentally friendly, and eight in 10 stated that they would be more likely to visit a quick-service brand if the restaurant took steps to compost or give away excess food. 

While it’s difficult to completely eliminate restaurant food waste, arrival experience technology offers brands the visibility needed into the customer arrival journey so food doesn’t have to sit out too long resulting in food being thrown out and orders being remade. It’s just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s a step in the right direction. 

Emil Davityan is the co-founder and CEO of Bluedot, a customer arrival platform that empowers businesses to provide real-time interactions and pickup solutions. Prior to co-founding Bluedot, Emil was a cyber policy adviser to successive Australian Prime Ministers, leading complex projects with major technology companies and international governments.

Outside Insights, Restaurant Operations, Story, Sustainability