Sustainability | May 2016 | By Nicole Duncan

Leaning into Leftovers

From surplus and scraps to ugly produce and discards, food waste is becoming a vehicle for menu innovation and social impact.
Top fast casual and QSR chains like Shake Shack put food waste to work.
Inspired by a collaboration with Chef Dan Barber, Shake Shack culinary director Mark Rosati and his team applied the same waste-not mentality to the new ChickenShack. shake shack/Liz Clayman

When it comes to a successful foodservice operation, waste is a necessary evil—or perhaps more of an annoyance. Unlike food safety, quality control, and accounting, food waste generally doesn’t cripple a brand. Instead, it slowly nips at the bottom line and throws off inventory orders ever so slightly.

Given how seemingly minor the consequences of a “little” food waste are, it’s no wonder that restaurant owners don’t pay closer attention to it when so many other factors demand more immediate consideration.

But in the last year, foodservice brands—especially up-and-coming Fast Casual 2.0 concepts—have begun to champion food waste as a cause worth addressing. The conversation also expanded far beyond the back of the house. In March, National Geographic spotlighted misshapen produce on its cover and asserted in the accompanying feature that one-third of the world’s food is wasted—an amount that could feed 2 billion people each year.

While a great amount of waste can be attributed to items that never make it out of the farm or past distribution due to deficiencies, restaurants are also responsible for a large chunk of food waste.

Steve Dietz is the director of business development for Food Donation Connection (FDC), which operates in the U.S., Canada, U.K., and Ireland. FDC works with restaurants to establish Harvest Programs, wherein leftover foods can be salvaged. Its foodservice partners include major players in limited service like Yum! Brands, Chick-fil-A, and Chipotle.

Dietz says operators sometimes underestimate just how much waste they generate. “I haven’t found one company yet that doesn’t have surplus [food],” Dietz says.

He recalls one encounter with a CEO who reported that each location only had about 10 pounds of leftover food each day. The CEO said the amount was reasonable, but when Dietz calculated the annual yield for all stores in the system, the number shocked the CEO.

So how do operators get a handle on their food waste and improve the bottom line in the meantime? Start with these four steps.

Master the scraps

There are many avenues for food waste that operators can explore—charitable donations, composting, menu streamlining, etc.—but the newest and least expected method is repurposing it into other menu items. As natural innovators, chefs have taken up the charge as an opportunity to play with the menu.

Last year Dan Barber, the chef behind Blue Hill restaurant in New York City, opened a popup called wastED that featured discarded or undesirable food. Menu items like Rotation Risotto (“second-class” grains, squash pulp, and cheese rinds) and Monteau Sausage (made of carbonized pig bones, kraut waste, and “dropout squash” from Cornell University’s farming program) maintained their fine-dining appeal while employing foods that would otherwise be tossed.

“There’s a certain element of creativity that comes along with this, too, where chefs can showcase their skills and their ingenuity,” says Mark Rosati, culinary director of Shake Shack. “When I read a menu and see something like broccoli stalks … being featured and highlighted—and, of course, in a great, wonderfully talented chef’s hands—it really can be something fantastic. I think there is something very exciting about taking these ingredients that otherwise would be discarded, highlighting them, but actually getting such wonderful results, especially as Dan did.”

Barber approached Shake Shack when he was planning the popup to see if the brand could supply him with leftover buns for wastED’s Juice Pulp Cheeseburger. Rosati says it was humbling to find out that Shake Shack did not have enough bun waste to support the event.

But the brand still wanted to help in Barber’s mission. Two months later, the original Shake Shack location in Madison Square Park served Barber’s wastED burger for one day. The 500 burgers didn’t last long, selling out in four and a half hours. Shake Shack’s one-day event was such a success that Rosati says the team started thinking about how they could create a permanent item using that same approach.

“We’re born out of fine dining. … That’s kind of always been our mentality at Shake Shack, so we look to play around with food and say, ‘What are the possibilities down the road within our menu?’” Rosati says. Beyond creativity, Shake Shack also viewed the idea of wasting less to be in line with its values. “As we look to create something new that’s somewhat innovative, we also say, ‘How can we also be responsible?’”

Ahead of launching the ChickenShack sandwich—its first foray into chicken sandwiches—Rosati says the Shake Shack team discovered it could repurpose another ingredient. The signature ShackBurger sports a very precise cut of lettuce that resulted in leftovers. While they had previously been given to crewmembers to take home, the brand decided to instead shred them into trimmings that offered a sturdy complement to the crispy chicken breast.

Fast casual sweetgreen later followed Shake Shack’s example and partnered with Barber to create a limited-time-only wastED salad composed of scraps like kale stems, cheese rinds, bread butts, and broccoli stalks.

Evanston, Illinois–based Hewn Bakery is similarly collaborating with other businesses to fight food waste. The bakery sources grains used in the fermentation process from local breweries in its Spent Grain bread. Co-owner and head baker Ellen King says the spent grains add a special texture to the bread, as well as extra fiber.

“It totally just came about as a result of a friend opening up a brewery,” King says. The friend had so much spent grain that it was enough for Hewn to create a whole new menu item. “It’s great because we literally just go pick up whatever grain they have from the day.”

As of now, Hewn only has one location, which uses about 50–100 pounds of the spent grain each week. King says it’s not a huge amount, and if Hewn expanded into other cities in the future, she would establish new relationships with other local breweries. Not only does it repurpose would-be waste, but it also strengthens ties to other merchants and the community at large. King says customers also enjoy finding Spent Grain bread along with beer from the microbrewers who provided the grains at the same bars in Evanston.

King says her staff has gotten into the food-waste fight, too, by thinking of creative ways to incorporate leftover pastries into other menu items.

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