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.
“I actually think that probably one of the best things you can do is task your employees with this. Allow them to have the time to be creative,” she says. “From the leadership perspective, oftentimes you’re too distracted, you can’t focus in, but your employees … come up with the ideas of what to do with it. In a lot of ways, I’m always blown away with what they come up with because I never would’ve created that.”
One employee came up with the idea to chop leftover croissants and fold them into an almond cream used with almond croissants, which lent an extra layer to the finished product. Another baker on staff discovered that he could use leftover brownies in babka, which is challah bread made with walnuts and chocolate swirls.
Bring in the uglies
While restaurants like Shake Shack and Hewn Bakery are reframing what they do with leftovers and scraps, Washington, D.C.–based Misfit Juicery has based its entire business model around unwanted, misshapen food. The consumer packaged good brand first opened in 2014 and is served in 50 D.C.-area locations.
Last December, Misfit Juicery began a partnership with Northeast distributor Baldor, which will provide fruit and vegetable trimmings, tops, and peelings from its processing facility that would otherwise be discarded. While the ingredients might look bizarre, the finished flavors are what customers would expect from any juice brand, like Pear to the People—pear, cucumber, spinach, and lemon—and Offbeet—beet, carrot, apple, lemon, and ginger.
“When we started, we were sourcing from farmers and distributors that had these ‘seconds,’ which are things that are either surplus or that are misshapen or not aesthetically good enough to be sold in a grocery store,” says Diana Delgado, a graduate student at Georgetown University who also manages marketing and communications for the fledgling company. “A lot of farmers markets now are starting to sell these seconds and these imperfect fruits and vegetables at lower costs to customers.”
Indeed, everyone from celebrity chefs and mainstream media to conservationists and consumers seem to be jumping on the “ugly food” movement. In 2014, foodservice provider Bon Appétit Management Company and its parent, the Compass Group USA, launched a program called Imperfectly Delicious Produce (IDP) to reclaim misshapen produce and use it in their kitchens across the country. IDP launched in three states and then expanded to 17 additional states the following year, rescuing more than 750,000 pounds of produce.
Christine Seitz, vice president of culinary for the Compass Group, says the idea to launch IDP first started when waste-focused chefs visited Compass’s farms and discovered an “abundance of underappreciated” foods like hail-damaged apples, loose broccoli florets, and smaller romaine leaves.
“We witnessed perfectly good truckloads of crooked carrots, beets, and radishes being sent to compost when our chefs could work their magic and create wonderful menu items,” Seitz writes in an email. She adds that for consumers who frequent farmers markets, “ugly” foods aren’t a new concept at all. “We have been purchasing imperfects before it was called imperfect; [back then it was just] local, seasonal fruits and vegetables.”
As trailblazing as some brands have been in repurposing leftovers or utilizing unappealing foods, other limited-service restaurants can use other simpler tactics to cut food waste right away. Seitz recommends reducing portion sizes, reconsidering whether foods like beets and carrots need to be peeled, and investing in an anaerobic digester, which converts waste into energy.
Another simple hack is to think small in terms of storage. Jesse Gideon, COO and corporate chef of fast casual Fresh To Order, says the key to maximizing freshness is building the smallest walk-in coolers, forcing operators to buy frequently and waste less.
Hewn Bakery’s King has had a similar experience: The bakery’s diminutive size ensures no ingredients are overlooked. “Our physical footprint is small so we don’t have a lot of room for storage. I think that has been a benefit because it forces us to bring in what we need and use what we need. Nothing gets hidden or lost,” King says. “By necessity, we are small enough that we don’t have any hiding places for stuff.” She adds that as Hewn scales up, that kind of frugality will be a good way to control costs and minimize waste.
Shake Shack’s Rosati says he can understand how fast casuals with multiple locations can feel more restricted than, say, a fine-dining chef with one location when it comes to switching up the process.
“In fast casual, there has to be some sort of system in place,” Rosati says. “To make sure the food is consistent, you need to be working along a system to make it something very easy for others to embrace and understand and then ultimately adopt.” Still, Rosati doesn’t think it’s impossible to change those systems; it just requires a deeper exploration from different perspectives.
Whether a brand wants to reduce its waste for moral reasons, increased efficiency, a better bottom line, or some combination of all three, a deeper look into an operation’s surplus and throwaways is a good place to begin.
Mark Kelnhofer is president and CEO of the consultancy Return on Ingredients, which helps foodservice companies streamline their operations and minimize waste. He advises restaurants to start with the recipe.
“Two of the biggest areas of opportunity in almost every restaurant I go into are overproduction and over-ordering, and a lot of it has to do with the accuracy of the recipes,” Kelnhofer says. “Quick service is a little bit easier to tackle because of the limitations on products and the limitations on the number of recipes, and processes are a little bit easier there than maybe a full-service restaurant.”
Whereas limited-service chains may be constrained when it comes to creating new menu items out of surplus, those same systems help cut back on waste because the systems are so precise. Still, many operators lean more toward overproduction to hedge their bets against running out, Kelnhofer says. He adds that restaurants can also use the shelf life of nonperishables as a crutch to order more than they need.
Cooking to order is also tricky for limited-service brands, as speed is often a strong factor in their appeal. The emergence of build-your-own, customizable menus might seem like a viable solution, but Kelnhofer cautions that such systems have pitfalls. For example, operators are constantly replenishing the displayed ingredients before they are even close to empty.
“All the different choices that they have actually create more prep. They want the appearance that all the options are always going to be there, and they’re not always careful,” he says. “One of the ways you can minimize waste on those types of models is to minimize the pan size as they go out—their depth and their size.”
Donate the rest
Even with the most responsive systems in place, some food waste will be unavoidable for any restaurant. Companies like Food Donation Connection help put brands and franchisees in contact with local nonprofits. It also takes the guesswork out of the equation; FDC creates a system to track and donate excess by training staff, coordinating logistics, and providing resources like carrier bags and transportation. The organization helps the restaurants earn tax savings and takes a small fee as its compensation.
“Our biggest thing is: Test it, try it. It usually is such a surprise on how simple the process is and how much effect their effort has on the community and the tax benefit,” FDC’s Dietz says. “We prefer to have our donors focus on their guests and maximize their profit, because you have to be profitable to take this tax benefit. … Our expertise is getting that food out safely, recording it, tracking it, and doing tax evaluations for our donors, and they don’t have to worry about it.”
One nonprofit that FDC works with is Food For Free, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Food For Free seeks out healthy items rather than processed foods that are so often donated. As executive director Sasha Purpura says, it provides surplus food, not lesser food.
Dietz helped put Food For Free in touch with a local Chipotle, and now it collects quality proteins like chicken and beef from the fast casual at least once a week.
“I think there are opportunities with restaurants that first of all have surplus healthy food,” Purpura says, adding that she would also like to establish relationships with brands that have healthy packaged foods. “If people don’t know, there are tax incentives. If they’re for-profits, they can actually save money on this. It’s just absolutely insane to be throwing out perfectly good food.”
For years, Food For Free had collected produce and other groceries from grocery giant Whole Foods, but never leftovers from the hot bar. Although Whole Foods had its own donation system in place, Dietz had a hunch that its hot bar items were trashed each day. He reached out to cofounder and co-CEO John Mackey, and soon enough, nonprofits like Food For Free were collecting those items, too.
“We’d never known it was possible from a food safety standpoint to collect leftover hot bar,” Purpura says. The nonprofit also now collects hot bar leftovers from the Harvard University dining hall. “When I look at where we are going forward, I think one of the huge growth areas is going to be dining halls, particularly in universities and dining halls at big corporations; they’re competing. Their food has gotten really good and really healthy, which is fantastic.”
Buffet-style dining isn’t exactly a fast-growing trend in limited service, but as more customers flock to the convenience of hot meal bars like those offered at Whole Foods, operators might consider adopting a similar model. Fast Casual 2.0 brands like Dig Inn in New York City and Lemonade in California sell seasonal fare in what the latter calls a “marketplace” format. These restaurants prepare a variety of dishes in advance and then allow guests to build their own plates.
In the not-so-distant future, concepts such as these could become ideal partners for Food For Free and similar nonprofits. New changes in the tax law could also should incentivize all restaurants—large and small, chain and independent—to make food waste a priority.
In December, Congress voted to make the tax-savings provision of food-waste donation programs permanent for companies of all sizes (previously smaller companies were not entitled to the provision). It also raised the limit on the tax savings a brand could receive for its non-cash, charitable donations (i.e. food) from 10 to 15 percent of its income.
“Now that it’s permanent and [smaller brands] know it’s going to be there and they’ll get it, then I think we should have a lot less resistance,” Dietz says. “The door’s much more open to look at that.”