Tech to Trash Can – How Technology Is Redefining Food Waste

Food waste is recognized as an endemic challenge around the world. According to Feeding America, nearly 40 percent of all food in the U.S. is wasted each year, about 119 billion pounds, estimated at over $408 billion. Wasting food while seeing people go hungry is only one aspect of the problem – consider the environmental resources needed to produce, package, and transport, and food waste grows even more concerning.

More than ever, we’re seeing threats at the source. Historic heat waves, droughts, fires, floods and other weather events are decimating crops. Georgia, the Peachtree State, has lost close to 90 percent of its peach harvest this year, while California’s tomato fields lay soggy from record rains. News of these events, coupled with inflation, have led consumers to become increasingly conscious about food waste, adopting strategies such as better meal planning, using leftovers, and buying imperfect produce or upcycled products.

For restaurants, an industry with challenging profit margins, minimizing food waste is nothing less than a survival strategy. The Department of Agriculture  estimates that U.S. restaurants lose $162 billion annually in food waste costs. Four to ten percent of commercial kitchen food is wasted before it leaves the kitchen according to the National Restaurant Association. 

Some waste is unavoidable in every restaurant: a steak is overcooked, a serving tray is dropped, a few onions rot at the bottom of the box. But unchecked waste can threaten the bottom line. Operators need to have a precise understanding of what they purchase, what they sell, and any variance between those amounts, so that they can identify where waste can be controlled.

Restaurants categorize the majority of food waste into three buckets: prep/portioning, customer ordering or cooking errors, and spoilage. Not much can be done about errors caused by customers, and training servers to listen attentively and cooks to set timers and stay focused can address internal errors. Decades of experience in the industry lead to a few solutions any restaurant can implement:

Vigilance in Preparation and Portion

From years of owning sushi concepts, it’s become clear there’s plenty of opportunity to save money and product by being careful in preparation and portioning. Scooping out an avocado or extracting crab meat and leaving ten percent in the shell or cutting a filet of salmon to nine ounces instead of eight ounces adds ten percent to your target food usage (and cost). Maybe over portioning the protein by an ounce or two doesn’t seem like a big deal to your staff but a quick look at your sales to see 200 burgers or sea bass times two ounces times 300 days a year can add up quickly.

Keep an Eye on the Inventory

There’s no substitute for taking regular inventory – not just knowing what’s been ordered, but what’s in stock, what condition it’s in, and how long it’s been in the restaurant. By regularly taking inventory, on a weekly basis at the least, operators can ensure products are each being stored at the correct temperature, that they’ve been stocked first-in first-out (FIFO) and they’re good through their use-by dates, a system which creates a hefty measure of comfort when the Department of Health shows up for surprise inspections.

For example, with a Mexican restaurant that stockpiles limes for margaritas, but frequently discovers out of three cases of limes, one may be partially spoiled, there’s the lesson – over ordering and tracking can lead to excess supply. Keeping a better eye on the inventory and using the most ripe perishables first is the first step in minimizing food waste. Got a few extra gallons of milk about to hit the expiration date? Make dulce de leche as a dessert special. If an item is on the shelves, it’s paid for…so get creative and recoup those costs!

Focus on the Most Expensive Ingredients 

Restaurateurs who run an American steakhouse, a Greek gyro stand or a New England seafood shack understand that financial security hinges on focusing their waste tracking on proteins as well as specialized ingredients that have the biggest financial impact. This is basically a hack that allows operators to only inventory their top value items for it to work.

While it’s still necessary to take full inventories on a regular cadence, for the sake of calculating food waste, doing a quick inventory of the top items is a lot faster than running through everything on the menu. For someone just getting started on building out the recipes in their restaurant management system (RMS), they can focus on the main ingredients. In the case of crab cakes at Sam’s Sea Shack, for example, it’s critical to track lump crabmeat, but there’s no need to include salt, pepper and other seasonings since they don’t impact the bottom line.

Embrace the Benefits of Technology

Since the era of Escoffier, professional cooking has valued technique. Technology? Not so much. But today, most chefs in the kitchen rely on modern cooking tools as most operators embrace the benefits of a digital restaurant management system. With an effective RMS, the scourge of food waste can be calculated as theoretical usage vs. actual usage. The most important part is ensuring data is recent and accurate. Invoices need to be up to date to calculate inventory purchased and unit pricing, inventories need to be recent for accurate food usage amounts, recipes need to have correct ingredient amounts, and POS data needs to be up to date for calculating plates/units sold.

The best restaurant management systems allow you to compare theoretical to actual usage, giving you the ability to incorporate food waste into those calculations to help pinpoint certain causes of variance. Inclusive of worksheets, the most effective solutions have the capability to record both raw waste and completed waste (think: ground beef vs. the full cheeseburger), document the staff responsible for the waste and be able to make note of its causes.

A solution that enables you to keep track of these factors will not only help you better train and manage your employees but also give you the insights you need to increase profitability as well as promote long-term sustainability.