This year has demonstrated the power of managing your inventory like a pro. As operators have had to shift to offering takeout only, inventing new business models, partially opening their dining rooms, and responding to evolving consumer habits all within the space of days or weeks, they have had to ensure their inventory can keep pace. The next several months could bring even more ups and downs for restaurant businesses, so what is the best way to ensure you’ve got enough (but not too much) of the right ingredients at the right time, when you your traffic may be difficult to predict? Befriend your freezer and stock it with batches of foods ranging from soups to sauces to vegetables in an effort to extend your inventory and minimize waste. Prepare some extra portions of frozen meals that can be promoted and sold individually to guests – or offer a promotion to dine-in guests who may want to purchase extra portions of their favorite fresh dishes. Consider brining vegetables as shelf-stable (and on-trend) side dishes – and preserve fall fruits in dried form or in sauces or chutneys. If you have operated as a grocerant in recent months, keep it going. Do a detailed assessment of each item on your menu to confirm its actual cost to make sure you’re minimizing waste and maximizing profit.
As if it wasn’t important to know your true food costs before the pandemic, it’s all the more crucial now as many restaurants around the country are having to operate at a reduced capacity, rethink their menus and determine where to best allocate diminished resources. By getting an accurate handle on your waste, over-portioning, theft and even the shrinkage of ingredients, you can see what menu items are really costing you – then adjust your promotions so you encourage guests to select your highest-margin items. A recent webcast from Restaurant365 reinforced the power of tracking actual vs. theoretical food costs as a means of accomplishing this. Theoretical food costs are what your food costs should be based on the cost of your ingredients, while actual food costs are what your restaurant actually spent. There will be variance in those numbers, but getting a more precise understanding of where it comes from can help you minimize it. While there are a number of places to focus to help cut waste, it can be most helpful to analyze your individual ingredients and identify those with the greatest cost variance. Drilling down like this can help you zero in on what needs attention or adjustment, whether it’s your portion control of a certain dish, the prices you are getting from a supplier, or the need for a substitute dish on the menu.
What would it take for your restaurant to eliminate its trash cans? While it may seem like an impossible feat for a business that churns through goods ranging from food products to linens to cleaning supplies each day, thinking about how you might operate if you didn’t have trash cans – at least in the traditional sense – might help you rethink how your operation manages its waste. A recent article in the New York Times relates the stories of a Brooklyn restaurant, Rhodora, which has strived to become a “zero-waste” business in recent months. While its owners readily admit that its practices aren’t perfect, it has taken important steps – largely with suppliers and within its kitchen – to make it possible to winnow its waste down to nearly nothing. With consulting help from other restaurant operators who have minimized their own waste, Rhodera’s owners have researched and switched to suppliers that deliver (by bicycle) bread, eggs and pickled vegetables in reusable containers, and others that have ditched plastic wrap and committed to packaging foods in compostable materials. In the kitchen, they have introduced tools including a shredder that turns wine boxes into compostable material. As a result, they are able to save money and share a positive story with their eco-conscious clientele at a time when food waste is costing restaurants $2 billion in potential profits, according to the USDA. If you’d like to take a bite out of the waste your restaurant generates each year, there are many potential actions you can take, including and beyond packaging and composting. Consider these steps from Toast as a starting point.
Team Four’s corporate chef expects the year ahead to bring an increase in smaller meal offerings – that includes more snacks on demand, as well as a range of smaller entrée portion sizes. These changes can be opportunities for chefs to test new ingredients, offer more health-conscious options and minimize food waste and cost. For example, as snacking grows in popularity and replaces the three-square-meals mindset in some cases, you can develop your menu with items that aren’t simply comfort food but also pack some nutritional value and dietary functionality. A recent Technomic report found that in the past two years, 40 percent of consumers said they were snacking on healthier foods. So when it comes to your snack menu, think plant-forward tapas, hummus sharing plates, vegetable-based dips and chips made from ingredients beyond the potato: lentils, quinoa, eggplant or kale to name a few. As for entrées, reducing your plate size – or offering the option of half-plates to help guests customize their experience with you – can ensure plates come back cleaner. A Danish study found that if the size of a plate shrinks by just 9 percent, food waste can be reduced by 26 percent.
One of the biggest restaurant industry stories – and challenges – of 2019 was about sustainability. Even brands that had taken the initiative to invest in compostable, eco-friendly packaging were surprised to learn that these materials were still ending up in landfills. Blue Bottle Coffee, which operates coffee cafés across the U.S. and parts of Asia, is one such business, and it is handling the problem in a way that’s worth watching if you’d like to improve your record (and story) when it comes to sustainability. Blue Bottle Coffee’s CEO, Bryan Meehan, recently announced that since discovering that too many of its 100 percent compostable, bioplastic cups and straws were ending up in landfills, the company created a policy that by the end of 2020, all of its U.S. cafés will be zero waste. (According to Zero Waste International Alliance’s definition, this means that at least 90 percent of the operation’s waste will be diverted from landfills.) The company is also testing out a program in the San Francisco Bay area to eliminate single-use cups – until now the company has gone through 12 million single-use cups annually in its U.S. cafés alone. Meehan also pushes a commitment to not only recycle but to reduce and reuse – and tells stories about his family’s efforts in these areas. He readily admits that it’s not an easy, inexpensive or convenient undertaking to make similar changes at Blue Bottle. He says on the company’s blog, “a commitment to reuse will wreak havoc on every aspect of our pilot cafe’s operations. We expect to lose some business.” But by taking an extreme stand and being open with consumers about its plans, the company also stands to increase its relevance – and win business in the process.
As waste management continues to be a top priority for restaurant operators, news headlines appear every day about new technologies that can give companies in the food supply chain a leg up. In recent weeks, edible coatings and stickers for produce, as well as sachets that can be packed in crates of fruit, have all made news for their potential to significantly prolong the shelf life of produce and other fresh foods. Your suppliers will no doubt be adopting such technologies in an effort to compete in the marketplace, but there are a number of steps you can take right now in your business to make sure you’re making best use of the fresh products you buy. As Restaurant Owner & Manager advises, follow the first in, first out rule by adding a use-by date to new products you receive and then placing them behind older products in storage. Store food in airtight containers to help protect the hygiene of your products and minimize the potential for cross-contamination. Keep meat on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator. Ensure proper temperatures in both your refrigerator (40˚F or lower) and freezer (0˚F or lower) and have employees check those temperatures regularly. Finally, store food without overloading your storage areas and clean your shelving, equipment and storage units daily to prevent the buildup of contamination.
The single-use plastic toys that have long been associated with children’s meals at brands including Burger King and McDonald’s could soon be part of restaurant history. As the New York Times reported recently, Burger King has pledged to eliminate all non-biodegradable toys in its restaurants worldwide by 2025, and efforts are already underway in Britain to collect old toys from customers, then melt and recycle them into playground equipment and tray tables. While McDonald’s hasn’t gone that far as yet, it has scaled back its distribution of plastic toys in markets beyond the U.S. and has also launched an effort to reduce the impact of its toys. When you look at your brand, are there areas where you could be more environmentally friendly – with both your children’s meal giveaways and beyond? J. Ottman Consulting, an environmentally focused marketing firm, runs a community website called WeHateToWaste.com, where consumers can weigh in on how restaurants can adjust their practices to minimize waste and enhance their brand as it relates to the environment. For one, consumers see oversized portions as a waste and appreciate flexible (or shareable) portion choices and prices, which can also help broaden the appeal of a dish to seniors or other guests who are watching their diets or aren’t looking for large servings. Next, rethink any all-you-can-eat branding, which makes waste inevitable. If and when guests ask to take food home, make it easy for them by offering eco-friendly packaging that also includes instructions for reheating leftovers and keeping them fresh – or incentivize those who take the initiative to bring their own to-go containers. Your efforts may play a role in their decision to choose your restaurant over another.
If your restaurant is supporting people in need over the holiday season – whether through canned food drives, events or charitable donations – remember the equally significant impact you can have by redirecting food waste to causes that can put it to good use. As ReFED’s Restaurant Food Waste Action Guide reports, every year restaurants are responsible for 11 million of the 52.4 million tons of food that goes to U.S. landfills, where it can take decades to decompose. And as Restaurant Nuts reports, some third-party delivery companies are stepping up to make it easier for restaurants to redirect their excess food. Postmates, for one, is continuing to expand upon its Food Fight! program, which allows its partner restaurants in 23 cities and counting to request a pickup of excess food and have it delivered to a local shelter. Similarly, Doordash’s Project DASH makes it possible for restaurant operators to take food that would have been discarded and divert it to organizations that can use it. If you take part in efforts like these or others available in your community, promote it on your website and marketing materials. According to research from Toast, 51 percent of consumers are more likely to support a restaurant with environmentally friendly food practices.
Restaurant operators may feel pressured to minimize their food waste. But eliminate it? It’s a lofty goal but one that Henry Moynihan Rich, owner of the hospitality company Oberon Group, aimed to take on in an effort to become a model for restaurants looking to minimize or eliminate waste, GrubsStreet reports. Brooklyn’s Rhodora Wine Bar, formerly named Mettā, has adopted such practices as ordering wine in compostable boxes, eliminating liquor brands that don’t use recyclable caps, using a dishwasher that uses electrolyzed water that requires no soap, sourcing cheeses with edible rinds, eliminating paper receipts and sending used wine corks to a non-profit called ReCORK that turns corks into shoe soles. Any food left on guests’ plates will be fed into a large composter. Consumer waste from restrooms is collected in containers from TerraCycle, a company that collects and recycles items that are difficult to recycle elsewhere.
Food packaging technology is evolving so fast that it’s making plastic cutlery seem almost quaint. A startup called Planeteer LLC, for example, has taken on the challenge of packaging waste and developed a variety of cutlery that isn’t merely compostable but also edible. The company has created a spoon that it promises will hold its shape for 25 minutes in hot soup and 50 minutes in a cold dessert, The Spoon reports. Planeteer cofounder Dinesh Tadepalli said it is vegan, all-natural, rich in protein and composts in days if not consumed. The company will be presenting its product at the Smart Kitchen Summit’s Future Food Competition in October.