How to Reduce Food Waste in Your Restaurant and Minimize Overhead

Food Waste in Your Restaurant
Photo by Gary Chan on

Many restaurateurs are sensitive to the financial cost of food waste but are not as aware of the cost to the environment. 

The statistics are staggering. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 63.1 million tons of food waste is generated per year within the commercial, institutional and residential sectors which amount to over 21 percent of the total waste generated in our country each year. 

An even more astonishing fact? Restaurants, in particular, are big culprits of food waste, generating about half of food waste per meal. (Wow! If our moms were aware, they may be grounded!)  

Even more disappointing? Research shows the vast majority of food that isn’t used within the food service industry – a whooping 85 percent is sent to a landfill. Only 15 percent of food waste is offered as a donation or recycled.

The True Cost of Food Waste 

While it is easy to understand at a high level why food waste is problematic, there are some very specific reasons food waste sensitivity is critical. Every time your team fills 13-gallon black trash bags with uneaten food, it’s a lost opportunity for a hungry family as well as your business. Reducing your food waste can also mean: 

  • Less food insecurity. In the United States, about one in 10 people experience food insecurity and about one in eight households can’t buy enough food for their families. If food waste was minimized through donation programs, we would be able to significantly reduce that number across the U.S.
  • Bigger profits. For restaurateurs, lost food equals lost costs. Studies show between four and 10 percent of food purchased by restaurants is wasted before it reaches the consumer. As a business owner, this equals a huge sum of money. Do some quick math and see how much you could save if you were able to save 10 percent on food costs.
  • A more sustainable environment. Unfortunately, the vast majority of wasted food products in the U.S. do not go to recycling or composting plants. They generally go straight to the landfill, where they turn into greenhouse gases detrimental to our environment. For the food waste that is unavoidable, you may want to even consider investing in compostable bags.
food waste
Photo by Lenka Dzurendova on

How Restaurants Can Reduce Food Waste & Contribute to Environmental Sustainability 

Some may argue food waste is an essential byproduct of the food and drink industries.  Call us the dreamers, but we believe that is not true. While we may never be able to get the amount of wasted food to zero, we certainly can get it down from the staggering place it is now. We envision some small changes that can have a big impact such as: 

  • Know where you stand. To solve a problem first we must quantify it. Take a hard look at your business processes involving food waste. A simple one-week audit of watching when/how food is disposed of can offer incredible insight. Understand the different levels of waste, including pre-consumer (food that doesn’t make it to a guest’s table) and post-consumer (food a customer doesn’t finish). Keep track of where most waste is coming from so you can focus your efforts there.
  • Get Digitized. One of the best ways to lower your establishment’s waste is to use digitized inventorying software that’s connected to your point-of-sale (POS) system. In essence, these programs connect to your menu to calculate exactly how much food you’ve used throughout the day or week and how much you need to re-order. They also may aggregate data over time that you can use to determine how much of which ingredients you need to buy to begin with. Cross-referencing this information with the food you see the most of in your trash audit can help you increase your food inventory efficiency and minimize waste 
  • Menu Mightiness.  When customers understand exactly what is in their meal, it minimizes confusion and failed expectations. Not only is this a positive for customer satisfaction, it also reduces the number of dishes that are returned to the kitchen and may need to thus be discarded. One tip we absolutely love? Using “juicy adjectives” as our third-grade grammar taught us. Highly descriptive wording, including ingredients and textures, help customers envision the dish. And remember… a picture is worth a thousand words so if you can add images to your menu, definitely do so! 
  • Swap Your Bag. A great deal of food waste is generated from items that can easily biodegrade. For example, eggshells, veggie shavings, and coffee grounds can be placed in a compost bag. While composting using a compost bag and local facility is incredibly convenient, you can also create a compost pile in your yard. This small undertaking is not only a sustainability dream, it also can have positive implications for you branding, and food sourcing. In fact, it can move you into an entirely new category of restaurant and attract a new customer base, for 83 percent of customers wish for restaurants to be more sustainable, according to a 2019 survey. Not only can your compost pile help your business to grow healthy, hyper-local veggies, and thus open you up to new markets, it can also be a cost saver. The cost of seeds is a lot less than the vegetables at the farmers’ market! Lastly, it can even improve food quality. In fact, restaurateurs in London are using leftovers from Michelin-starred restaurants to generate gourmet compost which, they believe, produces superior produce. 
  • Be Diligent About Food Storage. It is no surprise that a power outage or broken refrigeration unit causes a great deal of risk for food waste. While electrical outages are not completely preventable, it is possible to take measures to protect your perishables. Consider investing in a small generator to keep your refrigerator running in the event of an unexpected outage. Appliance maintenance can also prevent appliance failure or diminished cooling capacity. Lastly, maintaining food item labeling with the date of purchase and expiration helps staff maintain the first-in, first-out (FIFO) method to maximize shelf life. 
  • Separate Your Trash. Your back-of-the-house crew should already be used to separating regular trash from recyclables, but consider adding another bin to the line. Make sure you have trash compactor bags to help you compress bulky trash as well as bags for recycling, regular trash and food waste. We recommend using heavy-duty black trash bags for food waste, as they will help control odors and leakage when transferring food to the compost. Better yet, opt for compostable trash bags you can toss straight in the compost pile! 
  • Get creative. Over-ordered or leftover inventory can be the mother of (creative food) inventions. For example, if you over-ordered onions from your supplier, add a French onion soup as a daily special. 
  • Use local, fresh ingredients. Customers will appreciate new additions to the menu (even if it is simply through limited-time “specials”). Your chefs will likely appreciate the opportunity to flex their culinary skills and think out of the (recipe) box. 

Minimizing food waste in your restaurant is good business, plain and simple. Doing so will help you keep costs down so your restaurant remains profitable. On top of that, it brings the added benefit of eliminating food insecurity, helping the environment, and boosting your establishment’s reputation within the community.