A top view of a bowl with fresh dessert and berries.

pexels/Trang Doan

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

How to Maximize Restaurant Leftovers without Cutting Flavor

Doing more with what's left can be a big profit driver for full-service restaurants.

In the arena of restaurants, the margin of error is razor thin. And yet, any operator can be caught off guard by one of the greatest variables in the cost of operation—leftover food product or waste. For our purposes in this piece lets think of “leftovers” as extras, over purchased items, items that might not have enough to menu for a daypart or bits and pieces remaining from other menu items. We are not talking about food that was cooked, sent out and back to the kitchen.

Aside from the occasional accident of a misrecorded order or wrongly portioned plating, leftovers indicate that a menu item might not be working. And when an operator creates a dish that doesn’t work, the clock begins ticking to create a new dish within the next day to recoup some of the losses incurred by that menu item. Otherwise, it simply becomes a snack for the kitchen, or (worse) it goes straight into the garbage.

But before leftovers can be plated and menued, there are a few things operators need to keep in mind. First, it’s always a good rule of thumb for operators to have a backup series of recipes that feature ingredients and items in the kitchen that there may be a usual surplus of (eggs, risotto, pizzas and pasta based dishes come to mind) that the kitchen can fall back on and utilize whatever dish remains unconsumed.

It’s also pivotal to remember that leftover items should never be called out as a featured ingredient of the dish. It failed for a reason; there’s no reason to flaunt it on the menu. But, the trick is to pair it and compound its flavors so that it may serve and highlight other things.

Operators may think that pairing an unpopular item with a hero item may be a way to get rid of the former by capitalizing on the popularity of the latter. It will only rob the icon of the menu of equity. Instead, concentrate on creating new dishes menued as chef specials, upscale sides or additional add-ons to already existing items. This practice tends to work best for full-service restaurants that do not have a fixed menu and can make additions at any time. For full-serves that do have pre-printed, fixed menus, special cards placed on tables, or a specials board are both effective ways to let customers know of these temporary offerings. But never forget your first point of contact, the waitstaff. Always ensure they are educated on special offerings and can communicate their strengths.

One great trick to ditching leftovers and recoup some of the losses that might occur is for operators to keep up on trends in their neighborhood. If they live in areas where key ethnic flavor profiles are rising in popularity, they should capitalize on those trends. If an operator finds that they are stuck with duck meat that they had intended to sell as a simple seared duck breast, they might try and pair the duck instead with Asian-inspired sauces and some rice that may already be in the kitchen and create a stir-fry or soup. Or, if Asian flavor profiles are not popular in the restaurant’s neighborhood, Cajun cuisine could be an option, and that duck could go into making a delicious andouille sausage special.

Playing with dayparts can also be a great way for operators to position their leftovers. Breakfast is the daypart that offers the most ways for operators to pass along and offer up leftover ingredients as additives to other dishes. Breakfast casseroles, burritos and even offering add-ons to omelets are all possible solutions. FSRs that do not offer breakfast can play with dayparts as well, but lunch and dinner present their own unique problems.

Lunch and dinner items tend to be the highest in expenses for operators and run the risk of being the most expensive if high-ticket items like proteins and seafood go to waste. Full-service restaurants in particular may be at a disadvantage if they have to cook a menu item in anticipation of a usual rush.

For example, in order to limit preparation time and save money, an full-service operator instructs the kitchen to partially cook or, in some cases, cook entirely their steaks/burgers in anticipation of their lunchtime rush. That’s money already spent on ingredients, labor and operations. If those steaks don’t sell, the operator is in trouble. If the operator doesn’t know how to menu that burger or “chopped steak” in another dish, then that is money going straight into the garbage.

To combat that, we continue to see a rise in hashes and casseroles being menued as an alternative use for leftover beef. Hamburger, steak and prime rib are one of the most forgiving menu applications due to their easy versatility. Not only are they enticing as a familiar ingredient in the aforementioned hashes and casseroles, but they can also be used to bolster the flavor of certain sides, like a loaded mac and cheese or giving salads a protein boost.

The hardest leftovers to repurpose are breads and baked goods, particularly when they are the remnants of dessert items that have failed to sell. These items stale the fastest and visually show the effects of having sat on the shelf too long. However, there are still options. Leftover bread can be repurposed into bread pudding and plated as a dessert special the next evening. Or, if you find that you have leftover pastries or confections like brownies, pies, cobblers, etc. those can be repurposed as an additive to a milkshake and becomes an ingredient that supercharges another dessert item.

These tips and tricks are great ways to recoup losses, but as the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Pre-planning is the ultimate goal. There will always be accidents, but the ultimate goal is to control things that are controllable. Operators should always know what’s coming back to the kitchen or being thrown out. Leftovers can always be positioned on the menu as a special, side or add-on, but it’s always best if there is nothing left at all.

Chef Chris Kline is the Senior Executive Chef at Tyson Foodservice, where he oversees Tyson’s channel chef teams. He brings 20 years of food expertise, 12 of which have been with Tyson and Tyson’s Hillshire brand; Kline has held his current position since October 2014. Chef Kline is also an active member of the Research Chef’s Association, International Food Technologist, and the Bread Bakers Guild.”