When the National Restaurant Association released its annual What’s Hot culinary forecast, it was no surprise to see locally sourced meats and seafood topping the list. For full-service operators, the farm-to-fork ethos isn’t so much a movement anymore; it’s a core reality of business practice—a way to keep pace and survive in the evolving ingredients-driven market. Dropping somewhat was food waste/reduction management, which fell from No. 9 to No. 19. However, as Laura Abshire, the NRA’s director of sustainability points out, the two topics, while distant in the rankings, really aren’t that far removed.
In a conversation with FSR, Abshire talked about how operators can navigate this realm effectively, especially as local sourcing continues to weave its way into menus and mindsets around the country.
Generally speaking, how does the idea of local sourcing affect food waste?
Having local suppliers who come more often helps with food waste. One of the first things we always tell our operators is to talk to their suppliers and start tracking what’s coming in and what’s going out of their restaurants, and begin tracking their inventory. There are a lot of tools you can use to accomplish that. We have a partnership with a company called LeanPath, which is an online software that has tracking technology. That would be the first step. The next is to talk with your suppliers and figure out, for your own operations, what is coming into the restaurant and what’s being thrown away. It’s basically like doing an inventory. You want to track every day what your supplier is sending and how much is going out, and then based on that, you can start to manage your waste much better.
We always say you can’t manage what you can’t measure. So you have to start measuring in the first place.
Can keeping track of food waste help reduce it in the first place?
This is how I always think about it: when people start losing weight, and they’re trying to keep a food diary or a simple track of what they’re eating every day, it tends to make them eat less. It’s the same with tracking food. If you just track what’s coming into the restaurant, you’ll realize where the waste is being created, and you will order less in the first place, which is source reduction, or you’ll do something with the leftovers, after the fact.
Customers, Millennials in particular, care a lot about where their product comes from and how it’s treated. Is this true of food waste as well?
Customers really do care about the values of the operation now more than they ever have before, especially Millennials. If the customer is concerned about the sustainability and where it’s coming from, chances are they are very concerned with what you’re doing with the waste after it’s created—or if you’re not creating waste in the first place. I think tracking waste and caring about waste as an operator is a really good way to align your goals with your customers. And we’ve seen studies that show that environmental sustainability is a top concern for everybody.
When it comes to food waste, one of the biggest issues—although it sounds simple enough—is knowing how much to order.
What are some tips for operators to follow to make sure their pantry is stocked, but not to the point where food has a chance of going bad?
I think, with operators, sometimes the expectation in the restaurant industry is that you always have plenty for the customer, you always have enough, and you can never run out. That’s the expectation. But if you really track what’s coming in, you know exactly how much you need based on the trends in your restaurant throughout the year. You’ll know when you’re busier, and if you need to start ordering more or less. Knowing the exact amount you need every week or month is key, and talking to your suppliers about what’s fresh and how often they need to come to make that happen can be useful as well.
What are some techniques operators can deploy to help with food waste?
One method I’ve heard for consumers is to shop at the grocery store every couple of days instead of every week or every month, because you know you could use what you buy in that time period. It’s the same for a restaurant. I think having a great relationship with your supplier is crucial. For example, as a consumer, if you only buy three pieces of fruit, chances are you will actually eat those as opposed to if, once a week, you buy seven.
Another method is to consider multiple uses for ingredients on your menu. That’s a huge technique to reduce food waste. Anytime you have scraps, use them in something else—a sauce or a soup, and just utilizing the whole animal instead of one specific part. Some high-end restaurants are using the entire protein these days; the whole pig or whatever the animal might be.
Are operators paying more attention to food waste than in recent years?
Food waste is the big trend. Recognizing it at all is a trend. Donation and donating food is also a big trend that we’re seeing. About a third of all the food produced in the nation—about 30 to 40 percent that’s grown—actually never gets eaten. And it’s happening at the same time that a lot of Americans are in need of nutritious food and are going hungry. Both of those issues are fostering a big interest in donation, and we’ve seen a lot of new donations on applications on smart phones popping up, and different groups on campuses pop up. Beyond food waste, we’re seeing trends in the animal welfare issues. Antibiotic free proteins, cage-free eggs, and things of that nature. Customers are pushing these ideas into the restaurant, and as it becomes clear that they care about it, the restaurant starts to listen and talk to their suppliers to see what’s available.
What kind of benefits can operators see from following food waste guidelines?
This is something I always say: You know how with sustainability a lot of the things can be a win-win? For instance, with energy savings, you’re saving energy and you’re saving money. But with food waste it’s a triple win. It’s a win-win-win. You’re saving resources, you’re saving money, and you’re helping the environment. Not to mention, you’re also helping your community. Saving resources and money, as well as the environment and your community by donating, is really is a triple win for everyone. It’s impactful for everyone involved.