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14 Steps to Reducing Food Waste In Your Restaurant

Discover how your restaurant can save money and help the environment by following these simple steps to reduce food waste. Get tips on tracking, storage and more.
14 Steps to Reducing Food Waste In Your Restaurant

Restaurant food waste in the United States is a staggering issue. Even with supply chain issues, soaring food costs, and food insecurity problems, restaurants in the US continue to waste a huge amount of each year. According to ReFED, nearly 40% of food produced in the US is unsold or uneaten, equating to $408 billion worth of waste.

Much of that waste happens due to fixable operational inefficiencies, with research showing that commercial kitchens waste 4% to 10% of the food they purchase before it ever reaches the customer’s plate. Many operators still rely on instincts and assumptions rather than data, leading to too much buying, prepping, and cooking, and ultimately wasted food and money.

Food waste not only has a huge negative impact on your restaurant’s finances, it also negatively affects our planet by wasting valuable resources. In this post, we discuss how restaurants of all kinds can implement a food waste reduction plan. Read on to learn more about how you can reduce food waste at your restaurant and reap rewards for both your bottom line and the planet. 

14 Steps to Reducing Food Waste In Your Restaurant

Measuring the Problem

The first step to solving any problem is clarifying the cause, and for food waste at your restaurant, this means conducting an audit or assessment of the problem. Otherwise there’s no way to discover the true cost of the problem at your particular restaurant. Once you have a baseline, you’ll want to continue to measure your waste on an ongoing basis in order to track your progress in waste reduction.

1. Conduct a waste audit 

 To conduct a waste audit, have your team go through your trash every day for one week. Before a trash bag is thrown away, have a team member sort the trash into a set of categories, such as produce, meat, paper goods, plastics, takeout containers, and other (foil, broken dishes, etc.). Record the weight of each category in a spreadsheet or even just a sheet of paper. Alternatively, temporarily set up different waste bins and do it this way. It’s not important how you do it, just that you get the relative weights of your different categories of waste.

Then you can use this weekly data to extrapolate for the entire year (or month, or quarter – whichever time period you want to use), while also discovering the main sources of waste in your restaurant. You also now have a baseline against which to measure your progress.

2. Create a waste log

Now that you have a baseline to work with, you need to be able to document and measure your progress to evaluate the effectiveness of your efforts. The best way to do this is to create a food waste tracker. This can be digital or just a clipboard with a sheet of paper. You can continue to have your staff weigh trash and recyclables, or just have them make a note when any noteworthy items were disposed of, such as rotten produce. 

For instance, if a box of meat is thrown into the trash, logging it on the sheet with a description, date, and reason can help you determine if the cause is a product quality issue from your vendor or improper food storage to address with your staff.

When you look at your food waste over long time periods, a waste log can help you understand the causes of specific variances in the data that can be hard to understand from just a high level view. You can also compare the findings from your audit and waste log with your inventory data to pinpoint the sources of your food waste. 

Monitoring and documenting every instance of food waste at your restaurant is crucial not only for better food cost control, but also for overall restaurant accounting best practices. You’ll get much more visibility into why your prime costs are not adding up the way you’d like. 

With a system in place to measure the problem, it’s time to take actions that will help push you towards improvements.

Inventory Management

3. Improve accuracy of demand forecasting

For many restaurants, one of the biggest areas of food waste comes from over preparing food. No one wants to run out of a menu item, or to keep customers waiting while your team makes something that should come out quickly. But if you prepare more of a particular food than what you need, you’ll end up throwing it out in accordance with food safety regulations.

The waste log should tell you if prepared foods are being tossed out on a regular basis. Combined with insight from your POS data, this can be used to better forecast demand so that you can stop over-prepping food.

By analyzing historical sales data and keeping track of current trends, you can better predict what ingredients and menu items will be in high demand. This allows you to order only the necessary amount of supplies, reducing the risk of overstocking and spoilage. Also, make sure to keep an eye on upcoming events and promotions that may impact customer traffic, so you can adjust your inventory accordingly.

4. Use the FIFO method

Make sure your staff are using the FIFO method of first in, first out. It’s the inventory standard because it works. Organize your inventory so the oldest ingredients are in front so they’re the easiest to grab and use. 

This is most important with perishable inventory. If you need to, use stickers with the packaging date clearly visible, or “Use First” written in large letters. While it can take a little longer to unload and organize new shipments, proper stock rotation goes a long way to minimize food waste.

5. Monitor inventory days on hand

Inventory days on hand (DOH) refers to the average number of days you hold an inventory item before you sell it. This calculation shows your inventory turnover rate, and can be applied to your inventory as a whole or individual inventory items. 

For example, if you order 6,000 beef patties and use 1,200 beef patties each day, the beef patties are ‘on hand’ for five days.

Ingredients that have a higher number of inventory days on hand are not selling quickly, which could indicate the item(s) they’re used in aren’t popular. The inverse is also true; those with lower days on hand are selling quickly.

To calculate inventory days on hand for your entire inventory, use the following formula:

(IDOH) = (Average inventory value) / (Cost of goods sold per day)

Let's say your restaurant has an average daily cost of goods sold (COGS) of $10,000, and your current inventory value is $100,000. To calculate your inventory days on hand, you would divide your current inventory value by your average daily COGS:

$100,000 / $10,000 = 10 days

This means that your current inventory level is enough to cover your COGS for 10 days. By tracking this metric regularly, you can adjust your inventory levels as needed to ensure that you're not overstocking and wasting food.

In general, most restaurants aim for inventory that turns over four to six times a month, which averages to 5-7 days’ worth of product on hand.

6. Manage your vendors

Strong communication with your vendors and suppliers is essential in reducing food waste in your restaurant. 

First, establish clear guidelines for delivery dates and times to ensure that you receive fresh ingredients when you need them. Make sure to communicate these expectations with your vendors so they know when to deliver and can plan accordingly.

If a vendor sends too much of a particular product or sends subpar products, it can increase food waste. Take the time to carefully inspect every delivery that comes into your restaurant to make sure that it conforms to order specifications in terms of quantity and quality.

Also, maintain regular communication with your vendors to keep them informed of any changes in your menu or inventory needs. By keeping them up-to-date, they can provide you with the right ingredients at the right time, minimizing the risk of overstocking and spoilage.

Menu Planning

Smart menu planning can help mitigate food waste not only in the kitchen where it can be more easily controlled, but on the consumer side after the sale. 

7. Create a limited menu 

Limiting your menu can be an effective way to prevent food waste in a restaurant. By focusing on a smaller selection of dishes, you can reduce the amount of prep work required and ensure that you're ordering only the necessary ingredients. Minimizing the number of ingredients that go into the dishes lessens the risk of overstocking and waste. 

Create multi-use menu items that can be used across multiple dishes. For example, roasted chicken can be used in salads, sandwiches, or served as a standalone entree. This helps to reduce waste by cross-utilizing ingredients that may otherwise go unused.

Also, consider developing a rotating menu that changes based on the season or using local, seasonal ingredients. This allows you to take advantage of fresh ingredients that are readily available, reducing the need to order excess perishables that may go unused.

8. Ensure portions are consistent 

Consistent recipe management is essential for controlling food waste and excess costs. This involves standardizing recipes for menu items and calculating portion and plate costs. Recipe management features are included in many POS systems, which can convert inventory ingredients to the units of measurement your prep staff uses to prepare items, and then calculate the proper yields for each dish. 

Make sure to train staff to make, plate, and each recipe exactly as written. If your portions aren’t standardized, use a portion scale or portion spoons to ensure your customers are getting the appropriate amount of food. 

Consider offering smaller portion sizes for some dishes, allowing customers to order exactly what they want and reducing the amount of leftovers that may go uneaten.

9. Manage customer expectations with clear descriptions

The descriptions for each dish is an important part of menu design — make sure they're clear and well-written so guests know exactly what they're ordering. This will reduce the likelihood that dishes get sent back and thrown away. Make sure your staff can explain every item on the menu and answer any questions that guests may have.

Also, giving customers more choice over what to include or leave out of their meal can help prevent food going to waste. Perhaps customers would prefer to be given a choice between side dishes, or maybe they’re best sold separately for customers to purchase if they really want them.

10. Offer specials 

If you accidentally end up with ingredients that are nearing their expiration date and need to be used up quickly, consider creating a special that utilizes those ingredients. This is a great way to regularly use up supplies that are about to go bad.

You can also offer a regular menu item that's good for using up fresh, perishable ingredients; for example, a weekly rotating flavors of smoothies can be a great way to use up fruits and vegetables that are about to expire.

11. Monitor the popularity of each dish

Use your point-of-sale (POS) system to track sales data and identify which dishes are selling well. You can use this data to adjust your inventory and prep work to meet demand. If certain menu items are unpopular, you might want to consider adjusting the recipe or removing it from the menu.

Also, regularly review your menu to ensure that you're offering dishes that customers want. Consider replacing unpopular items with new or seasonal options that better reflect customer preferences.

Keep an eye on social media and customer feedback to identify any trends or preferences that may not be reflected in your sales data. For example, customers may be requesting more vegetarian options or gluten-free dishes that aren't currently on your menu. Use this information to adjust your menu and inventory accordingly.

Storage and Handling

12. Store food properly

This one sounds obvious – properly storing food is not only standard practice but legally mandated – yet improper food storage is a major cause of food waste. 

To minimize waste and meet health code standards, make sure to thoroughly train your staff on proper food storage techniques. All food should be stored in an appropriate sealed container at the optimum temperature to prevent spoilage. Designate specific storage areas for different types of food, including dry goods, perishable items, and frozen items. Use airtight containers for dry goods and appropriate refrigeration for perishables, and keep raw meats separate from other foods. 

Your refrigerator temperature should be at or below 40° F, and never allow foods that require refrigeration (including leftovers that were once hot) to sit at room temperature for more than two hours to avoid food waste. Frozen foods should be stored at 0° F. Don’t overpack the fridge, store different foods in appropriate areas. Raw and cooked foods should be separate, and don’t heat up the fridge by placing hot foods in it. 

Label all perishable products with the date they were received, the date they should be considered expired, and the amount of servings within each container. Some kitchens use a color-coded labeling system to make it easier for staff to know what category of item is in which container.

Regularly inspect your food storage areas for signs of spoilage or insect infestation. Remove any items that are expired or showing signs of spoilage to prevent the spread of bacteria and mold.

13. Monitor your equipment

Firstly, keep refrigerators and freezers at the appropriate temperature. The ideal temperature for a refrigerator is between 32-40 degrees Fahrenheit, while the ideal temperature for a freezer is 0 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Regularly check the temperature with a thermometer to ensure that it remains within this range.

Secondly, clean equipment regularly to prevent the buildup of mold and bacteria. This includes wiping down surfaces, cleaning condenser coils, and changing air filters. Regular maintenance can also improve the efficiency of your equipment, reducing energy costs and extending the life of your appliances.

Thirdly, inspect equipment regularly for signs of wear and tear or damage. For example, check door seals for cracks or tears that can allow cold air to escape, causing food to spoil more quickly. Replace any damaged parts to ensure that equipment is working properly.

Finally, establish a regular maintenance schedule for all equipment and stick to it. This ensures that equipment is checked and serviced regularly, preventing breakdowns and reducing the risk of food spoilage.

Staff Training

14. Get staff buy-in 

All of the strategies above are great, but you won’t be able to execute them without buy-in from your staff! To achieve your waste reduction goals, you need your team to support and carry out your initiatives. 

First, education is key. While all your staff should already be trained in food safety, you should consider supplemental training on waste reduction if you don’t have it already. All staff need to know how to store and cook food properly, keep the premises clean and free of cross contamination, and how to use proper portioning techniques.

According to Clowes et al. (2019), kitchen and service staff members often want to help prevent food waste but need more definition and guidance from leadership. Such guidance could come in the form of daily staff meetings, casual conversations, formal training, or peer learning opportunities. It’s also important to avoid blaming staff for causing waste, since if your team fears being blamed for waste rather than rewarded for measuring, engagement will decline. The most innovative ideas for waste reduction often come from staff themselves, not management, so getting their input is key for success.

One way to encourage staff engagement is to connect their efforts to environmental or community benefits, such as by partnering with a local nonprofit to donate excess food. Another is to reward staff for good behavior and celebrating waste reduction achievements. Make sure to build these employee rewards into your waste reduction plan. Also, consider appointing particular staff members as responsible for spearheading waste reduction efforts, explaining your plan and the importance of the initiative. 

Need oversight over all of your restaurant’s data sources? Agilence Analytics for Restaurants can help

By implementing these strategies above, restaurant operators can reduce their food waste, helping their bottom lines and the planet. To get there, Agilence Analytics for Restaurants provides a tool multi-location operators can use to identify all sorts of theft, fraud, waste, and other sources of preventable loss that are eating into your margins.  

By integrating your data sources such as PoS and inventory data to Agilence Analytics, we can use this data to calculate your prime costs, compare them to set levels, and alert you when operational costs go above certain thresholds. These alerts can also be sent to managers or other staff, so they can respond to variations in your operational costs quickly. 

To learn more, visit our Restaurant Analytics page or request a demo




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