Half Just Might Be More

Yes, dumpsters and garbage bins behind U.S. restaurants are still filling up, but fortunately, with a little less discarded food. As Foodservice Monthly has reported in previous issues, restaurant food waste is an ongoing problem. The industry is making progress, but we have a long way to go.
According to the National Resources Defense Council, the United States squanders as much as 40 percent of the food it produces, which comes to $165 billion each year. That amounts to more than 20 pounds of food per person every month — enough to fill the 90,000-seat Rose Bowl stadium twice every day.
Much of that waste occurs in restaurants where customers leave behind about 17 percent of their meals — “plate waste.” In alleys behind those establishments, stinky leftovers spill out of dumpsters, attracting rats and other vermin. Moreover, some 80 billion pounds of rotting edibles are hogging space in landfills, accounting for almost 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions, according to the latest stats supplied by the waste division of the EPA.

Combatting food waste on the plate
As industry-wide awareness and concern widen, savvy restaurateurs are taking action. Two of the main problems involve kitchen prep loss and food left uneaten on customers’ plates. We are addressing the latter, which is harder to remedy. Since health laws (fortunately) forbid donating those leftovers, other, more creative solutions are needed. If people don’t want to eat that much, why serve huge portions? Why not offer smaller servings, with lower prices? Why not offer half portions of pasta for a first course, as they do in Italy?  In addition to the choice between a cup or bowl of soup, ever-popular tapas, and “small plates” menus, Washington/Baltimore restaurants are hopping on the half-portion bandwagon.
“We offer so many options,” said Ashok Bajaj, Washington’s mega-entrepreneur who operates 10 restaurants, including Bombay Club, 701, and two Rasika locations. “We have a lot of ways to control waste,” he explained. “Customers can order half portions of certain dishes, including sides. For example, for a salmon, black cod, or lamb chop entrée, a customer may request just one piece instead of two or a half portion of biryani. That way, guests have what they want without over-ordering and wasting food. Customers and management can be happy!” Bajaj added, “Washington area professionals lead busy lives. They often dine out for work and pleasure, and it is hard to eat two full meals in a day. That’s why we offer these options.”
Of course, this works both ways, Bajaj explains. “We want to make sure customers don’t take advantage of our half-portion policy. If two people sit down and order two appetizers, drink only water, and order nothing else, no one wins.”

Approaches from across the pond
Taking a European approach is Javier Candon, co-owner of Joselito: Casa de Comidas, which opened in January on Capitol Hill. Joselito executive chef David Sierra’s menu showcases the traditional cuisine of Spain, adding creative flair. (Candon and his wife/business partner Christiana Campos also operate SER in Arlington. That restaurant serves tapas but does not offer the three sizes.)
“We are not trying to reinvent the wheel,” said Candon. “Smaller — or half — portions is a tradition in many cultures, especially in casual restaurants. In Spain, meals are served in three sizes: tapas (appetizer), media racion (light entrée), and racion (family size —large enough to feed two people).
“However, varying plate sizes can make things a bit more complicated,” Candon acknowledged, “mostly because the kitchen has to pay extra attention to tickets to make sure it’s sending out the right portion of each dish. We also have to be more thoughtful about the type of food served because not everything is easily adapted to small, medium, or large portions.
“When people eat that way, it is rare for food to go back to the kitchen,” Candon added. “Not only because of the size, but the culture of sharing. For example, two people will order three or four tapas, a larger group might order four or five. They don’t order everything at once, just when and if they want more dishes. Joselito’s top selling (sharable) dishes? Spanish ham with country bread, fried eggs with crawfish, a plate of five artfully presented seasonal vegetables, and grilled Iberian pork shoulder.

When customers ask for less …
Another idea is to encourage your wait staff to heed customer requests. It could pay off handsomely. If a diner requests a half portion, take the extra time to ask the kitchen to accommodate the request. At Fiola Mare, Fabio Trabocchi’s classy Italian seafood restaurant in Georgetown, a woman requested a half portion of Maine lobster ravioli. She got it — loved it — and left a large tip.
Obviously, certain items like T-bone steaks cannot be split in half. However, Georgetown restaurant Bourbon Steak is finding a way to help reduce food waste while providing a healthy lunch. For Wellness Week in May, diners taking leftover protein home with them could have it packed up in a box with lettuce, cucumber, radishes, strawberries, and sherry vinaigrette. That way, customers could enjoy it as a salad the next day.

The bottom line
Lower your prices — and your portions. If people are hungry, they will order more. Tell your guests to order as they go! Instruct servers to suggest that diners start with two dishes, then go on from there. Encourage sharing. When you share, you waste less.“In restaurants, food is our gold,” said Javier Candon. “Any waste is like stealing from the earth and is disrespectful to nature. At Joselito, our plates go back to the kitchen completely clean, and this makes it all worth it.”

CELESTE MCCALL is a Washington, DC food and travel writer. Contact her at 202-547-5024.

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