Restaurant Food Waste: What Can You Do?


by Celeste McCall

You see it every day. Your bus person whisks away diners’ plates—still heaped with food—and carts them back to the kitchen. There, those uneaten mounds of fries, vegetables and spaghetti are unceremoniously dumped into the trash.

According to the National Resources Defense Council, the United States wastes as much as 40 percent of food it produces, which comes to $165 billion each year. That amounts to more than 20 pounds of food per person every month, 10 times as much as someone in Southeast Asia.

Much of that waste occurs in restaurants where customers leave about 17 percent of their meals – “plate waste.” In alleys behind those restaurants, 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 Jean Schwab, senior analyst with the waste division of the EPA.

According to Jonathan Bloom’s comprehensive book, “American Wasteland,” restaurants face two waste issues: kitchen “prep waste,” unused food still in the kitchen. The second problem involves uneaten food left on diners’ plates.

The first problem is easier to remedy. For example, management can feed kitchen leftovers to employees, donate it to food banks or even give it to nearby farms for livestock or fertilizer. Mark Steele, chef/co-owner of Mr. Henry’s restaurant/pub on Capitol Hill offered a simple, straightforward way to reduce prep waste: “Open your walk-in refrigerator and see what’s left,” he said. “Then use it for soups, frittatas, quiche. Be creative.”

The other problem–uneaten food on diners’ plates—is harder to remedy. Since health laws (fortunately) forbid donating those leftovers, other 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, like they do in Italy?  Right here in Washington, DC Harvest, in the burgeoning Atlas District, lists half portions of its fresh spelt (hulled wheat, a species cultivated since 5000 BC) linguine, and ricotta kale agnolotti.

Why those gargantuan mountains of fries? Why not make them an optional side? For example, Bolt Burger, located downtown near the Washington Convention Center, serves two sizes of burgers: a 6-ounce and a 4-ounce patty. According to manager Rich Bonafede, the change has been successful. Bolt Burgers also allows diners to “create their own burger,’ along with choice of sides. And who says a burger requires a bun? Many customers leave the bread uneaten, and headed for the garbage bin. Solution? Ted’s Montana Grill, with umpteen locations nationwide, offers a “skinny dip,” a bun-free patty (beef or bison) topped with avocado and escorted by tomato slices and a kale salad. Good for the environment and diners’ waistlines.

Another idea: Chefs should monitor their all-you-can-eat buffets to see which items disappear quickly and which languish on the steam table and have to be discarded. Jonathan Bloom also points out that it makes no sense to replenish a sushi or salad bar shortly before closing time. Another issue: Buffet plates. The bigger the plates, the more food customers pile on. Some school and employee cafeterias have gone one step further: If they don’t provide trays, folks will have only their plates to fill, thus wasting less food.

“Culturally, we’ve gotten out of hand with portion sizes,” said David Guas, owner/chef of Bayou Bakery in Arlington with a sibling due to open this spring in Hill Center at the Old Naval Hospital. “A lot of places think bigger is better … in the fast food world, everything’s become combo: burgers come with chips, fries and pickles, because it represents a better value. No one wants to be slammed for not giving value.

“Diners have an obligation,” Guas added. “They have as equal a role as the operator by asking a simple question: ‘what comes with that?’ That’s why our (counter service) restaurant is all a la carte; items are sold separately so the diner can choose. ‘Do I want a cup of gumbo with my muffaletta? I don’t want a side of coleslaw unless I order it.’ It’s about communication, and we can help the diner navigate.” (Servers should also take an initiative when faced with unfinished meals. Why not ask: “May I box that up for you?”)

While Bayou Bakery does not compost, it donates leftover bakery items to A-SPAN, a nearby winter homeless shelter. Nor do coffee grounds go to waste; David’s staff places the grounds back in the bean bag they came in, and plunks them out front, free to anyone who wants them for their garden or composting barrel.

“Obviously, waste is a big part of the restaurant business,” said Jeff Black, co-owner of Black’s Restaurant Group, which operates several restaurants (specializing in seafood) in the Washington/Maryland area. “But we’ve had an aggressive recycling program since the 1990s, before the law was enforced. We felt we were doing the right thing … and we have six-day pickup, which keeps bins from overflowing and attracting rodents. Also, farmers take our ashes from our wood burning grill; it’s great organic fertilizer!”

Addressing the plate waste issue, Black added: “A lot of restaurants make money by just piling a lot of food on plates, and it’s not necessarily good food. At our restaurants, we take the common sense approach to eating … we advocate people to order smart; I personally often just get an appetizer. We also try to order [ingredients] smart. To avoid unnecessary packaging (especially all those layers of plastic!) we buy in bulk; cumin in 5-pound containers; 50-pound blocks of butter, which our prep cooks cut into cubes.

The National Restaurant Association is doing its part. “Addressing food waste is a great opportunity for restaurants to improve our environment, give back to our communities, and boost business” said Laura Abshire, director of sustainability for the NRA. “It’s really a win for everyone. Restaurateurs can save on operating costs by tracking waste and composting biodegradable leftovers. Companies that participate in food donations are helping their communities and are even eligible for tax credits,” she added.

For more information and tips on reducing food waste in your restaurant or food business, contact The National Restaurant Association Conserve Program: and the NRA’s partnership in the Food Waste Reduction Alliance

Celeste McCall is a Washington DC food and travel writer. Contact her at 202-547-5024.

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