Nearly a year ago, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued a challenge to New York City’s restaurants to cut their food waste in half. About 150 restaurant companies signed onto the Food Waste Challenge, including Union Square Hospitality Group, Juice Generation and Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group’s Eataly.
For these companies, the challenge didn’t come as a big change — efforts to cut food waste were already part of their sustainability efforts, for both environmental and financial reasons. “Food waste is directly tied to food costs, so every time chefs throw something out, that’s their bottom line,” says Elizabeth Meltz, B&BHG’s director of food safety and sustainability.
Somewhere between 30% and 70% of the waste produced by restaurants is actually food waste, according to author Jonathan Bloom in his book American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food. Some 74% of restaurant waste is compostable, he writes, including food, paper and cardboard.
Union Square Hospitality Group took up the challenge, and found its existing sustainability efforts had already gone a long way toward minimizing food waste at its restaurant brands, including Shake Shack, Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern. The company has an active composting program with several of its farmer partners, said Communications Director Jee Park.
“Our chefs had already been focused on reducing food waste, by using as much of the product as they can,” she said.
Juice Generation, which operates a dozen shops in New York City, was also ahead of the curve. “We compost much of our food waste and fruit pulp, and we only use biodegradable materials in our containers. Joining New York’s top restaurants for the NYC Food Waste initiative was a perfect way to further our commitment to earth-friendly business practices,” founder and CEO Eric Helms said.
For Juice Generation, cutting food waste by composting comes with a challenge, Helms said. Composting pickups aren’t as frequent as trash pickups, so storing compostable waste takes some planning. “One of the challenges was the sheer volume of composting material we had… We had to figure out a proper way to store large bags of produce, like bananas, until the composting service arrived,” he said.
Every one of the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group’s nearly 30 restaurants have composting programs and all but the two newest have achieved Green Certification, said Meltz. Signing onto the Food Waste Challenge was more an endorsement of the mission than anything else, she said, and a great way to raise the issue of cutting food waste among consumers and the restaurant community.
The challenge also resulted in the creation of a new mobile application called MintScraps which gives restaurants of all sizes a way to track their waste and where it’s going. B&BHG’s composting program provides a healthy competition between the company’s various restaurants, and data from the app help puts them on a level playing field because each eatery is judged by the percentage of its waste that goes to the compost heap. The current leader? Thirteen-table eatery Casa Mono, Meltz says.
Restaurants can divide their food waste into two categories, Bloom writes in his book. The first is waste that comes from the kitchen, in the form of unused scraps and surplus perishables, and the second is the food that patrons leave on their plates. Eateries have a few ways to cut down in both areas. For pre-consumer or back-of-the-house waste, restaurants can donate usable surplus food to local food banks and soup kitchens, find new ways to use scraps and compost what can’t be consumed. Also, putting efforts into proper ordering cuts down on the amount of potential waste.
Front-of-the house, it may be trickier. “When it comes to the subject of food waste, restaurants are much more likely to focus on composting than waste reduction. And that’s too bad because, while composting effects a sensible recycling of nutrients, reducing waste is much more important,” Bloom said in an e-mail.
Those leftovers can’t be donated and, while they can be composted, some restaurateurs are putting the emphasis on making changes that result in less waste to begin with. “We are European style, so our portions are not huge,” says Meltz. The restaurant also encourages guests to pack up their leftovers and take them home.
Bloom’s book makes some additional suggestions for cutting post-consumer food waste, including letting guests order exactly what they want so no unwanted side dishes or despised veggies don’t go uneaten. He also suggests simplifying the menu so there’s less chance of creating waste.
“Portion size is such a massive driver of both waste and obesity, but I don’t see much movement on that front. The National Restaurant Association has joined the grocery industry’s Food Waste Reduction Alliance, so there’s some hope there. And certainly some restaurants are striving to reduce the food waste they and their customers create, but they are the exception to the rule,” Bloom said.
As Americans fight the obesity epidemic there’s a new awareness of portion control that could eventually lead to smaller portions and less waste. “In America in general, we put people in a position where their choices are to overeat or waste food,” Meltz says. “So we have these issues of obesity and hunger and wasted food.”
“The issue is really important to me,” she added. “I feel like it’s not sexy enough. We’re not talking enough about food waste and I feel like people should be paying more attention to it.”