Can restaurants donate leftover food?

buffet line


We are normally a dinner-only place. We had a buyout for a brunch buffet that was poorly attended—400 on the books and fewer than 100 in the room. I sent lots of leftovers home with staff and tried to donate the rest. Whole breadbaskets, quiches, etc. The food bank wouldn’t take anything because they said the amounts were too small and because things had been served (even though most of it was totally untouched). Is that right?

– Chef, Philadelphia


Wasted food is painful to see, especially when you need to be so careful to control costs and run a tight operation in other ways. There are definite benefits to donating extra food—tax incentives, social responsibility, helping the environment and cutting down on carting costs—so kudos for trying to do the right thing. Unfortunately, you point out the two big problems in doing this work:

  1. The logistics are often challenging. Driving around to move relatively small amounts of food is sometimes not cost-effective.
  2. Food safety. If food can’t be served to guests, it shouldn’t be donated.


In this case, it sounds like you’re up against both challenges.

On the first part, the food bank often deals in large volumes. Sometimes just searching for shelters, soup kitchens or food pantries near your restaurant can be more efficient, cutting out the agency in the middle and getting food directly to people who need it. The good news is there are a number of apps such as Food Connect and 412 Food Rescue that offer local opportunities to connect surplus food with people who can use it.

In terms of food safety, with some exceptions for packaged foods and shifting guidelines around staffed buffets, once the food leaves the food preparation area and hits the dining room, it needs to be eaten or discarded. To minimize that wasted food, consider replenishing your buffet with more frequent, smaller batches, preplating items such as cheese, salumi or crudites rather than having grand platters, and making portioned items smaller, knowing guests can always experience your hospitality by having more than one.

More on restaurants donating surplus food here.

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