As inflation soars, restaurants work to cut back on food waste

Rising costs and demands for greener operations has more companies looking at cutting out waste. And there are more potential solutions than ever.
Animation by Nico Heins via Shutterstock

When the rising cost of ingredients hammered Philly Pretzel Factory, the company began looking at how much of that high-cost food its restaurants were throwing away. So, the 150-unit Philadelphia-style pretzel chain turned to app-based food waste company Too Good to Go for help.

Too Good To Go allows restaurants to sell surplus food that would otherwise be tossed away, at reduced prices. The chain launched the program about six months ago and hopes to get each location involved in the future.

“Inflation has impacted us, obviously like everyone else,” said Marty Ferrill, president of Philly Pretzel Factory. “So, we’re looking at ways to minimize the waste that we have in the store, control our cost to goods. And this program came along, and it does that. It helps with doing that.”

Food waste has long been a common problem in restaurants. But it’s taken on a new importance as inflation hit many operators’ profit margins. In addition, demands by customers and employees for greener companies have led more restaurants to upgrade their food waste programs.

The food waste problem

According to the USDA, between 30% and 40% of the U.S. food supply is wasted, with approximately 31% of that waste generated from retail and consumer levels. The USDA estimates that amounts to approximately $162 billion annually in wasted food. Investing in food waste reduction can help operators save money.  A 2017 research study by Champions 12.3 found that for every dollar invested in reducing food waste, restaurants saved $14 in operating costs.

In addition to cost savings, reducing food waste is beneficial for the environment. And many consumers want to see sustainable actions from restaurant businesses. According to Tyler Simmons, U.S. head of key accounts and enterprise sales at Too Good To Go, consumers believe that reducing food waste is the most important environmental action that businesses can take.

“We did this study alongside NeilsonIQ, their bases team,” Simmons said. “And what the findings were was that food waste is the number one most important environmental action that a business can take and that consumers believe that restaurants are one of the most responsible parties for reducing food waste.” 

According to Christina Grace, Co-founder and CEO of Foodprint Group, a zero-waste company that works with restaurants and hospitality businesses, food waste has harmful consequences for the environment.

“When food waste is just getting tossed in the trash, going to landfill, it’s producing methane,” Grace said. “Methane is 28 times more powerful than carbon in terms of greenhouse gas emission. It’s scary and it’s doing a lot of damage.”

Additionally, throwing away perfectly good food can be an emotional endeavor for restaurant staff.

“There isn’t a chef on the planet that’s comfortable with wasted food. Any trained cook is trained on high level of utilization,” said Grace.

“Restaurants have a labor force that is very based on minimum wage payment, these people are trying to make ends meet and then at the end of the day you have to throw food away, like that’s a very emotional act to take,” Simmons noted.

Tracking and preventing food waste

Foodprint Group offers a toolkit for restaurants and hospitality businesses to provide them with resources to reduce their food waste.

“We’re talking about tools for planning your waste infrastructure, we’re talking about standard operating procedures for how we’re handling wasted materials, how we’re running a food donations program. All the different pieces, we have tools for,” said Grace.

In addition to operations planning, Foodprint group offers a daily waste tracking tool called Foodprint Trax which allows operators to get a handle on how much waste they’re generating every day. While many operators track waste in their inventory management, Grace said Foodprint Trax is more comprehensive and accounts for waste that isn’t included in inventory management. 

“There’s just so much that’s not tracked, so I think the biggest challenge is just getting a handle on what’s being wasted in the first place,” Grace said. “Because once you know, you can start to do things about it. And it might be being creative about using byproducts of something that you’re preparing or purchasing something in a different way.”

Grace said one of the most effective ways to reduce waste is by preventing it in the first place. For example, working with distributors to ensure only what is needed is being purchased.

Foodprint Group also offers a scorecard feature that allows operations to understand why they’re wasting the food that they are.

“Scorecard is a really sophisticated and evolving survey that allows our clients to run around their spaces and make sure that key program elements are in place,” Grace said. “Then once they get good at the basics, they can start to up the difficulty. So, let’s say we start with making sure your signs are in place and your color-coded bins and that you’re training every new employee and so on. Then you move on to okay we’re going to really reduce waste. Do you have a donations program, are we tracking our food waste and inventory management, what does our waste contamination look like?”

Food waste reduction apps

Another way restaurants can reduce their food waste is by using food waste reduction apps like Too Good To Go. 

“So, when a restaurant has surplus items, it could be ingredients, it could be prepared items, whatever it might be, that cannot be carried over to the next day and used for retail sales in that way,” Simmons said. “They can make that available through our app in what we call a surprise bag.”

A surprise bag is a bag of assorted menu offerings or ingredients with a set retail price. On Too Good to Go, the bags are sold at 1/3 of its retail cost.  

Simmons said it’s the surprise bag concept that differentiates Too Good to Go from other food waste reduction apps.

“We know that what constitutes surplus food is going to be dynamic. Whether it is different ingredients or different baked goods,” he said. “It’s inevitable that will change on a day-to-day basis and so by facilitating that surprise bag, we make it super easy for the business to pick and choose what they have left over.“

Simmons said that the app resonates with consumers who want to see environmental action from food operations.

“A great stat that we were pleased to see was that when businesses use Too Good to Go, people are 69% more likely to do business at that location than would be otherwise,” he said,  “So actually the public disclosure that ‘hey, food waste is a problem and we’re taking action to solve that,' using Too Good To Go, or any other solution, is very attractive to consumers because they want to be a part of the solution but often times it’s hard for them to find how and so we kind of meet that need.”

Salad chain Just Salad launched a pilot with Too Good to Go in 2021 and as a result, about 29,000 meals were saved from either going to the compost bin or to the landfill, according to chief sustainability officer, Sandra Noonan.

The program is now in about 45 stores and the surprise bags are very popular, according to Noonan, oftentimes the bags are sold out the night before.

Additionally, Noonan said the platform allows Just Salad to track its progress.

“It allows me and our staff to see exactly how many meals are sold each day and they translate that for us into an approximation of how many tons of greenhouse gas emissions are averted by keeping that food out of the waste stream,” she said. “That is a great number to see and connect food waste to climate change in a very concrete way.”

At Philly Pretzel Factory, meanwhile, Ferrill said consumers appreciate the environmentalist aspect of the program.

“The people that seem to be engaging with us appreciate the fact that the product is not being wasted and they’re very interested in that part of it,” he said.

Zero-waste restaurants

One New York City-based company, Scen, has taken strides in achieving zero waste. Scen, is working with the Total Resource Use and Efficiency institute to become zero waste certified. The certification involves a checklist for sustainable development that encourages the reuse and recycling of materials. The tool is meant to help eliminate pollution in the air, water and land.

Scen goes beyond food waste by using compostable materials and avoiding single-use items in the kitchen.

For Scen, avoiding food waste begins with sourcing, with the use of “ugly produce” that would typically be tossed away. The concept sources its food locally from a farm in Upstate New York and through the Union Square farmer’s market.

“It starts from where we source the food where we just know the people and they send it directly to us and we’re able to have it in special boxes. It’s not a single-use box,” said Maximilian Koenig, founder of Scen. “They come into the store and bring it in and take it back out and the next delivery, it’s going to be exactly in the same box.”

The concept also strives to have high levels of use with every ingredient.

“We make sure we cross-utilize,” Koenig said. “So, if we serve a broccoli on the menu, how can we work together with our culinary team to make something beautiful out of the stem of the broccoli? And now we have like tiny broccoli balls that taste like falafel, that are completely made out of basically food scraps.” 

The company Is working on a menu that uses banana peel for banana bread.

“So kind of like finding stuff that’s not really been done in the restaurant world, and making sure we have the highest use of the ingredient,” he said.

The last factor of zero waste for Koenig is educating the customer to ensure that materials get composted once they leave the restaurant.

“The third part would be how do we serve it; how do we educate the customer when he’s walking in? We have our signs that you can compost the stuff. Sometimes we even have seed paper that we hand out that people can plant flowers with,” he said, “You can potentially take the produce that comes from New York, lands on your plate with kind of the highest use and afterward you can use it as plant fertilizer and potentially grow a flower out of it.”

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