Shrinking food waste

Operators weigh third-party solutions against high-tech machines.
man holding garbage

Although many operators want to reduce food waste because it’s the right thing to do for the environment, some are being pushed by government mandates to put systems in place. In states and municipalities including California, Washington and New York City, restaurants are scrambling to comply with mandatory waste-reduction programs. Space, expense and lack of local resources are the major roadblocks, they say.

We asked three operators in these areas and elsewhere to share the solutions that are working for them.

Outsourcing waste

When Patrick Mulvaney, chef-owner of Mulvaney’s Building & Loan Restaurant in Sacramento, Calif., was approached by a local company to take part in its composting pilot program, he jumped at the chance to participate, since he didn’t have the space or knowledge to do it himself. Mulvaney previously was composting only preconsumer waste. Now, he says, there isn’t much that doesn’t go in the compost bin. Three times a week, the waste is picked up and hauled off to an anaerobic digester.

“Through this program, we were able to reduce our trash from three dumpsters a week going to the landfill to a half-full dumpster,” Mulvaney says. “That reduced our costs by about 15 percent.”

It’s in the bag

Robert Padilla inherited a huge trash compactor when he took over as chef-owner of Trezo Mare Restaurant in Kansas City, Mo. It was expensive to maintain, attracted pests and smelled terrible, he says. So when a local wholesale composting company boasted that they could help him reduce waste by 80 percent, Padilla accepted the challenge and ditched the compactor.

The biggest change for Padilla was the addition of another trash can with a biodegradable bag for food scraps. “The transition was really natural for front-of-house staff, but in the back, we still have to monitor and explain the two trash-can system,” he says.

The compostable material gets picked up three times a week; it’s led to a reduction in black trash bags from 20 to 30 a day to four. The biodegradable bags do cost more—$67 per case compared to $34 for the black bags—and pickup is $250 a month. However, when compared to the cost of  maintaining the compactor ($1,800 to $2,000 every few months), Padilla says he’s coming out ahead.

Turning food to water

About eight years ago, the central kitchen for Fresh & Co., a 27-unit fast casual in New York City, installed a digester to reduce food waste. The chain was so happy with the results and cost savings that it quickly moved from a machine that could hold 5,000 pounds of food to one that could handle 15,000 pounds, says George Tenedios, VP and founder of Fresh & Co.

The machine’s footprint is about eight by three feet, and it turns food waste into gray water, which gets drained into the sewer system. The machine cost about $25,000, which Tenedios reports the company made back in two years.

“We were able to reduce trash pickups and bag usage by 55 percent,” Tenedios says, estimating a savings of $5,000 to $6,000 a year and fewer pest problems. He believes that for big-enough operations like his that are throwing away more than 10 bags of food daily—the machine makes sense economically.

Green machines

These pieces of equipment can help reduce food waste:

  • On-site commercial composters
  • Pulpers/digesters
  • Dehydrators

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