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What should I do when my restaurant can’t toss out food?

Analyzing the effects of zero food waste initiatives
Photograph: Shutterstock

A crucial component of Austin, Texas’s “Zero Waste by 2040” initiative went into effect on October 1, 2018 for restaurants. That component, the Universal Recycling Ordinance, contains a provision requiring that all organic material be diverted from landfills. Leftover and unused food can’t be thrown away, and “diversion stations” must be available to employees to comply with this ordinance.

This is important, since up to 37% of what Austin sends to its landfills is comprised of food that could instead be composted or given to charities such as the Central Texas Food Bank. And the city means business: Restaurants could be fined up to $2,000 a day for infractions and could even lose their food permit for non-compliance.

With the cost of running a restaurant on the rise, this legislation challenges restaurant owners to implement the “Zero Waste” initiative without compressing already tight margins.

“Our customers struggle to keep operating expenses low without passing on costs to the customer,” explains Garrett Hester, chief operating officer at Tabulate, a leading bookkeeping firm in Austin that focuses exclusively on restaurants and bars. “We typically represent independent restaurateurs who can’t secure lower prices on waste removal because they don’t have the buying power of a large corporate chain.”

According to Tabulate, Austin restaurants spend between 0.5% and 1% of their revenue on waste removal as an operating expense. Tabulate has three recommendations for how businesses can effectively grapple with the new ordinance.

1. Make process changes

Make sure employees have access to the diversion program. Post signs near diversion stations or containers. Provide yearly educational programs for staff during team meetings.

2. Have a diversion plan

By law, restaurants in Austin must create an annual Organics Diversion Plan and submit it to the city. Also, they must report annually on how the diversion plan meets the city's ordinance requirements.

3. Track operating expenditures wisely

Actively managing this expense becomes critical with these new organic waste removal costs. There are a few solutions. First, restaurants can create an employee take-home program. An essentially free solution, restaurants can send employees home with leftover food that can’t or won’t be sold the next day.  Another solution is partnering with a food bank. Large operations such as the Central Texas Food Bank are piloting several programs in Austin, but it’s not cost-effective for individual restaurants at this time. Instead, they recommend working with a hyper-local food agency.

Yet another option is using a composting service. While it is currently the most expensive option available, there may be a time when restaurants need organic waste to be picked up instead of donating it or giving it away. Having a pre-negotiated deal with a composting company keeps businesses from having to pay unexpected fees in a pinch.

And as with any new wrinkle appearing on the scene, crafty entrepreneurs will always rise to the challenge. Two interesting opportunities include:

  • “Yesterday’s Diner”—a low-key eatery that creates daily specials using food from other restaurants
  • “Yesterday’s Pickup”—a service that picks up food from a restaurant and disposes of it in accordance with the ordinance for a small fee.

Tabulate applauds the general idea of the ordinance; it lowers food waste and encourages restaurants and bars to be more thoughtful about the economics of food costs. It’s crucial for Austin restaurateurs to create a proactive plan of action to ensure their establishments comply with the law and do so in way that encourage employee participation. To learn more about how Tabulate can help with this new ordinance, visit Tabulate here.

This post is sponsored by Tabulate

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