There are simple ways to reduce food waste and save, money, but the indsutry needs to work together. Siobhan O'Neill reports
Food sustainability is an ever present watchword for most in the hospitality industry, but it doesn't just mean careful sourcing, seasonality and buying local. One simple but very effective way of improving sustainability is to get a handle on your food waste, but how far would you go to trim your waste-line?
Food waste is a massive issue in the UK. WRAP (the Waste & Resources Action Programme) estimates that a whopping 15 million tonnes of it is generated every year, and most is destined for landfill. And that was before we started binning tonnes of horse meat lasagnes. The organisation is currently collecting data on food waste produced in the cost sector for a report due out later this year, but its 2011 research found that 600,000 tonnes of food waste was disposed of in 2009, two-thirds of which could have been eaten if it had been better portioned, managed, stored and prepared.
Figures like that make stark reading. If you could reduce your food waste by two thirds, how much would it impact your gross profit?
Bite was awarded a two-star sustainability rating by the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) last August largely thanks to the steps it has taken to reduce its food waste, and, as with so many solutions, it's the simplest ones that prove the most effective. For example, Bite realised that an abundance of product in display fridges looked good for customers but was creating too much wastage.
"We took a shelf out," says Parker. "Now that's one less shelf to fill but the fridge still looks full."
Charlotte Henderson, programme area manager at WRAP, agrees that Bite's approach works. "There are simple solutions out there in the industry. We're trying to draw them together and work in collaboration throughout the chain from the client to the catering contractor to the suppliers," she says. "The industry is already delivering some really good practice, so it's about sharing that, and taking it further and faster across the sector.
"It's about better utilisation of the food that's coming into a catering establishment, and getting more out of it; making the same amount go further and really putting that economic value back into your business."
Simple solutions Chef Tom Hunt who runs Forgotten Feast events in London as well as Poco restaurant in Bristol is well versed in managing waste. The ethos behind Poco focuses on waste reduction which, as well as earning the restaurant a three-star rating, saw it win the SRA Environment Award earlier this year.
Hunt's team uses a wide range of simple solutions to reduce food waste. As a tapas restaurant he is able to make many of his dishes sharing platters, which ensures very little waste comes back to the kitchen. His waiting staff are good at helping customers avoid over-ordering, and if they see a dish regularly coming back to the kitchen they will alert the chef to adjust portion sizes.
Hunt thinks carefully about his ingredients and some - like bananas - are off the menu because he sticks to 90% British seasonal, 10% European seasonal, non-air freight produce.
"As a chef I'm not just thinking about making the perfect dish, but how I can make the perfect dish while celebrating the wealth of ingredients we have," Hunt says. "It's going back to nose to tail and respecting the whole animal, but also the whole vegetable or fruit."
Consequently Hunt doesn't peel his potatoes, and uses a range of what he calls rescue recipes to use as much of the food that he can. For instance, he'll make escabeche if he has oily fish on the menu, he'll use trimmings off a joint to make a pulled pork sandwich and so on. And, if the kitchen sees they have a lot of a certain dish left over, rather than see it go to waste they'll serve it free to customers.
For caterers the situation might be more complicated but Parker is adamant it is possible to reduce food waste. In a B&I setting he advocates finding out on a daily basis how many people are in the building so units have a better idea of the numbers they might be serving. Bite will let shelf items run out rather than over-produce, but ensures customers know that a chef will make food to order. On a counter service, Henderson suggests using shallower dishes towards the end of service, so food still looks plentiful, but is less likely to go to waste.
London vegetarian restaurant Tibits has CCTV cameras trained on its self-service counter, so the kitchen brigade can see what needs replenishing, and avoids over-producing less popular dishes.
For operators looking to reduce their food waste there is plenty of help available. Both WRAP and the SRA offer tips and advice, and both are adamant that businesses will quickly reap the financial rewards. In 2011 Unilever Food Solutions launched its United Against Waste campaign, and its website offers a toolkit to help caterers.
Henderson says caterers shouldn't be concerned that changes will impact service. "Take the customers with you on the journey," she says, "so they feel they're getting the same service from you, the same value and the same quality, but they also see the value in paying less for your waste."
Top tips to reduce food waste
- Start measuring. WRAP likes to measure waste in kilos but it could be as simple as how many bags.
- Know your customers - how many are coming, and what they like to eat
- Find ways to reduce the trimmings in stocks, soups and so on
- Think about how you display food, don't rely on 'abundance'. Are salad garnishes necessary?
- Consider giving excess food as an amuse bouche or gift from the kitchen
- Manage portion sizes. Offer lighter bites, small and large options and sharing platters.
- Don't be afraid to offer customers doggie boxes and let your staff know they can take leftover food home too
- Encourage creativity in your chefs by asking them to develop rescue recipes that use up leftover items
- Look at your storage and ordering system. Is there a day when a menu can be created from held stock, rather than ordering more in?
Bartlett Mitchell begins to monitor and measure
Following meetings with WRAP, foodservice operator Bartlett Mitchell began to monitor its kitchen waste last November. Initially introduced on a voluntary basis while it developed a reporting tool, 90% of its units signed up, and it became mandatory on 1 January 2013. It was promoted with a poster campaign and training cards.
The teams are initially measuring only preparation waste, but there are plans to add counter waste at a later date. Raised awareness among the teams has already seen them setting targets - for example, to produce less than 10kg of waste per day.
They've also noticed days when waste was much higher than usual - for instance, due to catering for a hospitality function - so have begun to think what could be done differently.
Quality standards mentor Sally Grimes says: "There was a concern that we were asking the units to change the menu, but that's not the case. WRAP says that other companies have improved their profitability, which would be great because all of our contracts have a budget and a certain GP that they need to achieve, and with the rising cost of food, we're hoping it will support the profits that the units make for our clients.
"Even 1% of the 28,000 meals that we serve each day represents a lot of money for our clients. We want to be as profitable as we can but also maintain our commitments to seasonal and fresh produce. We're much more aware of where our money is going and what's going in the bin."
Spread stock across dishes Earlier this year, Unilever Food Solutions ran a competition for chefs to win a business development session with Chris Barber, a food and business development expert and former chef to HRH Prince of Wales.
The session was designed to help the winning organisation wise up on waste by encouraging chefs to throw away less food waste, save money and improve their
Declan Noonan, chef patron of the Old Thatch based in Killeagh, Cork, won the competition and welcomed Barber, who pointed out areas in which the experienced chef could improve.
Barber explains: "Leading the team, it was good to see that Declan takes personal responsibility for ensuring waste from his pub is minimised. He uses the specials board to push ingredients that need to be used up before they go out of date and he uses several products across a number of dishes to ensure little stock is left over.
"What is left the end of the day is given to a charity to feed dogs. Not only does this help to build relationships with the local community, but it also reduces the amount of waste sent to landfill."
Making a virtue of bare shelves Bite knows building populations can vary by 50% from one day to the next, so it tries hard to know their numbers as early as possible.
The company has made a virtue of bare shelves and has educated its customers to understand that food will sell out but they can request items made to order. This sends a message about responsible waste management and freshness.
Some units that are closed over the weekend don't order fresh stock for a Friday but instead challenge themselves to run down fridges by getting inventive with their menus. For example, Bite's executive chef ran a training course on using up leftover products, especially morning goods like pastries, for which he invented the croissant bread and butter pudding.
Each unit generates a daily production and wastage report where chefs have to say how many portions they bought for, how many were produced, how many sold, how many not consumed but could be put back into consumption and how many wasted. MD Nick Parker says: "It's amazing how quickly the waste reduces, once you start to measure it and focus on it."
One key area is hospitality. Bite noticed that customers tended to over-order, producing a lot of waste. Now they hand out hospitality vouchers for guests to eat in the restaurant instead, meaning no special food is being produced or wasted.
"It eradicates those leftover curled-up sandwiches and has been very efficient at reducing waste," Parker adds.
Responsible hospitality resourceFor more information on how to run your business responsibly, visit our online resource www.catererandhotelkeeper.co.uk/responsible-hospitality.
The Responsible Hospitality channel, supported by Accor, Gram UK and Kraft Foods, features tools and guidance that will help you reduce waste and energy usage, while offering examples and information on increasing recycling, ethical food sourcing and social responsibility.