Cutting food waste has become something of a buzz term for consumers in recent years, but it’s no passing fad for restaurants. Independent chefs and chain operators have long been concerned about how to reduce kitchen waste and keep food costs down. These days many are turning to solutions such as specialty products and the use of food scraps that are otherwise thought of as trash.
“Most of the waste is caused by a lack of strong back of house systems, standards and organizational structure,” said Dean Small, founding partner of Synergy Restaurant Consultants. “There are lots of very good value-added products out there … meats, lettuce, crab cakes … that can help reduce waste.”
As an example, Small cited a major sandwich chain for which his firm recently consulted that uses a number of specialty products, such as hummus spread and olive relish, on its menu. Lack of kitchen space and employees not skilled in making such products were among the drivers for the fast casual chain choosing to purchase the specialty products. By not bringing in multiple ingredients to make each of these items from scratch, Small said the chain is able to reduce food costs, and also get a better yield.
“You have to be strategic about what value-added products you bring in,” said Small. “[This chain] looks for value-added products to support their innovation.”
Indeed, in addition to cutting waste and costs, specialty products can also inspire innovation.
“Finding an item that works with any course doesn’t just eliminate waste, it provides unique opportunities for menu delights and surprises,” said a Tampa Maid spokesperson.
Tampa Maid is a supplier that offers a variety of breaded and specialty seafood products designed for multiple menu applications. For example, the company’s shrimp fritters can be served with a dipping sauce as an appetizer, added to a fresh salad or offered as a side dish. Other products, such as shrimp mix and burger mix, can be formed into any unique shape or size to give chefs maximum menu flexibility. The company hopes chefs will be inspired to use the shrimp mix product in countless ways—to make, say, a shrimp meatball, a shrimp nugget, a side of shrimp “hash browns” for breakfast, or an innovative limited-time-only dish.
George Barton, owner of gBarton Innovations, and a 35-year veteran of TGI Friday’s, agrees that specialty products can do more for restaurants than just reduce waste.
“[Operators should] utilize specialty products in order to customize and to impact food costs in a positive way,” said Barton.
But you have to use those products properly, he warned. Barton recalled a time years ago when a major chain he worked for purchased an avocado paste for an appetizer LTO. The LTO lasted six months, but there was leftover paste long after.
“You have to be creative to stay on the edge … to find multiple uses for SKUs,” said Barton.
Troy Guard, chef and owner of TAG Burger Bar, a gourmet burger concept with two locations in Denver, uses pre-portioned products and leftovers to cut costs and provide innovation on his menu. Guard buys his beef pre-cut and pre-packaged because he says it “results in less waste and more consistency.” He also uses bones and veggie scraps to make soup, “I always use leftover chicken/turkey bones to make soup, and you can also use veggie scraps to add flavor.”
“I believe that we should all be doing our part in eliminating food waste. I find it disappointing when I see food go to waste—we use as much as humanly possible,” said Guard. “In terms of cost savings, we certainly save a minimum of two percent at each restaurant with the way we handle our prep.”
Tampa Maid also touts the ease of use and time saving factor of its products, many of which are freezer to fryer and are easily made by any kitchen helper.
Also finding ways to maximize ingredients to eliminate waste is Marjorie Meek-Bradley, executive chef of Ripple in Washington, D.C. At this upscale, casual and seasonal restaurant, Meek-Bradley uses a lot fresh, locally sourced vegetables, meat and seafood. To ensure she gets the most out of these high quality, sometimes high cost, ingredients, she finds ways to use every bit of them on her menu. For example, when she purchases whole tilefish, she uses the meat from the leftover heads in lettuce wraps. Additionally, rather than toss the greens atop carrots and other root vegetables, she sometimes uses them to make pesto.
While consumers heightened interest in reducing food waste may or may not be here to stay, restaurant operators will remain focused on improving this aspect of their business.
“Chain operators will continue to use these products … They are much higher quality than they used to be,” said Small. “That is going to be an ongoing trend that operators will look at because they need to evolve the menu in a way that offers consistency.”