What you learn scraping plates


As part of the University of Guelph sustainable restaurant project (UGSRP), we are looking at plate waste in restaurants.  We have just started and this is definitely going to be much more interesting than I expected.  We will be gathering data in PJ’s, our student learning restaurant, over the next two semesters.

While reducing food waste is in and of itself a worthwhile objective, this is as much about learning about our customers as it is about waste.  We’ve had some people scoff at the notion of thinking about sustainability is a restaurant but it strikes me that food waste tells you something about the experience your customer has had.  More waste means less value or less enjoyment.  I can’t think of a single restauranteur who couldn’t learn something from looking at plate waste and thinking about it in terms of customer experience.  Reducing waste is just a serendipitous bonus.

We will be collecting all plate waste and looking at the contribution of different menu items to total waste.  We are also looking at what is coming back in individual items.  What can this tell us?   It will tell us what works and what doesn’t and why.  We will likely never get to zero waste but its worth understanding what is contributing.  Today I saw a lot of stuff coming back from the nachos.  Sure its easy to articulate value with a big plate of nachos and nacho chips are cheap but it wasn’t, for the most part chips coming back.  Maybe we can still have a beautiful high volume plate of nacho chips and reduce the peppers and other toppings.

Once again its early but I have an impression that some of the carb dense menu items (sandwich and fries) are generating some waste.  For some customers the size of the portion may be about value but if fries and/or bread is coming back then is it really value?  TGI Fridays may have learned this lesson and reduced the number of fries on the standard plate but will give you more if you want them.  I hate leaving food on the plate anywhere (a remnant from my youth no doubt) so this might work.  Sending food back is sending a message – we need to understand what that message is.

I am struck by how easy this is to do.  I am struck by how interested the students are in what we are doing and what we can learn.  But mostly I am struck by how much this is not just about reducing waste but primarily about improving my customer experience in managing a restaurant.  The first rule of biology (that everything is connected to everything) applies here too.

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