Waste not want not!

I recently attended an event at the University of Guelph Library that was promoting their expansive Canadian cookbook collection.  Thumbing through several of the 19th century journals on display I was quick to realize a theme that I couldn’t recall in modern incarnations of cookbooks.  Waste, and how to limit it was  ever-present throughout the recipes and pages of these books.  Of course, 100 years ago ‘food security’ was not only an issue it was a part of life and making efficient use of  your resources was in many cases the key to ones survival.  Today, we are unfortunately accepting of ‘waste’.

It is not news that we live in a ‘wasteful’ society, but given the current economic climate and reality of diminishing margins for food-service providers, it may be more beneficial than ever to evaluate our systems and monitor the waste that is created within them.  In fact the ‘business case’ for this evaluation would have us question current aspects of our costing model that we have been living with for decades. 

In relation to our attitude towards waste there are three common food-service practices that should  become topics of discussion amongst operators: 1. Waste as an acceptable outcome being built into costs, 2.  Quality assurance standards that promote the disposal of product 3. The promotion of ‘one use’ items as a means of service enhancement.

Lets look at the first point, waste being an acceptable outcome that is built into cost.  Years ago I worked for one of North America’s largest  dinner-house chains.  A giant in the world of  ‘seafood’ restaurants, this chain had an acceptable target of 7% waste in their food production system.  This cost was built into pricing and as an operator as long as you ran within a close proximity of this target you were in good standing with your ‘higher-up.’  This is still an accepted and common practice in large chains.  The major downfall of this system is that it does not promote innovation, it instead rewards the status quo!  This being said, at least these larger chains are measuring waste.  Many small and medium size food-service providers only measure ‘actual’ food cost, not understanding the value of measuring  ‘theoretical’ food cost and the obvious ramifications of not being able to distinguish between the two.

The second point to touch on is ‘time bound’ S.O.P.’s for perishable food items and how we handle them.  Often dictated by the Quality Assurance department these protocols can be likened to the ‘best before dates’ that we find in grocery stores.  Too often we set up systems to discard food and beverage without asking ourselves why the aforementioned  system is not using up these products in a timely manner in the first place.  This is where ‘old school’, chef driven kitchens thrive with the ability to run daily specials.  An unacceptable practice in large restaurant companies obsessed with ‘brand consistency’, many a KM has been disciplined (or even fired) for making ‘off menu’ dishes as specials to use  product about to go out of rotation.   I often asked myself when working in that environment  if this was an acceptable way of doing business?  Another outcome of this approach to ‘time bound’ S.O.P.’s is the policy that doesn’t allow staff to take food home from the workplace.  More often than not, restaurants will throw food out rather than offer it to staff to take home for their own personal use, a surprising policy given that many we employ in our restaurants live under the poverty line because of the low wages we pay them.


Now lets look at the last point to confront, one-use items used in the name of service!  Just this morning the server at a  local breakfast place we were visiting came by with a handful of wet naps for us to ‘freshen up’ our hands after our meal.  I’m hoping this isn’t an S.O.P. because if it is it’s an expensive one.  More likely than not an attempt to show care for her guests that will hopefully convey a higher level of attention.  The proliferation of one-use items for convenience and ‘sanitary’ reasons is out of control om restaurants today.  Take a look at the photo I’ve included of our breakfast table.  Notice the ‘waste’  generated through the convenience of one-use items.  Unfortunately the business owner is oblivious to the cost of this waste, both in an economical and environmental context.  Needless to say, I’ll be  moving my breakfast business elsewhere!

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