Less Waste, More Speed

What is food waste costing the US restaurant industry? Alto-Shaam's survey reveals the environmental and financial toll of surplus food.

Less Waste More Speed: The Cost of Food Waste to US Restaurants 

Customer plate waste and inadequate or outdated kitchen equipment are among the biggest causes of food waste in the U.S. restaurant industry, causing operators to lose almost $21,000 a year in surplus food, according to a new operator survey conducted by Alto-Shaam. 

Managing food waste in America is an ongoing challenge: surplus food is costing the country $408 billion and 40% of all food produced in the United States ends up in landfills, where its decomposition process produces emissions equivalent to 12 million cars.  

Growing awareness of the economic and environmental impacts of food waste has led to a surge in restaurant operators joining the fight against food waste through employee training, inventory management, and food recovery programs. Of those surveyed, 93% of respondents have implemented or are in the process of implementing waste reduction initiatives 

However, there is little that can be done about surplus food that isn’t fit for donation. Fifty four percent of respondents cited customer plate waste as a primary reason for ongoing food waste in their establishment – more than any other cause.  

This report examines the financial and environmental effects of this challengeexplores the potential solutions for consumers and operators, and measures the potential impact this could have on botcosts and emissions.  

Key findings

  • One-fifth of restaurants lose more than $400 a week, or $20,800 a year, because of food waste. 

  • 57% of operators estimate that they throw out between 100-500lbs of food in an average week. 

  • Some of the biggest causes of this waste include customer plate waste (54%), fresh food spoiling (49%), demand fluctuations (48%), inadequate or outdated equipment, and storage (32%). 

Cost to operators: What’s eating into profits? 

The U.S. restaurant and foodservice industry has faced an uphill battle in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic was an unprecedented disruption to operators: between March 2020 and March 2021, 10% of the restaurants were forced to close permanently. 

Following this, restaurateurs have found themselves struggling against rapid inflation in the cost of food, rising rents, and a sharp decrease in both sit-down mealsas customers face a cost-of-living squeeze and in footfall from nearby workplaces as many businesses have switched to remote and hybrid working models  

But it’s not just the cost of operating that is creating a drain on restaurant profitsIt’s that much of their expense ends up going to waste. 

According to a recent survey conducted by Alto-Shaam, 35% of operators estimate that food waste costs them between $201-300 a weekwhereas almost a third (29%) estimate that it costs them $300+.  

What’s more, 6% of operators are losing a massive $500 a week to surplus food – that's $26,000 a year. This money could fund: 

  • A full year’s salary for entry-level wait staff 

  • 1-7 pieces of critical kitchen equipment 

  • 4-5 months’ rent 

  • A new website  

  • An in-restaurant app 

  • 3.5 months of marketing. 

Feeling the bite: The environmental cost of food waste 

The cost of food waste goes beyond the financial lossIt also has a serious carbon footprint: It’s estimated that 8-10% of all man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from food waste.  

The environmental impact of food waste comes from two main factors:  

  1. The resources wasted in producing and transporting the food. 

  1. The emissions that result from food that ends up in landfills. 

A commonly cited statistic is that 1lb of food waste produces 3.8lbs of greenhouse gases (GHG), not including landfill emissions. If the food waste goes to landfill, the decomposition process releases methane, a gas 28 times more potent than CO2. 

It’s estimated that 100lbs of food waste in landfills produces 8.3lbs of methane. 

Wasting no time: Most restaurants already pursuing waste reduction initiatives  

Restaurant operators are acutely aware and proactively working to mitigate the financial and environmental impact caused by ongoing food waste.  

Out of those surveyed, 83% of restaurants had already implemented waste reduction strategies, with a further 10% stating that they are in the process of introducing such initiatives. Similarly, 20% said they don’t feel the US food industry as a whole is doing enough to reduce food waste. 

The most common innovations restaurants are applying to curb surplus food are:  

  • Employee training and awareness (53%): Educating staff on reducing food waste and on proper waste measurement best practices. 

  • Waste logs (46%): Maintaining a daily record of food waste types and quantities before disposal. 

  • Inventory management systems (44%): Tracking food usage, spoilage rates, and expiration dates. 

  • Kitchen waste sorting (44%): Setting up a system for separating different types of waste to reduce the amount of food going to landfill. 

  • Waste audits (37%): Conducting periodic waste audits to identify trends and areas for improvement. 

  • Food waste tracking software (30%): Using specialized software for digital recording, analysis, and reporting. 

  • Pre-customer waste tracking (29%): Monitoring waste generated before reaching the customer, like trimmings and spoiled ingredients from food preparation. 

  • Menu engineering (27%): Analyzing sales data to identify menu items generating the most waste. 

  • Post-customer waste tracking (26%): Measuring uneaten food left on plates by customers. 

  • Collaboration with suppliers (25%): Working with suppliers to better manage inventory turnover rates. 

  • Purchased oven or heated holding technology (21%): These technologies reduce food waste caused by poor cooking or holding equipment. 

Among operators that have implemented these methods, 94% have noticed financial benefits.  

Reducing food waste could save restaurants thousands 

Despite these considerable efforts, food waste in the U.S. restaurant industry persists. 

According to restaurant operators, the leading cause of this waste is customers not finishing their meal (54%), followed by: 

  • Spoilage of fresh food (49%) 

  • Demand fluctuations (48%) 

  • Inaccurate portioning (38%) 

  • Inconsistent cooking causing a burnt or otherwise unusable product (36%) 

  • Overproduction (34%) 

  • Menu items – such as specials – failing to sell (34%)  

  • Inadequate or outdated kitchen equipment and storage (32%). 

A considerable portion of restaurant food waste can therefore be chalked up to two factors: Customer decision-making and restaurant operators not having the right equipment to keep food fresh and ensure a consistent yield and cook quality. 

Should these two factors be entirely or partially resolved, restaurants could make massive financial and environmental savings. 

Fifty seven percent of operators estimate that they throw out 100lbs or more of food waste in a standard week – more than 5,200lbs of food waste a year. Based on this, if customer plate waste dropped by half (27%), restaurants currently losing $400 or more to surplus food could save upwards of $5,928 a year.  

Additionally, restaurants disposing of 100lbs or more of food waste a week would save at least 5,335lbs of pre-landfill GHG emissions per restaurant per year and 116.5lbs of methane. 

Investing in fit-for-purpose equipment could also bring food waste down (by up to 32%), creating an annual saving of more than $6,656 for restaurants losing $400 or more a week. Restaurants disposing of 100lbs or more in food waste a week could also save up to 6,323lbs of pre-landfill GHG emissions and 138lbs of methane a year. 

How Alto-Shaam equipment reduces food waste 

One of the biggest difficulties that restaurant operators face in tackling food waste is replacing equipment. After all, commercial kitchen equipment has not been traditionally built with environmental concerns in mind.  

Some conventional oven types – such as convection or impingement ovens – risk perpetuating problems that cause food waste, such as inconsistent cooking, as they offer little control over the air inside the oven.  

Alto-Shaam’s Structured Air Technology®used in their multi-cook ovensallows operators to control the temperature and fan speed inside each individual cooking chamber. This technology allows operators to cook multiple items at different temperatures and fan speeds at the same time with no flavor transfer, ensuring a consistent cook quality for every recipe and speeding up service times.  

Consistent cooking reduces food waste with vertical airflow that ensures every biscuit or bit of bacon on the pan is evenly cooked without the need to babysit the oven.  

Halo Heat® is another innovation that can help operators minimize food waste and is used in Alto-Shaam’s Cook & Hold ovens and heated holding equipment. This technology can be used to hold food at the correct temperature until it is ready for service without the use of fans, added humidity, or harsh heating elements.  

Many Alto-Shaam ovens also have the option of ChefLinca remote oven management system, that equips chefs and operators with data that can help them manage recipesimprove efficiency and more 

Furthermore, Alto-Shaam’s Quickchiller™ blast chillers are another solution for minimizing waste. These units can be utilized to quickly and safely chill food items, preserving flavors and adding additional shelf life to products in the kitchen. 

“Although customer plate waste is the biggest driver of food waste in the restaurant industry, it’s important for operators to be aware of the role equipment plays in solving this drain on their resources,” said Lucy McQuillan, President of Alto-Shaam.   

Pairing these system solutions together – such as Vector® multi-cook oven, Cook & Hold oven, Quickchiller™ blast chiller and holding equipment – can give operators more options for prolonging the shelf life and quality of food up until the moment of service. 

Many of these systems can also replace multiple items of equipment restaurants are already using, bringing down costs and freeing up space in the kitchen.”   

Replacing and streamlining kitchen equipment with modern alternatives built with food waste reduction, food quality, and environmental friendliness in mind is an excellent next step for restaurant operators who remain committed to curbing the financial and environmental cost of food waste.  

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