Story by Natalie Pearson | @foodwastestories
Image by Erin Chapman | @erins_illustrations
‘I’ve always loved nature and I’ve always loved food, but then when you watch something like Planet Earth… I’ve got angry and I’ve mourned about what the world’s doing… and then I’ve come the other side going… you’ve actually got to positively harness that energy into something great. And the pub’s taught me that sustainability is not just about a responsibility on our shoulders, it’s actually… sustainability is joy.’Research participant
After becoming increasingly frustrated with food waste while working in the hospitality industry, I undertook research to understand how hospitality businesses can prevent food waste, and how employees can drive change within and beyond their businesses. I talked to people working in small independent cafes and pubs, venues with multiple catering outlets, small and large catering companies, and national restaurant chains.
This food waste story summarises my findings. It is possible to use some of these 16 strategies in our own homes, and the last section suggests ways in which we can all help.
Food waste in hospitality
I was in a café the other day and the barista had made a customer a small latte when it should have been a large one, so it had to be replaced. What happened to that drink? I know from my own café experience that there are only so many wrong coffees that staff can drink in a day!
According to WRAP, the hospitality industry wastes the equivalent of 1 in 6 meals. They estimate that 21% of this waste comes from spoilage, 45% from preparation, and 34% from consumer plates, with only 12% being recycled. What is most astounding is that 75% of hospitality food waste is avoidable!
Food waste prevention is often not a priority and hospitality employees do not know how to prevent it. But there is great potential for changing the status quo. From the small independent cafes to the large national restaurant chains, hospitality businesses can have a particular impact because they are situated on the interface of customers on one side, and food suppliers, manufacturers and farmers on the other.
So, what do hospitality businesses do to prevent food waste?
I found that there are many strategies that hospitality businesses can – and do – use to reduce food waste in their business and ensure that any unavoidable waste is disposed of in the best possible way.
Preventing preparation and spoilage waste
1. Buying and cooking food as needed – Smaller and more regular deliveries give businesses more control over what they have in stock, especially if a business can buy food locally. However, larger businesses tend to have strict menus and sourcing policies and are restricted by what their suppliers offer and how regularly they can deliver.
2. Freezing food in portions/buying food in frozen – Many hospitality businesses reported that they have increasingly made use of their freezers since the pandemic, challenging the perception that frozen food is of lower quality: ‘I freeze any surplus cakes and they are absolutely fine when you take them out of the freezer… so even on cakes we don’t have to throw anything away.’
3. Restricted menu and/or menu spontaneity – Smaller menus mean businesses have less food in stock and can manage supply and demand more effectively, while more flexible menus allow chefs to adapt the menu according to what needs using quickly. However, some businesses believe that ‘people would want more choice going forward’.
4. Specification sheets for dishes – These provide clear instructions to employees to ensure portion sizes and quality standards are always met, regardless of who is preparing the dish.
5. Repurposing ingredients and creative cooking – The most common example of repurposing ingredients is using vegetable scraps in stocks and soups. Other sustainability-led businesses illustrate creative use of ingredients by following a nose-to-tail/root-to-tip or zero waste philosophy to make potato peel crisps, whey ice cream, coffee sriracha, porridge bread, cauliflower leaf bhajis, candied peel and more. However, what is created needs to be suitable for the customer-base.
6. Being mindful and using common sense – Easier said than done, particularly in a fast-paced environment like the hospitality industry. However, this could be enabled through things like specification sheets and staff training.
7. Staff training – Training in food safety practices, fridge management, portion control and customer service can all help in preventing food waste because they give employees the relevant skills. Examples include stock rotation, chopping techniques, measuring ingredients, and understanding customers’ needs.
Preventing customer plate waste
8. Recommending dishes to customers – Waiting staff can give customers an indication of portion sizes and how many side dishes they might need to suit their appetite. Understanding what a customer needs can also help staff to recommend dishes that the customer might enjoy.
9. Checkbacks – Checking how customers are finding the food allows problems to be rectified quickly. While this may still create waste if a dish needs to be returned, it provides feedback to chefs that they can use to improve the dish and minimise the potential for plate waste in the future.
10. Providing doggy bags – For some businesses, this is a formal practice and staff are trained to ask customers if they would like to take home their leftovers but, in many cases, it is down to individual staff initiative or customer-led. Studies have found that offering customers boxes to take home any leftovers makes it more socially acceptable and increases uptake compared to customers requesting a box themselves. However, there are concerns that doggy bags merely transfer food waste to the home.
Managing food waste
‘Colour coded bins are just one of those key things that completely changes how the kitchen works.’Research participant
11. Monitoring food waste – Food waste is monitored in different ways. Often, hospitality staff notice food waste and adapt food practices without realising they are doing it out of habit and experience. However, explicitly monitoring food waste has been found in other studies to be the number one way to prevent food waste. Businesses use manual or computer-aided food waste sheets or specific AI programmes to identify where food waste is occurring so they can target it more effectively. Stock-taking was also identified as a useful practice in managing food waste.
12. Separate food waste bins – Separate waste streams means that any food waste that does occur can be disposed of in a sustainable way, but they also help prevent food waste in the long-run as employees are more aware of what they are throwing away. However, space is often a key issue that prevents businesses from separating their waste.
13. Redistributing surplus food – Donating surplus food to charities is more appropriate in large businesses that have larger quantities of food waste due to logistical reasons. For smaller businesses, a common practice is for staff to take home leftovers.
14. Composting/food waste collections – Those businesses that separate their food waste deal with it in different ways. These include food waste collections where food is sent for anaerobic digestion; in-house composting; and closed-loop supply chains where a business sends their waste to a farmer who turns it into compost. Used coffee grounds are also collected by customers for use on their gardens.
Holistic approaches to hospitality food waste prevention
Some hospitality businesses also use their business as a vehicle for sustainability to try to influence food waste and sustainability practices beyond their businesses.
15. Food waste campaigns and courses – These are used to educate customers about food waste and how they can prevent it. Some hospitality businesses and eco-chefs also use social media as a platform to talk about food waste.
16. Collaboration with other stakeholders – Research shows how collaboration is central to food waste prevention. By looking at what other food businesses are doing, working directly with their farmers and suppliers and/or becoming members of food sustainability-focused organisations and campaigns, like the Sustainable Restaurant Association or Guardians of the Grub, hospitality businesses can drive change within their own business, the hospitality industry, and the food industry more broadly.
What can we do to help?
‘Everybody has the same connection: it’s called food.’Research participant
We all eat food, and we are, to varying degrees, consumers of hospitality – and many of us also work within the food industry. Through these roles, we all have the opportunity to influence the way that food waste is prevented and managed.
First and foremost, we need to rethink our expectations about food and hospitality. Our perceptions of quality, choice and speedy service can be at odds with food waste prevention, so we can make food waste prevention part of our expectations when we go out to eat.
- Go to your local café and request their used coffee grounds to go on your garden or homemade products.
- Request the option of different portion sizes.
- Ask to take home your leftovers – and make sure you eat them later!
- If someone makes a mistake, if possible ask for financial compensation rather than a replacement.
- Support businesses that have smaller menus.
- Suggest separate food bins for customers to segregate their waste.
- If you feel confident, start a conversation with your favourite hospitality businesses about how they prevent food waste.
If you work in a hospitality business, you can share some of the findings above with your colleagues and managers.
You may be the first person to ask, or you may be part of a line of customers and employees who have made similar suggestions. Over time this can influence a business to adapt their practices, as well as influence your dining companions to make the same requests when they go out elsewhere.
Remember, food waste is still something of a taboo subject, so the tone and the language you use is really important when having these conversations – especially if you are talking to a frontline employee who may have limited control over organisational practices.
My research has also had a big impact on the way I think about food waste. I have come to think about food waste as a waste of labour, money, water, energy, packaging and other resources that occurs across the food chain. When I go out to eat and drink, I am so much more attuned to what other businesses are doing. I think I’ve always noticed what other customers leave on their plates and I have often been frustrated by the lack of food waste bins for customers, but now I cannot stop noticing it – like that poor barista I mentioned before!
But I agree that sustainability is joy. The strategies show that reducing waste means connecting better with food, connecting better with customers and the community, connecting with other businesses, and being creative. Personally, the research also means I now do my best to support businesses that are actively trying to prevent food waste across their supply chains, adapt the way I actually talk about food waste with other people and, of course, inspires the questions I want to explore in future research.
If you would like to continue this conversation further, I would love to connect. In addition, if you work in the hospitality industry and would like more information about how to talk about food waste with your managers/employees, colleagues and/or customers, please drop me a message.
Natalie is a PhD researcher at the University of Bath. Her research interests span issues of food waste and sustainability. She worked in the hospitality industry for many years. The best way to connect is on Instagram @foodwastestories where she mostly posts about growing her own food.