5 Ways Making Your Restaurant More Sustainable Can Boost Your Bottom Line

three plates of food and water glasses

Shifting your restaurant's focus towards sustainability can be a big deal to customers and have even bigger implications for your bottom line.

If you own a restaurant, you know one thing for certain: things move fast. Diners’ eating habits shift quickly from one trend to the next, industry standards and expectations evolve at lightning speed, and menu items tend to go from fully stocked to sold out in a matter of moments — or in the worst-case scenario, they go from stocked to spoiled. The latter is oftentimes not an indication of your restaurant’s performance but, instead, a reflection of our society.

Food waste in the United States is estimated to range between 30 and 40% of the food supply, resulting in over 100 billion pounds of food waste and a staggering $161 billion loss. While there are a number of actions the average grocery shopper can take to reduce these numbers (the USDA and the EPA have established a nationwide goal to cut food waste by 50% by 2030), restaurateurs are in a unique position to take the lead — and potentially boost their bottom line.

According to the National Restaurant Association, there’s a 7:1 benefit-to-cost ratio in reducing food waste. ReFed estimates that the industry could gain as much as $1.6 billion in profits annually by investing in food reduction practices. Furthermore, it matters to customers.

When consumers were asked which sector in sustainability is most important, the food and beverage industry came in second behind the automotive industry.

Here are a few ways you can make your restaurant more sustainable:

Track and analyze your food waste

Pre-service waste: To effectively reduce your food waste, you have to first know where to start. Tracking and analyzing your food waste can help you discover areas where you could benefit from the most change. Produce and dairy, on average, tend to be the most wasted food items in the U.S., but your restaurant might experience loss in other food types.

You can track your food waste by locating areas in your kitchen where waste tends to happen (prep stations, dish pit, hot and cold line, etc.) and updating a spreadsheet every time a food product gets wasted. The spreadsheet can be as simple as four columns: food item, date, time of day, and waste reason.

To make it easier to convert your findings to a dollar amount, consider placing bins at each place where food waste occurs and label them by food item so you can accurately measure how much is being wasted against how much is being sold.

Post-service waste: Unlike pre-service waste, post-service waste is uneaten food that has been served to customers. Setting up collection bins wherever customer plates are scraped can help you identify opportunities for waste reduction. For example, a full bin of leftover vegetables or uneaten pasta might indicate that reexamining your portion sizes could help reduce waste. It can also help you adjust your menu and eliminate items that your customers are not ordering, keeping money in your pocket. 

Don’t forget to properly train your kitchen staff on these new approaches to ensure you record accurate results.

Rethink your supply orders

If after examining your food waste you notice that you tend to use part of a particular item more than you use the whole item itself, it may be time to consider ordering just that part. Work with your suppliers to try a test run of an adjusted order and compare your savings and food waste against your full, original order. In the National Restaurant Association’s food waste report, one restaurant opted to buy lobster tails instead of full lobsters and managed to reduce its food waste by 62%. The cutback on prep time managed to make their staff more efficient and cut back on labor costs making their switch effective for the business overall.

Working with your suppliers can also be impactful in cases where inventory is underused. Regardless of whether you’ve overordered or noticed a shift in customer buying habits, check to see if your supplier has customers who are able to use what you don’t. This can work to prevent food and money from being wasted while also helping to establish stronger relationships with your suppliers that could benefit your business in the long run.

Square for Restaurants can help you keep track of your inventory to help you identify potential areas of waste reduction.

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Make your menu design count

On the heels of managing and reexamining your inventory, give the design of your menu another look. Believe it or not, the way you design your menu can have a direct impact on your food waste and your profits. Implementing portion sizes such as “full” or “half” allows customers to order based on appetite instead of having to settle for the typical standard size. 

You can also impact your food waste and profits by optimizing customer preferences. Allowing diners to choose from a small selection of sides can be more appealing than simply having to settle for french fries. Opening up the side options to a vegetable, fruit, or other option on your menu can also expand your customer base. A person managing their weight might be more willing to buy a burger if they had the option to swap out the fries with a side salad.

Don’t underestimate the power of donation

Donating your unused food items can reduce your food waste, ensure your money doesn’t go to waste, and have a positive impact on how your customers perceive your brand. A study at Northwestern University found that when customers were told a winery donated to a charitable organization they rated their wine higher than customers who weren’t told. There’s also a federal tax incentive available to restaurants that donate and meet specific criteria.

Organizations such as the Food Donation Connection or the U.S. Department of Agriculture can help you locate local donation centers in your area.

You can also choose to serve unused prepared food at a discounted price to college students or struggling families through surplus food partners. Notifications of available food are pushed out through an app or online platform and customers can order them and pick them up at a designated time. This allows you to serve your community and open your restaurant up to a new customer base at a lower price.

The impact of diverting away from landfills

Managing your inventory, your menu, or how you contribute to society doesn’t erase the fact that inedible food and scraps are just a part of the job. Regardless, how you dispose of them still matters. Diverting your food away from landfills and composting instead has a significant impact on the environment but it can also be meaningful for your business’ landfill fees. 

Because we typically have to pay for our trash to be picked up and disposed of, it would benefit us to reduce our trash output altogether. In New York City, over 1.2 million tons of waste is sent to landfills, costing taxpayers over $80 per ton and that number rises significantly for businesses and corporations. 

Middlebury College in Vermont began composting 90% of the food waste on campus (dining halls being one of the biggest culprits) and saw savings of $100,000 in waste disposal fees, roughly $270 per ton of waste.

The cost of composting bins varies by the needs of the restaurant, but the investment can have a profound impact for the environment and your restaurant in the long run. There are also several ways you can compost (inside, outside, pre-service, post-service, etc.). Check your local and state guidelines before you start composting to ensure you comply with the necessary regulations.

Reducing food waste might require your business to work a bit differently, but in most cases, it can maximize your staff, boost your brand, and, of course, improve your bottom line. Explore the ways that work best for your restaurant’s needs and remember to train your team(s) appropriately.