Restaurants turning to high-tech solutions to save money and waste.
Published: 29 Mar 2014
What next - a talking bin? We sent restaurant expert Joe Warwick to rummage through the garbage in a quest to find out what our restaurants are doing with their food waste.
From behind the kitchen door it sounded as if something had been kicked over. Pans were crashing, plates were smashing and utensils flying. Expletives - lots of them strung together like brutal poetry - were most definitely flying. I was meeting a chef friend for a mid-morning coffee at his restaurant and tried to ignore the ruckus as I waited in the empty dining room. Silence finally fell, and he appeared, his cheeks still flushed. "Sorry about that," he said, sadness and anger in his big French eyes, "I found a potato in the bin."
The best chefs tend to be fanatical about food waste. It's drilled into them throughout their training. To throw away food unnecessarily is to throw away money. Maintaining a good GP (gross profit) is both a badge of honour and a professional necessity. Restaurants survive on their profit margins and - if it's not their own businesses - head chefs are often incentivised with bonuses based on their kitchen costs. Food is the second biggest cost to a restaurant after labour and unnecessary food waste is bad for business. A clever chef knows how to get the best out of trimmings, scraps and the bits and pieces that a more careless cook might throw away.
Yet, despite this, an estimated 920,000 tons of food waste is thrown out by the UK hospitality industry each year, an estimated 75% of which is avoidable, according to government figures. That's the equivalent of £1.7bn worth of good food being wasted by restaurants and food service operations. It's wasted food, but also wasted money - and now the hospitality industry is searching for ways to reduce their waste. Last November a pilot scheme called FoodSave was launched, funded by the Mayor of London in partnership with the European Regional Development Fund and the London Waste and Recycling Board. For the restaurants who are taking part in the scheme with the help of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, that means installing a waste auditing system right in their very kitchen.
Statistics from WRAP suggest that on average 21% of food waste in restaurants arises from spoilage, 45% from food preparation and 34% from food that comes back on punters' plates. The Winnow system has a calibrated steel bin that weighs whatever food is put in it. It's connected to a touchscreen display with everything that gets thrown away initially categorised as lost either to 'inventory or spoilage damage', 'trimmings', 'cooking error', 'prepared not served' or 'plate waste'. There is then a second level of categorisation such as 'breads', 'dairy', 'fruit and veg', 'fish' and 'meat'. The software is customisable to each business - you could have different types and cuts of meat for instance, and a monetary value given to each category. In the case of 'bones and shells' that's nothing but they're still weighed so that the business can see how much their disposal is costing.
Stocktaking food waste doesn't sound particularly sexy, but if the enthusiasm of the system's early adopters is any indication, it's a very useful bit of kit. During the four-week trial, the first week is used to establish a baseline for the establishment in question, with any data collected then used to implement changes in the following weeks. That could mean changing food ordering patterns or reducing portion sizes.
Even in restaurants that pride themselves in having low levels of food waste, it can produce results. Sam's Brasserie in Chiswick, already rated by the SRA as having a best-in-class kitchen efficiency, undertook the trial and managed to reduce their food waste by a further 30%, an equivalent saving of £5000 over the course of the year.
I went to have a look at it in action during a lunch service at Fino on Charlotte Street. It's installed in the pot wash where all dishes are usually scraped and the kitchen porter is based. The touchtone screen is intuitive and much easier to get your head around than the average smartphone.
"We didn't want them to think that it was a witch hunt where we were going to come in and point fingers," explains Fino proprietor, Eddie Hart of the decision to get involved in the trial. "We just thought that it was something interesting that we could do with the team so that we could learn."
There was initial scepticism about how the system would work in the heat of a busy service. "Everyone is happy now," says the Fino group's chef Nieves Barragán Mohacho. "But they were all freaking out to begin with that it was going to make service difficult. But now that everyone knows what they are doing, it's easy." There is a shortcut button on the display that simplifies the categorisation process if the plates really start to pile up in the pot wash.
"What sometimes is a bit of a problem is that all the food waste has to go in the same bin," say the SRA's Victoria Moorhouse, who is helping businesses implement the scheme. "Front of house plate waste has to go into the same bin as kitchen waste and that can sometimes be a challenge. We need them to stream everything together which can be a challenge both because of logistics and changing staff behaviour - you're asking them to change a way of working that has become ingrained and that takes effort."
Over at The Shed in Notting Hill, they got on so well with the system over their trial that they went out and bought it. For restaurants that participate in FoodSave, the kit costs £1650 to install and then there's a £75 monthly fee. "We did very well in the trial period, we were well below the benchmark in terms of our food waste," explains Alex Winch, sustainability manager for The Shed. "But we just wanted to get involved with a scheme like this right at the beginning."
The Shed are working with Winnow Solutions to development the software further. "At the moment the machine is simply a recording device, it won't actually help us reduce waste. We need to find ways to do that. One thing we've been discussing is somehow installing into the system ideas of how to use that unnecessary waste. So, for example, if you're throwing out orange peel, the display could prompt you to make marmalade. The SRA has database full of alternative uses for food waste, it would be interesting to tap into that and see what happens."
The talking kitchen bin might be on its way. Let's just hope some angry chef doesn't give it a kicking when it finally arrives.
Courtesy of The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/mar/28/restaurants-food-waste-technology