Restaurants cut down on food waste to help the bottom line

Restaurants, bakeries, grocery stores and other food retailers are in the business of making money, and so the issue of food waste is always front and center.

Not only does thrown-away food and grocery products hurt a company’s bottom line, but it also can negatively impact the environment when it ends up in landfills.

Careful purchasing helps to address the problem, but it’s also essential for commercial cooks to come up with innovative ways of repurposing meat, vegetables and other foods that weren’t used the day before, and be creative with food scraps, notes Bill Fuller, corporate chef for Big Burrito Group.

Kitchen staff at all 13 of Big Burrito’s restaurants in the Pittsburgh region, for instance, practice root-to-stem and tail-to-nose cooking. Leftover chicken carcasses and bones, beef scraps and discarded fish bones are simmered with vegetables in water to make stock. At Casbah, leftover bread is diced into squares and tossed with cream, dark chocolate and raspberries to create one of the Shadyside restaurant’s most favorite desserts — bread pudding.

“It’s about using everything the right way,” Mr. Fuller says.

As a result, there’s very little left over once the last dinner plate has been cleared. But on the rare occasion there is, it’s either given to employees as a staff meal or donated to the needy.

The menu at Scratch Food & Beverage in Troy Hill is similarly built on the creative reuse and cross-utilization of food. “When you’re trying to reduce waste, you have to look at the entire operation,” owner Don Mahaney says, including the waste that precedes any purchase. If you buy fish fillets instead of an entire fish, for instance, you have to take into account what the processor did with the bits and bones.

Also key is hiring stellar personnel who have the desire, and energy, to monitor food waste at each stage of the process. One way Scratch keeps a handle on waste is to wash dishes as they come back from the table. “Then you can ask, ‘Are we over portioning? Is something wrong with the fish?’” Mr. Mahaney says.

While food waste is dramatically lower today than it was even 10 years ago on the retail level, matching customer demand to the volume of product is still more of an art than a science, says Jannah Jablonowski, a spokesperson for Giant Eagle, which has more than 200 stores in four states. Which is why the grocery chain’s long-established partnerships with area food banks are so important.

Giant Eagle donates more than 6 million pounds of food annually to organizations such as Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, which is part of the Feeding America network. A year ago, it launched a partnership with 412 Food Rescue that enables the chain to donate bread, produce and bakery items to those in need — items that are typically too perishable to send to traditional food banks. Thanks to a dedicated core of “Food Rescue Heroes” and a new Uber-like app that matches volunteers to donors, the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization is able to take food directly to the people who need it, including schools, shelters and Meals on Wheels programs.

The grocery chain also is piloting a program in its Indianapolis store that turns meat scraps and other edible items that aren’t fit for human consumption into animal feed.

“It’s a step toward the industry ideal of zero waste,” Ms. Jablonowski says. “As a food retailer, we realize the impact of hunger in our communities.”

They’re joined in their efforts by bakeries such as Mediterra Bakehouse, which donates leftover bread to St Mary's Russian Orthodox Church in the Southside, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Mt. Lebanon and All Saints Greek Orthodox Church in Canonsburg, Uneaten day-old bread also makes its way to Light of Life Rescue Mission, City Mission in Washington, Pa., and “a local pig farmer in the area,” says manager Nicole Ambeliotis McLean. The Robinson bakehouse also leaves extra bread for vendors at local farmers markets.

Breadworks, too, is generous with its leftover bread. Whatever is not sold after its 5:30 p.m. “half-off” sale is donated to local food banks and charities. The North Side bakery also assists with local charity events, such as last Sunday’s Empty Bowls Dinner at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside.

Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1410 or on Twitter @gtmckay.


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