In our festive Talking Point, Benjamin Lephilibert, Managing Director of Lightblue Environmental Consulting looks at why tackling food waste is like going to the gym.
The importance of minimising food waste is nearly as universally understood as the importance of good health. But in both cases, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re doing a better job than you really are.
Someone looking to shed a few pounds might decide on a 5-day boot camp, but even if they achieve their desired weight they wouldn’t maintain any gains if they went back to their old ways. It is the same with food waste prevention programmes in your hotel - it requires adopting a daily routine, as well as changing your diet.
You need to be clear on what parts of your behaviour and thinking have to be changed to stay on top of your food waste prevention game. Here are seven common misconceptions restauranteurs and hotel managers have when it comes to food waste.
- We don’t waste that much food (…we think)
Ignorance is bliss they say. But in business you can’t manage what you don’t measure. It’s paramount to gain a thorough knowledge of what you are throwing away to understand how much is wasted, when it’s wasted (which shift of the day, which day of the week), where it’s wasted (spoilage? preparation? buffet? plate?), what is wasted, and why.
All you need are a simple system of color-coded bins and containers, a small kitchen scale, an Excel spreadsheet, and a commitment to do the job to get you started on measuring how much food waste you actually generate.
- It’s the chefs’ responsibility
Wrong, especially for larger operations with several outlets and dozens of bins that act as “food waste black-holes”.
Food waste is the responsibility of everyone who handles food within your organisation, so you have to include: your purchasing manager, to integrate knowledge of the shelf-life of products into purchasing decisions; the receiving manager, to check the quality of items to avoid spoilage; the storage manager, to monitor expiry dates; service employees to spot less popular items; and engineers, to run routine checks on the calibration of equipment (especially fridges and ovens) and avoid unnecessary food waste.
- We forget to explain why we’re saving food
Depending on your geographic and cultural context, your employees may never have learned why wasting food is bad for the environment (water waste, waste from packaging, CO2 from transportation, processing, and storage etc), from a social perspective (up to 900 million people worldwide do not have enough to eat), and for your profitability. Ensure that food waste becomes a topic mentioned to your employees on a daily basis if you expect perspectives and practices to evolve.
- No need for the carrot, the stick will do
It is harder to force people to change their SOPs (standard operating procedures) if you can’t answer the question: “What’s in it for us?”
Simple and inexpensive incentives, such as “Food Lover of the Month” award, in which you invite your most dedicated employees to eat “like a guest” in your restaurant, can produce effective results. Or, set up an employee’s fund, where a certain percent of the savings made will be redistributed and used by employees for staff outings, birthday celebrations or staff parties. Giving people positive reasons to comply is by far the most impactful approach you can adopt.
- We control the buffet, we control food waste
By the time food reaches the buffet line, it has been through several critical food waste-generating points.
In some hotels we have seen up to 47 percent of food waste occurs at the pre-consumer level, either as spoilage or preparation waste. Do not underestimate the importance of accurate forecasts, good storage (calibration of equipment and best practices like First in First out), and preparation (standard recipes, knife skills, and general awareness of employees) in your efforts to reduce waste. A lot of improvements can be made upstream.
- Our food cost is within budget = we are doing great
As hoteliers and managers you are most likely to be using food cost percentage, or the ratio of the cost of food to total sales generated from selling food, to monitor the financial performance of your operations, and if you are within budget, you may consider the job as done. The problem is that your food cost percentage does not reflect how effective you are in maximising the use of food as a resource. We have worked with hotels that have had a very low food cost percentage - around 28 percent - but also had high levels of food waste in their operations.
Instead, we use our tool called the Food Efficiency Indicator (FEI), which is calculated as (total amount of food waste in kg) / (total food bought in kg). For that particular hotel, the result showed that out of 100 kg of food bought for outlets, 38 kilos were ending up in the bin. The FEI measure only looks at the amount of produce that can be consumed, so things like inedible vegetable trimmings are not counted towards the amount of food waste generated.
Imagine how you could improve your profitability if you adopted this key performance indicator and made it a focus within your business model.
- It’s too much effort for too few benefits
The financial impact of food waste is often misunderstood, mainly because of a lack of data (how many kilos of food is wasted per day), and the fact that associated costs are often overlooked.
To calculate the true cost of food waste, you need to take the purchasing price of each item, and add costs related to energy, water and labour. According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP ), a leading UK think tank on food waste, the purchasing price represents only 62 percent of that true cost.
So when you know that a hotel selling 15,000 meals a month can generate more than 70 tonnes of food waste per year, and that the average true cost of food waste per kilo is 5 USD, it becomes easier to understand the scale of savings to be made from reducing food waste.
Getting your food business fit can be easily achieved by taking a few steps in the right direction and committing to extra exercise.
Hotels can start saving on food expenses by looking at the scales. We have seen hotels serving fewer than 400 daily covers (and an additional 1000 for the staff canteen) making losses of 1600 USD per day.
Twenty percent of that cost can be saved by implementing a monitoring system, reviewing your storage practices and empowering your employees. Start small and monitor change, you will be pleasantly surprised when you see how much you can save by paying real attention to this issue.