How to Calculate Restaurant Food Waste

Food waste is a perennial challenge of restaurant management. In an ideal world, you’d order the perfect amount of ingredients from your suppliers, sell perfectly-portioned meals to your customers, and report zero net losses. But that’s never the way it shakes out in reality. Fortunately, there are several strategies you can utilize today to calculate and reduce food waste.

All the food that ends up in the garbage after a shift represents unnecessary spending. It’s wasted money that you could be putting toward achieving other goals for your restaurant.

From an environmental perspective, food waste is responsible for 8% of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. And according to ReFED, the restaurant industry in the United States generates 11.4 million tons of food waste annually.

The first and most important step toward controlling food waste at your restaurant is by calculating its cost. In this article, we’re going to go through everything you need to know to drive a real, positive impact on your bottom line.

Where Restaurant Food Waste Comes From

Let’s start with a brief overview of where food waste comes from. The pie chart below from WRAP illustrates the average waste distribution across hospitality and food service research:

Credit: http://www.wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/Restaurants.pdf

  1. Food Spoilage

These are ingredients you bought too much supply of and they stayed on your shelves past the expiration date.  Food spoilage can happen for a variety of reasons including equipment malfunction, improper storage, over-supply, and purchasing poor-quality ingredients.

  1. Customer Plates

Portion sizes have increased substantially over the last few decades and the losses are being felt across the restaurant industry.  On average, restaurant customers in the US leave 17% of their meals unfinished.  There’s no reason why so much food should be coming back to the kitchen or packaged up for leftovers after a meal.

  1. Food Preparation

The majority of food waste at restaurants comes from the back of the house during shift prep work.  Inefficient chopping techniques, over-preparation of food, the lack of proper kitchen tools, and sending out the wrong orders all contribute to this.  Properly training your back of house staff is essential for minimizing losses here.

Now that you have a snapshot of where your waste is coming from, here’s how to calculate your actual numbers.

Calculating Your Restaurant Food Waste

Measure everything.  Diligence is key.  The sooner you develop healthy tracking protocols for your food waste and inventory calculations, the better off your restaurant will be in the long-run.

The process outlined below is a simple food waste audit.  This will give you an accurate picture of how much food is being wasted at your restaurant, where it’s coming from, and how much it’s impacting your bottom line.

Here’s how to complete it:

  1. Designate a trial period to calculate food waste

Instead of committing to a complete overhaul of your restaurant’s inventory and food management system, it’s easier to monitor your waste for specific periods at a time.  We recommend starting with at least one month to get an accurate picture of your restaurant’s food waste.

  1. Dispose of all food waste into specific bins

As discussed above, restaurant food waste comes from one of three sources: food spoilage, customer plates, and food prep.  In order to calculate where your waste is coming from, you’ll need to separate it out as your restaurant operates through a shift.  Purchase 3 separate garbage bins – one for each food waste source – and instruct your employees to dispose of all food waste in its appropriate bin.

  1. Weigh the bins at the end of each shift

At the end of every shift, weigh each of your food waste bins using an industrial scale.  Then log all of the numbers in a spreadsheet or your inventory management platform to organize your results.  At the end of the month, you’ll have food waste totals (by weight) from each waste category.

  1. Compare results with your inventory

Now it’s time to compare your food waste totals with your inventory and sales numbers to gain a clear picture of where you stand.  According to research, restaurants waste an average of 4-10% of all the inventory they purchase, so your target should be at or below 4%.

To get the most accurate results over time, conduct regular food waste audits throughout the year.

Engage Your Employees in the Process

Before getting started with your food waste calculation, inform your employees about the importance of the endeavor.  It’ll ensure that the restaurant continues to flourish in the future and they’ll be contributing to a lower environmental impact.

You’ll need the full support of your staff if you’re going to accurately calculate food waste at your restaurant.  Make your intentions clear and bring them into the process.  Since your employees are immersed in your restaurant’s daily operations, they often have the best suggestions for how you can improve efficiency and decrease your food wastage.

Expanding on Your Food Waste Calculation

Once you have preliminary food waste numbers from your trial month, break down your food waste even further by divvying up all your wasted ingredients into categories: meat, fish, dairy, grains, vegetables, spices, etc.  This will show you exactly where your waste is coming from. You may end up finding that one of your dishes is consistently coming back to the kitchen with unfinished salmon on the plate – a sure sign that the salmon portion is too large.

When most restaurant owners calculate their food waste for the first time, they’re often surprised by the amount of inventory that ends up in the dumpster every month.  Don’t get hung up on the numbers.  Instead, focus on what you can do to improve the situation.  Research has shown that for every dollar a restaurant invests in preventing food waste they make $7 in future profit.  That’s a 600% ROI. 

Running your food waste audit is a vital step forward toward a sustainable future.  Understanding where your food waste is coming from gives you the opportunity to make lasting changes that improve the efficiency and profitability of your restaurant over time.

Minimize your food waste and you’ll run a smarter business, save thousands of dollars annually, impactfully reinvest that money, and set your restaurant up for a future of continued success.