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The challenges of food waste in the catering industry

The challenges of food waste in the catering industry

by Ollie Lloyd 02 August 2018

Food waste is a constant concern both at home and in restaurant kitchens. Ollie Lloyd talks to Tom Mansel of Lean Path to see how his company helps chefs cut down on what goes in the bin.

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Picture a bin – your bin, say, and have a rummage inside (if you’re up for it). Only you can know what’s in there, but I would hazard a guess at peelings, trimmings, wrappers and packaging and (whisper it) the odd scrapings of leftovers. Now picture this bin, but on the scale of a seventy-cover restaurant, and you have some idea of what the industry is facing when it comes to meeting targets on wasted food. No chef wants to throw produce away: even just on a financial level, it’s money in the bin, and restaurants run on tight enough margins as it is. Yet for many chefs this idea comes secondary to the ethical and environmental principles of throwing away what could or should have been perfectly serviceable food.

Seven percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions are due to food waste, according to WRAP, the government’s food waste advisory body. In the UK, 1.9m tons of food is wasted by the food industry – 400,000 tons of which could, with the right planning, be redistributed to the four million people in the country who struggle daily to afford a meal. Several tech companies are onto this already: Too Good to Go are a take away service that connects restaurants with surplus food to consumers who want it – at 50% of the price. Plan Z Heroes collect surplus from restaurants, shops and markets and redistributes it to shelters, refuges and charities dealing with food poverty. Yet Lean Path, the latest firm to take up the waste mantel, takes that one step further – or perhaps more accurately, one step back.

Hear more about food waste on FoodTalk

Hear what Tom Mansel had to say about food waste in the catering industry on the FoodTalk podcast by clicking here.

‘We work with contract caterers, hotels, restaurants, care homes – anyone dealing with large amounts of food to help them measure what they are wasting and when, and take concrete steps to reduce it,’ says Tom Mansel of Lean Path – thus combating waste before the meal is even plated. ‘We measure waste pre-consumer – trimmings, spoilage and so on – and we work post-consumer, in levels of granularity.’ Put bluntly, with the aid of scales, cameras and user interfaces, Lean Path can take a look at the scrapings of each customer’s plate.

Maybe the portion sizes are too big. Maybe customers are being encouraged to over-order. Maybe the steak and chips, while a popular choice, is not meeting the customers’ expectations and being discarded. All this and more can be measured by Lean Path, simply through one of the kitchen team placing the food to be thrown on a built-in scale. ‘The camera takes a picture of the waste and the user answers a few questions about it, with just a few short taps,’ explains Tom – mindful that in the heat of the kitchen, the process must be speedy. That data is then automatically transmitted in real-time to the Lean Path Online Reporting Dashboard, which can analyse it and feedback on the food’s value, why it was wasted (‘burnt, poorly trimmed or peeled, surplus: all this we can see on the camera’) – and whether this is a recurring pattern – in which case, Lean Path will compute what the annual footprint of that waste would be in terms of, say, the number of cars on the road or the loss of revenue.

‘We use vivid equivalents to help teams engage with the concept, because the long-term goal of this technology is to enable a change in behaviour,’ says Tom. ‘Chefs are busy, and they want their fingers on the pulse of what is going on in the kitchen.’ To this end, Lean Path can provide the restaurants with an alert if what is on the scale is going over a certain cost threshold, and set smart goals based on the type of food being discarded, too.

Sometimes the solution is as simple as education. For example, if there’s routinely meat on the chucked fat rind, the staff need to brush up their knife skills. Often though, it is more complicated. Restaurants can inadvertently create waste in their efforts solve other problems. ‘Concerns about not producing enough food, concerns about food safety, pressure to provide a diversity of options: all this translates into overproduction and surplus food.

‘Where it starts to get interesting is when it is not just an individual kitchen, but a number of different kitchens across an operation,’ continues Tom. ‘That’s when this can help businesses make smart purchasing decisions, innovative new menus and thereby communicate to staff and customers the environmental and social value of these actions.’ At its best, technology like Lean Path serves simply to enable better decision making in the fast-paced, high-pressured world of catering – both by the leadership, and those they are leading.

For the last few years, research amongst young people suggests they care more for experiences than they do things – but that those experiences must align with their values. David Attenborough’s now-iconic Blue Planet II series is just the crest of the wave of environmental concern – anger, even – that has been building amongst younger generations for some time. As they become ever more painfully aware of the impacts of climate change, waste and the rise in food insecurity, these customers will be turning to brands and companies and demanding they up the ante: and they will not shy away from questioning the contents of their bin.

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