Tracking Tales: Three Green Practices Foodservice Operators Should Implement Right Now

As sustainability becomes more mainstream for businesses of all types, the many ways to "go green" can overwhelm foodservice operators in all segments.

tracking food wasteBy now we all know energy, water, waste and menu management not only save costs, but also help preserve precious resources. So what are some easy first steps to take in these areas?

FE&S caught up with sustainability guru and former Yale University executive chef John Turenne, FCSI, founder and president of Sustainable Food Systems, for his thoughts, along with a couple of operators who offered their suggestions for best green practices they would encourage others to implement. The consensus: tracking, simply put, is an important first step for better business visibility and sets the groundwork for a more advanced sustainable program.

1. TRACK FOOD PRODUCTION

When it comes to waste management, tracking both production and waste by weight can help reduce "upstream" costs associated with too much food.

Tracking food production in particular costs little to nothing, save for a little extra time, and it's well worth it in the end, according to Turenne. With all the software and spreadsheet tools on the market these days, that task keeps getting easier for chefs and foodservice managers. No need to fear that you're going to run out of food.

"Monitoring upstream waste helps cut back on pesticide use, water consumption and fuel consumption just in the agriculture process alone," says Turenne. "We're ordering less food and products that we would have thrown away because we're producing less or producing just the right amount."

Turenne also points out the social ramifications of overproduction. From a moral standpoint, how can a business throw so much food away when hundreds of thousands of Americans go hungry each day?

Financially speaking, rightsizing production needs means more cost reductions in food purchases and waste hauling, including compost hauling, which can run much higher in price. And don't forget to factor in the back-end savings of energy, water and labor costs associated with the reduction of extra food prep, warewashing and cooking. "Waste in a kitchen really impacts so many other areas in terms of sustainability," says Turenne.

Fancy tools aside, it takes nothing more than a paper, pencil and some math to maintain good food production records and determine how much food to produce to avoid overproduction, the number-one culprit of food waste.

"Let's say you serve a hearty stew along with three or four other items and happen to have served 100 people for that meal period," Turenne explains. "When the meal period is over, you sit down and track how many portions you actually served. That number of portions divided by the total number of customers fed gives you an acceptability percentage."

By calculating an acceptability percentage for each menu item, it's easy to forecast how much of the particular dish to prepare, taking into consideration any extraneous situations like events or weather that may bring in more or fewer customers.

2. TRACK FOOD WASTE

While many noncommercial foodservice operators have maintained these records for years, commercial operators can easily adopt the same practice as well, swapping out meal periods for peak dayparts and working with core menu items that change less frequently.

At boloco, a Boston-based, regional quick-serve chain offering burritos, wraps and smoothies, Eric Kinniburgh, director of culinary, partnered with Portland-based waste management consulting firm LeanPath to conduct this type of data analysis, as well as weigh and track food waste before it hit the compost bins as an indicator of potential overproduction problems.

After a trial run in 4 of the chain's restaurants over the span of 90 days, Kinniburgh was able to specifically identify which menu items were being thrown out the most at the end of the day. "We very quickly got visibility and were able to lower our food production waste in one location by over 34 percent in dollars," he says. From a social responsibility standpoint, the customer feedback has been even better. "Our customers appreciate our efforts and are very vocal about that."

By analyzing this food waste data as well as menu sales, the chain was able to identify peak and off-peak days and hours as well as which dishes sold more or less on which days and at which times. Kinniburgh plans to implement the program in all 22 locations for even more food cost and waste hauling savings across the board.

After production tracking, a next natural step for operators is to tailor down the menu and cook more from scratch rather than run a huge menu with a lot of variety and many costly processed food items.

"When you cook from scratch, not only do you cut down on costs, but you improve your brand reputation and customer loyalty," says Turenne. "It's about quality, not quantity." Better yet, the food's often healthier and more nutritious — another important part of sustainability these days, he adds.

Cross-utilizing ingredients and buying food in season at their lowest prices also helps reduce food costs when cooking from scratch. And contrary to popular thought, scratch cooking does not always increase labor — it may actually reduce it.

"If you reduce the size of your menu and production, you can reinvest some of those cost savings in more specialized labor needed to cook from scratch rather than reheat food," says Turenne.

3. TRACK UTILITIES

When it comes to energy and water management, certainly operators can go for low-hanging fruit like setting up equipment on/off schedules and not thawing out food under running water, according to Turenne. And while replacing outdated equipment for energy-efficient models helps, that's certainly not the end of the line.

For more enhanced energy and water savings on a grander scale, the first step revolves around thoroughly tracking utility usage. Energy tracking, or auditing, includes two main parts: bill pay consolidation/analysis and submetering/energy management systems.

"Bill pay consolidation is a first key step in getting a handle on knowing your energy consumption," says Roger Goldstein, executive director of facilities for Panda Restaurant Group Inc., operator of Panda Express and other brands. In this case, the chain outsources its gas, electrical and water bill management to Ecova, a total energy and sustainability management company.

The firm collects all of Panda's utility bills across all brands and stores nationwide, providing the chain with specific payment dates for the three main utilities. This allows the chain to retain more capital by paying all of its bills at once, says Goldstein. This is particularly important for both commercial and noncommercial operators with multiple locations and high-volume usage.

Better yet, Ecova collects and aggregates energy and water usage information so that Panda can study the results and make changes where necessary.

"We are able to produce reports and scatter plots using the data that would show what the average usage is per store or per square foot, and then notice the outliers or stores with problems," Goldstein says. At that point, Panda will review the equipment at that particular store to look for any outdated, energy-draining pieces that need to be replaced. The chain will also monitor the HVAC system to ensure it's running at the proper temperature and speed, and not running all night.

"We are also conducting some point-of-use metering to catch problems," says Goldstein. While many power companies do this for free, he says, Panda will also install submeters on specific pieces of equipment to determine if they are causing the extra energy drainage.

The next step up has been to install hood systems with demand-controlled ventilation so the systems run only during peak times. In addition, energy management systems (EMS) monitor energy use on an ongoing basis. While individual store managers have the ability to override HVAC systems on a daily basis if a guest complains about the temperature, overnight the EMS will automatically reset the system to predesignated levels determined by corporate so they don't continue to run at too-high levels.

"With this new system, now I can be on my cell phone in California and change the temperature at a store in Illinois right on the spot," says Goldstein. "Or a manager could be at home on his day off and notice a problem. It's great that commercial is finally taking advantage of some of the same technology that has been very successful in the residential home sector."

While energy management systems and demand-controlled ventilation represent some of the best new technology becoming more prevalent in the marketplace, the simple step of tracking energy use, food production and food waste can help operators open their eyes and take the next, bigger steps when it comes to sustainability.

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