Waste Not, Lose Not

Tips for reducing waste in banquets and buffets.

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What does your operation do to reduce food waste and the associated costs—especially for high volume applications such as banquets and catering and buffets? “Trial and error” may not seem like good advice for an F&B manager, but counsel from F&B pros is more in-depth than just cutting your losses and trying to do better next time. While cooking is an art, planning and preparing a meal for a large number of people and working the numbers so that your kitchen meets its margins is more of a science. Especially in B&C, the key to eliminating waste is to keep detailed records of planning, service, and waste analysis and then to use the lessons learned to set goals toward a “zero waste” operation.

Absorbing unused ingredients by channeling them through the kitchens of other F&B outlets or offering leftover pre-consumer food items as specials in room service, other dining venues, or even in the employee cafeteria is a possibility. Most agree, however, that getting the formula right and using everything as planned is the best situation. Setting up the equation requires attention to correctly estimating the requirements for the group as a whole and for individuals as well. Analysis of how well you did must be classified into “pre-consumer” and “post-consumer” waste.

time-coded data that tracks replenishment of buffets, appetizer stations, or dessert tables during banquet service can provide a valuable schedule for future events.
Time-coded data that tracks replenishment of buffets, appetizer stations, or dessert tables during banquet service can provide a valuable schedule for future events.

Collecting data for such analysis is just the beginning of a feedback loop, and feedback loops are the best tools for modifying behavior on a business and personal level. As a former F&B manager, hospitality industry consultant, and now partner and events manager at Crazy Kangaroo, an event planning and catering company in Porto, Portugal, Nataline Sousa stresses the importance of tracking ingredients and food from the time it enters your operation until it leaves.

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“It’s very important to register your leftovers of food and beverage of each function in order to…optimize mainly food production for the next functions,” Sousa says. “I usually use a simple tool to record this data: a spreadsheet where I register data about the client, type of function, number of people, date, cost, and revenue per person/unit, total and individual consumption, total cost and revenue, and section (e.g. Bar or Cuisine).” Sousa’s “Banquet Reconciliation Map” becomes an ever more accurate template for planning B&C service.

How to collect food waste data is another matter of discussion. For full-service catering, unconsumed items and entrées can be easily tallied— whatever has not been served can be recorded as a whole—but for buffet service, waste must be weighed methodically before being disposed. Many F&B managers have come up with their own systems of identifying pre-consumer food waste by training staff to separate food into categorized bus trays to be weighed or somehow quantified before disposal. That method has proven to be beneficial in analyzing the appropriateness of serving size for regular restaurant service as well, when uneaten bits of food return from tables, and it is obvious that a four-ounce piece of protein was more suitable than the six-ounce serving. For managers who have cleaned up their pre-consumer act, examining post-consumer waste uncovers additional opportunities for savings.

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A detailed account of catering events can yield other important bits of information. Much like a daypart analysis of daily business, time-coded data that tracks replenishment of buffets, appetizer stations, or dessert tables during banquet service can provide a valuable schedule for future events. Industry vets suggest learning the historical flow of the events to have food prepped when needed, then to slow restocking at likely slower times or even cook items à la minute when possible to make sure you don’t over-supply, as suggested by Antonie Constantin, F&B manager for Kipriotis Hotels in Kos, Greece.

While no F&B manager wants to deny satisfaction to a guest’s sweet tooth, Director of F&B Tiffany Vickaryous at Venuworks in Bemidji, Minnesota, says the dessert table is a big source of pre-and-post-consumer waste. “We serve smaller desserts on our buffets and only bring out more when needed,” she explains.

In B&C, it is not uncommon to get a likely census for an event, add 10% to projected food requirements, and then charge a sum that will cover that expense plus expected margins. With that assurance, many managers disregard waste, since food costs and target profits are already guaranteed. In this age of “green” activism, food waste is becoming a hot topic that environmental groups are noticing. Over-production is their target, since any food that ends up in landfills or composting produces methane, a problematic greenhouse gas.

A high-tech waste solution for the hospitality industry—that doesn’t involve digesters, on-site treatment plants, or methane sequestration—is automated food waste tracking systems. Executive Chef Justin Fredrickson at MGM Grand Las Vegas oversees the property’s buffet. He utilizes the LeanPath automated food waste tracking system to analyze the efficiency of his operation. Fredrickson explains the importance of accumulated waste feedback: “Before the program was set up, for example, we had a lot of last pans—the pan at the end of the night…when the buffet was closing, that waste was huge when we first started. We were able to cut that in half. Looking at items that were being thrown out at the end of the night, we were able to cut the pan down into half or a quarter, or possibly not even put that item out at certain times.”

The LeanPath system works using electronic scales and employee keypads at bussing stations that require staff to separate food items and weigh them. MGM Grand ushered in the new system with a promotional program to get employees to buy in to the extra step of weighing waste. The staff quickly adapted to the procedure and is fully on board, realizing less work in restocking certain items. Meanwhile, Fredrickson is seeing significant savings of 2 to 3% in food costs as well as better explanations for “shrinkage”— such as accidental spillage during service or incremental spoilage—that can be noted in the system.

Denny Lewis is a Hotel F&B veteran based in Arlington, Massachusetts.

This feature originally appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Hotel F&B.