All things being equal, what single aspect of foodservice is most vital to the success of any dining establishment? Whether you ask this question of a professional chef or a casual diner, the answer is almost always the same: the food on the plate. Of course, in this era of high-priced ingredients and financially strapped patrons, restaurateurs and executive chefs also are starting to pay close attention to the food they've purchased that never makes it to the plate.
Food-waste management--whether seen as a means to "green" a given restaurant or simply bolster that restaurant's bottom line (probably some combination of the two)--is a burgeoning trend in the industry. And while composting has become the de facto response to the problem posed by wasted food--especially among independent restaurants that cater to socially conscious diners and have the support of existing commercial composting operations (in cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Ore.)--there are operational efficiencies that can be introduced to help reduce food waste before you even reach the composting stage.
For instance, if you could accurately monitor patterns and amounts of food waste over a period of time, then reasonably you could learn how to eliminate some of that waste and make better purchasing decisions in the future, right? That's the general philosophy behind the ValuWaste system from Portland, Ore.-based LeanPath Inc. The system includes a scale and touch-screen terminal (the ValuWaste Tracker; pictured right) that are used to weigh "pre-consumer food waste"--any food already purchased by a restaurant that's been overproduced or become spoiled, contaminated or expired, as well as catering leftovers, trimming scraps and burned items. The resulting terminal data is then uploaded to a software application (the ValuWaste Advantage) that stores the information in a customizable database and allows the user to chart waste by time, food type, work station, etc.
The ValuWaste Advantage maintains an up-to-the-moment snapshot of a restaurant's food waste from data collected by one or more Tracker units. As a value-added feature, the Advantage software is linked to LeanPath servers to ensure that all data is backed-up via the Internet.
LeanPath's software/hardware combo is marketed toward large commercial kitchens, so ValuWaste may not be especially helpful for those restaurants that do not see the same volume as, say, a hotel, a health-care facility or a college campus. But when it comes to preventing pre-consumer food waste, being relatively smaller isn't necessarily a bad thing.
For the average foodservice operation, the goal should be to use its smaller--more intimate, more nimble--staff to its advantage, educating each worker and instituting better policies for every aspect of food preparation--from purchasing to handling to storage to cooking. (For a more complete guide to reducing restaurant food waste, as well as other non-food restaurant waste, check out this list of "Food Service Waste Reduction Tips and Ideas" from the California Integrated Waste Management Board.)
It's also important to note that food waste is not strictly a back-of-house issue. When food waste of any kind strips a restaurant of a key ingredient, it affects the menu, the waitstaff and, most importantly, the customers. The good news is that many point-of-sale (POS) systems don't simply track sales, streamline the ordering process and improve order accuracy; they also keep staff--and by extension, customers--informed when drops in inventory levels change or negate menu items.
For example, to enhance its traditional POS system, Maitre'D by Posera has introduced a wireless POS solution through its Table Service Solutions division. With the wireless system's handheld device (pictured)--which uses the same interface and functionalities as standard Maitre'D software (meaning there's no additional training necessary)--waitstaff can accurately and instantly track inventory levels (including 86'd items) from the palm of their hand and provide diners with detailed menu information on specials and ingredients. As an added customer-service perk, this wireless application also can be used to submit orders remotely (even tableside, thanks to a built-in Magnetic Stripe Reader), instead of having to wait for an open terminal at a fixed station.
The event also will feature cooking demonstrations and seminars with presenters including Tom Bivins, executive chef of the New England Culinary Institute; Food & Wine magazine's 2008 Best New Chef Eric Warnstedt; and Laura Werlin, author of Laura Werlin's Cheese Essentials: An Insiders Guide to Buying and Serving Cheeses.
Chef's Stirrings is the official blog of Chef Magazine, the industry publication for restaurant and foodservice professionals. The blog offers culinary news and online exclusives from the editors ofChef.