The Untapped Potential of Wasted Food
Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Posted by: Anne Piacentino
Source: The New Yorker
Sometime later this year, the chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson plan to open the first restaurant of a new fast-food chain, Loco’l, in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. One of the foundations of their menu, Choi told me when we talked in February, will be a burger that is locally sourced, sustainable, and delicious. It will cost just ninety-nine cents. Choi has long aspired to bring quality food into the urban mainstream; he is best known as the godfather of the food-truck movement and as the owner of Kogi, a fleet of Korean–Mexican taco trucks. The goal of competing with fast-food giants like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Chipotle, and Shake Shack is ambitious, to say the least, but he and Patterson are convinced that it can work. “We can change fast food because we are chefs,” Choi said.
But fast food is, of course, defined less by the innovations of chefs than by vast economies of scale. Loco’l’s principals believe that their enterprise—despite being smaller than other chains, with fewer advantages in terms of supply prices and marketing costs—will be able to set low prices on its hamburgers, tamales, and sandwiches primarily by wasting less food. Restaurants—and fast-food joints, in particular—are infamous for the tremendous waste they generate. This is a result of large portion sizes, standardized menu items that use only parts of animals, and quality-control codes which mandate, for example, that McDonald’s fries must be thrown away if they’re not sold within seven minutes of being cooked. Loco’l plans to repurpose scraps that would ordinarily end up in the trash, and to design their recipes to include common ingredients across dishes. “Waste is the cornerstone of Loco’l,” Choi said. “In a way, it’s the only way we can make this crazy thing happen.”
In tapping into waste, Choi and Patterson hope to marry fiscal prudence with environmental idealism. According to a report published in 2012 by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the amount of wasted food in the U.S. has increased by fifty per cent since the nineteen-seventies, to the point where more than forty per cent of all food grown or raised in the United States now goes to waste somewhere along the supply chain. This in turn means that vast amounts of fossil fuels, water, and other resources are being wasted in the production of unused food.
The economic and environmental advantages of waste reduction have made it a burgeoning concern in the food-service industry. In 2015, waste management was ranked ninth on the National Restaurant Association’s annual survey of culinary trends. Andrew Shakman, a founder of Lean Path, an Oregon-based company that develops software intended to reduce food waste, pointed out that waste elimination is particularly useful for restaurants concerned with sustainability. While other sustainable practices—sourcing food locally, using organic vegetables and meats—often increase costs, he said, attention to waste can lead to savings.
Lean Path’s software, which is modelled on productivity programs used elsewhere in the corporate world, helps servers, chefs, and other restaurant staff measure what they throw away, allowing businesses to cut costs by identifying which foods are being over-ordered or over-served. Restaurants might, for example, be putting too many rolls in a basket, or stocking strawberries for a dish that few customers request. Lean Path boasts that it can help restaurants cut their costs by between two and six per cent, and the National Resource Defense Council calculated that, after the dining services team at the University of California, Berkeley, began using the software, in 2011, the school’s pre-consumer waste dropped by forty-three per cent, which translated to savings of about sixteen hundred dollars a week.
To see Lean Path in action, I visited one of the company’s biggest clients: Google, which uses the software in seven of the cafés scattered across its campus in Mountain View, California. After the lunch rush at KitchenSync, one of Google’s newest and most popular cafés, Benjamin Pomele, a line cook, showed me how he had measured the day’s discarded food while prepping meals. First, he loaded two demo zucchini (slightly bruised, but not yet being discarded) into a plastic bin. Then he logged in and guided us through the software, which prompted him to indicate the type of container he was using so that its weight could be subtracted, then asked for more details about the food: Was it overproduction, trim waste, or from a staff meal? Was it being composted or donated? Within seconds of receiving Pomele’s responses, the system calculated the lost value of the zucchinis: fifty-three cents. If KitchenSync produced the same waste on a daily basis, the loss translated to a hundred and ninety-three dollars per year.
Pomele told me that, when he first started using Lean Path a few months ago, he noticed that he was discarding more than other prep cooks. He soon realized that he’d been cutting too much off the ends of carrots, onions, and other veggies. “Now we’re getting more use out of the food,” he said. Lean Path also includes a camera that takes a snapshot of the unused food, so that managers and staff “waste champions” can help identify problems and potential solutions, such as improved chopping technique. A Google representative told me that the software had resulted in savings of more than a hundred and fifty-nine thousand pounds of food since April of last year.
For the moment, Lean Path’s more than two hundred and twenty clients consist mainly of large institutions with central food-services operations, like Berkeley and Google. Typical single-location, chef-owned restaurants tend to have more variable menus and ingredients, smaller staffs, and tighter budgets. (The Lean Path software, depending on the size of the operation, costs between three hundred and forty-nine dollars and seven hundred and ninety-nine dollars a month.) To try to make its product more feasible for smaller businesses, Lean Path recently released a simpler version of its software, called LeanZap, which a handful of initial clients are using—this option costs as little as sixty-nine dollars a month.
A representative at Loco’l told me that the restaurant isn’t planning to use software to track waste. If all goes according to Choi’s ambitious plan for the chain’s menu, there might not be any need for it. Choi told me that he hopes to make use of every scrap, peel, and bit of gristle that comes through the kitchen. The menu will include multiple items that are braised, slow-cooked, and then stuffed; vegetable peelings and ends will be ground up with non-choice cuts of meat and made into dipping sauces or filling for tamales. These methods will also allow Loco’l to purchase bruised or strangely formed vegetables, which are generally sold at a discount. Choi also plans to cut his burgers with rice and tofu, which will have the added benefit of making them healthier.
Like Lean Path, Loco’l is driven by a mission of cultural change. “In many ways, we’re going back to a lot of old, ancient principles, from societies in which the way you survived was by using everything around you,” Choi said. (Hannah Goldfield recently wrote for this site about a meal at the pop-up restaurant WastED, a project by the chef Dan Barber to “effectively reverse-engineer the evolution of American food.”) As a marketing strategy, this philosophy has already served Loco’l well. When the restaurant’s launch was announced, in 2014, the hype was so great that it launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise money, less because it needed the cash than to harness the enthusiasm and create a sense of community. The campaign ultimately raised nearly a hundred and thirty thousand dollars.
Still, translating this idealism into a business plan that will allow Loco’l to compete with much larger fast-food players won’t be easy. Loco’l’s public-relations team e-mailed me a month or so after Choi and I first spoke to clarify that, although Loco’l would most certainly offer ninety-nine-cent items on its menu, these wouldn’t necessarily include a ninety-nine-cent burger, as Choi had initially said. It seemed as though the research-and-development phase had provided a reality check—a possibility that Choi himself had acknowledged, both to me and on Loco’l’s Indiegogo page. There, he and Patterson had written, “We’re aiming to revolutionize the fast food industry as we know it in America. It’s going to be long, difficult and damn near impossible journey.”