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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014

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In Dining

Compost from food preparation fertilizes the Riverside Theater rooftop garden. (PHOTO: Kevin Sloan)

In Dining

The Lumineers check out the rooftop garden, fertilized with vegetable scraps. (PHOTO: Kevin Sloan)

A bunch of garbage: How restaurants deal with waste


Feeling a little too chipper today? Then take a look at this sobering news.

A January 2013 study reports that between 30 to 50 percent of the world's food is wasted each year, with some 2 billion metric tons of grain, vegetables and meat thrown in the garbage.

These staggering numbers were derived from research done by the British Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE). The report, entitled Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not (PDF), suggests that worldwide waste is produced by poor storage, strict sell-by dates, bulk offers and overall consumer pickiness.

A policy of "cheap food" also contributes to the problem.

"The excessive waste is a complex issue," the report reads, "But partially due to a long-term national policy of 'cheap food' which results in it being grossly undervalued. For example, as a general policy, the catering industry often throws away a third of its food, as restaurants deliberately order too much in order to avoid running out. Because the food is generally regarded as the least costly resource in a catering operation, it is viewed as disposable."

Although the quote above is the only mention of restaurants in the study, I couldn't help but be a bit curious about how our local eateries fit into the equation. So, I set out to chat with area chefs and restaurant owners to find out how they felt about waste, and what they're doing about it.

Both chefs and restaurant owners unanimously agree that the topic of food waste is a huge issue for the industry as a whole. In fact, every individual with whom I spoke placed waste into a top category of concern for them at their current establishments.

"As far as waste in the restaurant biz, I think it's one of the most critical issues," says Ross Bachhuber, executive chef at Odd Duck. "If you can't manage waste, you can't manage food cost. With food prices continuing to rise, creative ways of re-use and reduction of waste are essential."

Wil Borgstrom, culinary director for the Lowlands Group, says he breaks down the issue into two main categories – morality and business sense.

"From a moral standpoint, knowing what we know regarding the condition of the economy and its effect on families who struggle to feed their families keeps me up at night," he explains.

"Being a good citizen and having stewardship over multiple venues means it's vastly important to me that we do the right thing. On the business side, food waste, if not kept in check, affects the bottom line and has huge ramifications."

Borgstrom cites a variety of consequences that can result from poor waste management, including reduction of employee income due to hourly cut-backs, lack of revenue leading to restaurant closings, and ultimately job loss.

Kevin Sloan of The Pabst and Riverside agrees. "On the restaurant level it's usually driven by razor-thin profit margins, and I think the moral end of it comes into play, as well. Nobody that handles food for a living and knows how much work goes into its production likes to see their product go to waste."

But, what are restaurants doing to ensure that waste is minimized?

Scott Pampuch of the Iron Horse Hotel admits that waste management is an ongoing process that takes time to implement. And he knows first-hand. While in Minneapolis, he implemented a system by which all food waste that came out of his kitchen was composted.

"We were not a nose to tail restaurant, we were an 'oink to dirt' restaurant," he explains. "We considered all food waste before composting it. We always tried to use every inch of vegetable that we could. In terms of proteins, all scraps were either used for sausage, a special, family meal or soup."

The practice led to a great deal of creativity among kitchen staff, as they learned countless ways to use every last ounce of food possible.

"It was more profitable," Pampuch underscores. "And it often yielded tasty results. If you render all fat instead of throwing it away, it is a huge savings … and, well, pork fat, duck fat and beef fat, they all love potatoes."

That creativity also comes into play at Hi-Hat Lounge, where Dan Dufek is general manager.

"We really utilize our resources," he explains. "Recently we had a daily special featuring a stuffed poblano pepper. Since we had extra peppers in the kitchen we made an awesome poblano and cauliflower soup. In the same fashion, we would rather run to the grocery store for an extra lime or two, if needed, rather than ordering a whole box and not using it all."

Bachhuber says having the right people on staff – a close knit group that really cares – helps a great deal with the amount of waste generated by a restaurant.

"When everybody is on the same page and communicates well, we can find uses for products that might otherwise be tossed," he explains. "For instance, citrus juices, rinds, and zests can all be used in the kitchen. Ends of vegetables, mushroom stems, chicken bones, beef bones, shells, claws are all used to make stocks and bases for soups, sauces, and stews."

At Odd Duck, foods are traded back and forth between the bar and kitchen. Lemon zest may be used for drinks at the bar, while the juice is used for vinaigrette in the kitchen. Carrots become a component in stews, while their peelings might be used to infuse vodka for craft cocktails.

Dufek also cites the cooperation among restaurants as a key to good food usage.

"Maybe the Garage needs an item that they know Balzac Wine Bar has next door and that their shipment is coming in a couple days," he posits. "We encourage our staff to utilize one another and find the best solution."

Joe Sorge of Hospitality Democracy says that controlling waste is a delicate balance between good use of product and portion monitoring.

"We're very careful to make use of as much of whole products as we can," he says. "For example, at Smoke Shack we work with Black Earth Meats to source our whole Berkshire hogs and they help us to utilize as much as possible. At the service level we're careful to monitor portioning to be sure that there's as little waste as possible."

It seems like common sense to say that when portion sizes are too large, customers tend not to eat all of their food. But, the larger question becomes: what happens then? Do consumers take the food home with them and eat it? Do they take it home and let it wither in the refrigerator? Or does the restaurant have to throw it out? Each scenario has a different consequence.

That's why Pampuch is currently putting his focus on portion sizes. But, deciding what size a portion should be isn't always an easy decision.

"There is a fine line between managing portion size and making people feel like they are getting the value that they deserve," he explains. "We have made a lot of changes with the hotel-wide menu to adjust for portion, considering trends nationally with eating local, healthfully, and seasonally. We do want the restaurant to be an expression of Milwaukee, but that does not have to mean huge portions of overpriced food that ends up being thrown away anyway."

Leftovers are a big part of the equation at The Pabst/Riverside, says Sloan.

"There is often food left over after the musicians finish their meals," he says. "But we pack up whatever is left, so they can eat it on the tour buses while en route to the next show. That kind of works out for everybody. We also have plenty of staffers working who are more than welcome to eat or pack food to take home, if any is left."

Monitoring waste and creating operational changes to deal with waste is also part of the deal. For example, Borgstrom says Lowlands Group restaurants track weekly waste at each location and use the information as a point of discussion for meetings with culinary leadership.

"We do a lot of things," he says, "Not to gain attention, just quiet satisfaction that we are doing whatever we can to be responsible citizens. I enjoy working with the younger people on our staff who share the passion for doing good things for the right reasons. But I feel we could always do more."

For some restaurants, "more" includes making use of community programs to help make a dent in the amount of waste generated.

Although Milwaukee does not currently offer a centralized composting option for residents or businesses, Kompost Kids' is an organization working to build a decentralized model that saves organic residuals from the landfill and turns them into quality compost.

How does it work? Volunteers pick up organic waste from over twenty area businesses and use it to create living soil for urban gardens. The group takes in about 1,000 pounds of food waste per week from schools, coffee shops, and restaurants like Braise, Hamburger Mary's, Odd Duck, Transfer Pizzeria Café, and others.

Sorge says his restaurants have recently started to engage with local programs to assist with waste management.

"We participate in local bio-diesel efforts as well as providing supplemental vegetable feed to an employee who also raises hogs," he reports.

For Pampuch, the bottom line is education, both for consumers and in terms of cooks' impressions.

"I am very transparent in the kitchen," he says. "I talk about how much things cost, the difference between local and commodity food. I feel people have to understand the value of food in order to respect it. That, in my mind, is a large problem with waste in this country.

"No one bats and eye at throwing away the last couple of bites of something or they worry if it will 're-heat in the microwave' when they take it home. Since the industrial 'food revolution' the cost of food has decreased with the message of 'feed the world.' But, accessibility does not have to come at the cost of quality and health. You can still feed the world without devaluing food.

The IMechE report also offers a number of suggestions to assist with the world's waste management problems, including this one: "Governments in developed nations (should) devise and implement policy that changes consumer expectations. These should discourage retailers from wasteful practices that lead to the rejection of food on the basis of cosmetic characteristics, and losses in the home due to excessive purchasing by consumers.

But, why do we need the government to regulate our habits?

Being part of the solution is simple. Pay attention. Stop throwing away bruised apples. Take note of the actual condition of the food in your fridge, not just the "sell by" date. Purchase only what you can really use. Start a compost pile (here's how).

And next time you eat at a restaurant, don't let your eyes get bigger than your stomach. Order less. And be sure to take home your leftovers. Even more importantly, make it a point to eat them rather than letting them end up in the trash.

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