Ways to manage large-scale food waste

The leading ideas on restaurant waste management for hospitality businesses producing high volumes of food

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What is food waste management?


To begin this page on food waste management it may be useful to first define what constitutes food wastage, and then proceed to look at what is meant when the term food waste management is used whether in the context of food service, hotels, or grocery stores.

The FAO defines food waste in the following terms: “Food waste refers to food appropriate for human consumption being discarded, whether or not after it is kept beyond its expiry date or left to spoil”.

The area of food waste management is occupied with the stages that begin at the point food is usually wasted, and relates to any of the stages of recovery, recycling or food waste disposal that follow. This includes stages such as food banks, using the food as animal feed, creating renewable energy through anaerobic digestion, composting, and finally resorting to landfills.



Stages of food waste management

The focus of this article will be on the first and most important stage of food waste management: reducing the waste of edible food. The area of food wastage is broad, and areas of composting and recycling deserve their own specialist pages. 

The examples hereafter relate to the businesses within the hospitality industry, and the countries around the world that are adopting aggressive food waste management strategies. For these businesses, it is critical to have a robust food waste tracking process in place to successfully tackle the problem.

Traditionally, tracking food waste has not been a priority for kitchens because the majority of kitchens did not have any idea about the value of food they were throwing away. Even if they did, kitchens were limited to rudimentary food waste tracking spreadsheets which take up valuable staff time. The result of this process is often a set of inaccurate data that does not get properly analyzed. The process is not consistently repeatable, scalable, and takes busy kitchens users out of the kitchen and into the back office.

Technology has enabled a new era for food waste management, often appearing in the form of software as a service enabled with hardware to fit the rugged kitchen environment. As an example, in 2019 Winnow began automating food waste management with AI.


Management of Waste

With technology replacing the vast majority of the data collection process, the management of waste is a straightforward process to follow. 

It broadly follows the steps as listed below:

  1. Food is discarded in the designated food waste bin or recycling bin
  2. The weight of the waste is logged from the scale beneath the bin, and the food type is captured.
  3. This process repeats itself multiple times over the course of the day, and can include cooking errors, overproduction, trimmings and plate waste.
  4. The data is sent to the cloud where it is aggregated. The following day it is available for the chefs to view the waste. This data incorporates the financial and environmental cost of the waste, and the time of day and the areas in production high in waste.
  5. With this insight available in an actionable format, the chefs can now make operational decisions in the kitchen to reduce waste.

There are some permutations to this procedure, but these five steps highlight the pivotal role data and technology can have in shaping food waste management in commercial kitchens.

Investment in food waste management can yield great returns

Managing food waste can represent as much as


of total food spend

Food waste management can return up to

1000% ROI

In year one


Typical ROI 200%-1,000% within the first year of using Winnow

See how IKEA Bergen reduced food waste by 45% over the first 12 weeks

See how IKEA Bergen reduced food waste by 45% over the first 12 weeks

Challenges in food waste management

Why is food waste a global issue?

Food waste is a challenge that impacts every country on earth. As with many issues that adversely impact climate change, food waste is a global issue because the greenhouse gas emissions have an environmental impact everywhere.

Equally, food loss impacts people all around the world too. To solve global hunger, it is necessary to dramatically reduce the volume of food loss within our system. 

What are the main causes of food waste?

The causes of waste food differ depending on where you are in the world. In the developing world, the initial stages of the supply chain - such as at the farm and transportation are the highest areas of food loss.

In the developed world, there is more waste sent to landfill from within our homes and in our restaurants. There are further solutions such as anaerobic digestion facilities to turn waste into clean energy, however it is better to reduce this surplus food at the outset rather than later turn into energy.

How management can reduce food waste

While chefs may be on the front line of reducing food waste in kitchens, the management in the business can also play a key role in making the program a success. This is a vital role in several key areas:

  • Communicating the results of the program to key stakeholders, such as employees and clients
  • Sharing best practices between kitchens, helping to improve performance across the business
  • Connecting the food waste program with financial and environmental metrics

An engaged and supportive management team can also accelerate the success of a project to multiple locations after an initial pilot period.

Hotel food waste management

Reducing and managing food waste in hotels is a hot topic in the industry. There are several good examples of hotels that are successfully managing their waste. In Europe, this is evident in the partnership with Winnow and hotel owner Pandox. With nearly 150 hotels in 15 countries, Pandox is a prime example of a responsible owner who is interested in enhancing their environmental credentials.

One of the flagship properties in their portfolio is the Crown Plaza - Le Palace, situated in Belgium’s busy capital Brussels. Through using food waste management software, the team reduced solid waste by 63% and cut costs by €44,000.

Catering food waste management

As food is either the core offering or one of the key revenue streams for companies in the catering and services area, optimising food waste cost is absolutely essential.

For some of the larger catering companies like Compass Group or ISS Facility Services, they can operate thousands or tens of thousands of kitchens across the globe. This is also shown across industries, such as cruise lines. Read more on 2020 trends for the cruise industry.

As a result, food waste offers huge potential in mitigating greenhouse gas impact in these companies, and save between 3-8% of food costs. This could equate to thousands of tonnes of CO2 annually, and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

How much food do restaurants need to prepare in advance?


Typically, restaurants can be split into two main categories for how they prepare food. 

The first are restaurants who prepare a lot of food in advance. These operations prepare more than 50% or 75% of food before service begins, and tend to suit larger scale dining. Buffet style operations and catering in businesses, hospitals or education tend to fit into this bracket. Due to the increased complexity of forecasting in these environments, more food wastage tends to follow.

The second bracket is made to order kitchens. These kitchens may follow an à la carte menu, and include more customisation of dishes than in a restaurant where a lot of food is cooked in advance. Although some food groups like vegetables or sauces will be prepared in advance here, it is often less than half of the total food produced during the service. 


How long can restaurants keep food?

In many parts of the world, there are strict food safety laws which mean that edible food cannot be sold after being cooked. Particularly with meat products, there are health concerns over products that are not in temperature controlled and hygienic environments. For example, in the UK, pizza chains serving buffet style pizza are only allowed a matter of minutes before they have to discard any leftover slices.

In the US, there is now a food waste ban in Massachusetts on establishments that are throwing away more than one ton each week. This is because the landfills are nearing capacity. As a result, restaurants are seeking other solutions like reducing waste in the first place and stepping up food donation.

In our homes, there is much we can do to in reducing food waste in our homes. We throw away kilos of fruit and vegetables, and other types of edible food. This is particularly true in the developed world where food is relatively cheap, and there is constant accessibility to food. 


What can restaurants do with leftover food?

For any food that is not sold, such as sandwiches or bakery items, companies can use secondary markets like Too Good To Go to resell the food to the public at a lower price. One example is Accor Hotels who have partnered with the app to save more than 10,000 meals. 

If restaurants do not sell the remaining food, they can either donate to food banks and either look at anaerobic digestion or a composting program. Read this blog on 5 tips where you can donate leftover food, including food banks and other community food programs. There are also many companies stepping up in times in need, as shown in our Hospitality heroes blog here.

What’s the best way to manage food waste in restaurants?

There are a number of things that you can begin to do in your restaurant today to avoid wasted food. The most important thing is to get an understanding of the stage of service or point during the day which are particularly high in waste produce.

The complexity of gathering this information depends on the type of kitchen operation you work in, but see if you can estimate the answers to the following questions during your next service:

  • What are the top three food produce items being thrown away throughout the day? 
  • What is the weight and value of the most valuable item?  
  • If you wasted this to the same level every day, what would that figure look like over a whole year of service?

If you can answer these questions, you may be surprised by the value of the produce being thrown away. Making decisions informed by this information is key to avoiding food wastage in your restaurant.

Evidently, doing the above steps on an ongoing basis is a time consuming, inaccurate and laborious process. This is where technology can support in doing this manual data collection and analysis, and ensure kitchen teams can get back to cooking while having the insight to continue reducing wastage.

Managing food waste is beginning to have a legal implication for businesses too. In France, it is now illegal for supermarkets to throw away food. Fines can be up to €75,000, or two years imprisonment.

Read more about how France is leading the food waste agenda.

What types of food get wasted most?

There is no comprehensive global database that provides the full picture for food waste, or even restaurant food waste.

However, there are some indications over what are the most wasted items. For instance, food distribution platform UK Harvest state that potatoes and bread are the most wasted items.

In the supply chain and within our grocery stores, fruits and vegetables are often wasted in large volumes because of their short shelf life and perishable nature. 

Alongside these carbohydrates, reducing dairy products like milk and yoghurt is also an area where there is the potential for high financial and environmental impact.

Tools for food-waste management


There are a growing number of tools that help businesses to manage and track food waste. In restaurants, these can scale from inexpensive and low maintenance tools costing less than $50 dollars through to solutions that can manage waste in very large commercial environments. 

Winnow Hub

What is a food-waste audit?

In order to capture a ‘moment in time’ analysis of your food waste you need to do a food waste audit in your operation.

This involves capturing all organic waste within your kitchen over a short, measurable period of time.

The drawback of doing a food waste audit as opposed to measuring food waste over a continued period of time is that you cannot reliably measure change. Only with ongoing food waste management can you track trends in the data and make sustained reductions.

5 stages_Winnow Vision

Who are the leading food waste management companies?

Due to the fact that food waste management in restaurants is still a nascent sector, there are few companies that can deploy solutions to companies around the globe.

Winnow is the only food waste management company that can serve kitchens around the world and has AI technology - Winnow Vision - to help automate the process of waste management. Learn more about Winnow Vision.


How quickly can food waste management software be installed?

The time it takes to deploy food waste management software takes only a matter of weeks. With Winnow, there is a ‘baseline period’ where the business operates as usual and we establish the average level of food wastage. 

This average is critical to work out the percentage of future reductions and the return on investment for using the software. This ranges from anywhere from 2-10 times return on investment for Winnow’s clients.

Ready to speak to an expert in food waste management?

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How we've helped clients reduce food waste in their industry

Winnow is the leading food management solution for the contract catering, hotels & casinos, quick service restaurant, supermarket, and cruise ship sectors. Find out how we've helped our clients.

View our case studies

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the benefits of food waste management? plus symbol minus symbol

There are three main benefits to managing food waste in kitchens; reduced cost, reduced environmental impact, and improved operational efficiency. Having a constant pulse on what is wasted throughout the day gives the kitchen teams more visibility, and ensures they can operate more sustainable and profitable kitchens.

How long does it take to have good waste management? plus symbol minus symbol

With insightful waste information in the hands of the right people, managing waste can happen quickly and significant reductions can be made. Within the first three months of installation, food waste technology can pinpoint the areas to target first and begin making significant reductions. Once the quick wins have been achieved, the next stage is for the data to identify areas of further optimisation before the waste level stabilises. On average clients reduced waste by over 50% in the first year.

What is the average food waste percent in restaurants? plus symbol minus symbol

Due to the lack of good data in the hospitality industry, there is not a clear and accurate figure for the average food wastage within restaurants. However, data analysed from Winnow kitchens in over 200 catering sites and 200 hotels shows that the average waste levels are between 8-12% of food spend.

How much could I save by managing food waste with Winnow? plus symbol minus symbol

Winnow’s data shows that on average kitchens waste between 4%-12% of all food purchased. Kitchens using Winnow’s analytics can expect to cut this in half in 6-12 months. This equates to an average saving of between $5k a year for a smaller site through to $50k+ for a large hotel or staff restaurant.

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