The night of the Jimmy Buffett concert could not have been more perfect, weather-wise: a calm, near-cloudless 70-degree evening. Packs of Hawaiian-shirted Parrotheads meandered the Old Market’s cobblestone streets in search of 5-o’clock somewhere, food, and drink.
Major shows at CenturyLink are routine for downtown Omaha, but for the city’s restaurants, event schedules are just part of the unscientific guessing game to determine how much food to prepare for the nightly dinner rush.
Sometimes the indicators to make more food—a concert, a beautiful night outside, and an upcoming holiday—are the same indicators for restaurateurs to make less. Restaurants deal with this guessing game all the time. Wasted food impacts their bottom line. Any unused food usually means lost revenue. Environmentally, repercussions stretch across the entire cycle of food production.
Three restaurant owners gave their estimates on what they threw out each night: Ahmad Nazar, owner of Ahmad’s Persian Cuisine, estimates his restaurant fills a 45-gallon garbage can for a standard dinner service. Clayton Chapman, chef and owner at The Grey Plume, says his restaurant fills an 18-gallon garbage can per night. David Mainelli, co-owner of Julio’s, says his restaurant fills an entire dumpster in a week.
The United States Department of Agriculture estimated that 133 billion pounds of food went to waste in 2010. “The statistics are 40 percent of food that’s produced ends up in the landfill,” says Beth Ostdiek Smith, president and founder of Saving Grace Perishable Food Rescue.
Since its founding in 2013, Saving Grace has delivered more than one million pounds of food to local non-profits. The majority of the food comes from grocery stores, caterers, and convenience stores.
“When I started this, I thought that (restaurants) would be our top food donor. That’s not the case,” Smith says. “Our restaurants have learned to manage their food, and it’s more made to order, so there’s not as much waste from restaurants as maybe there once was.”
Different restaurants around town tackle the food waste problem with different strategies. At Ahmad’s, Nazar says his 26-plus years of experience have taught him about portion control. “I’ve learned how people want it, especially business people who travel. They don’t want too much food. It’s hard to judge, so I have a portion ready for everyone,” Nazar says.
The United States Department of Agriculture estimated that 133 billion pounds of food went to waste in 2010.
Mainelli says Julio’s kitchen staff tries to minimize waste by boiling the parts of the chicken that do not reach a customer’s plate and making it into a stock. Onion skins are used for barbecue sauces. Still, Mainelli believes his restaurant could do better in managing food waste. For example, cooked rice IS an item that has a short lifespan, as it cannot be reheated for a restaurant-quality dish. “Sometimes, we’ll throw out an entire batch that could serve 50 people,” he says.
The Grey Plume is renowned for being one of the most environmentally friendly restaurants in the nation. In addition to using recycled materials for their drywall and steel framing, Clayton Chapman says the restaurant uses a three-step process to reduce food waste. The first step involves using as much of the ingredient as possible (when carrots get cut up, the remaining carrot pieces get pureed into a base).
“Not everything has a second life, but most things do,” Chapman says. The second step includes composting any leftover and eligible ingredients. The final step is to prepare everything to order so that reheating isn’t necessary.
Along with internal quality control, Ahmad’s, Julio’s, and The Grey Plume have donated food and resources to charitable organizations like Siena/Francis Homeless Shelter and Youth
In 2012, after recovering from an undiagnosed lymphatic illness that left him bedridden, Mainelli was inspired to start Feedback Omaha, an organization that works with local restaurants and nonprofits to feed those in need. In addition to donating food to the needy, Feedback Omaha organizers also perform a standard restaurant-style dinner service.
In July, the organization provided its first service for YES, which featured a taco bar for about 100 kids. In October, Feedback Omaha served about 250 people at the Lydia House with Mama’s Pizza and All Inclusive Catering providing food for the event.
The standard for what can be donated is a simple (but inflexible) rule: whatever is cooked, but does not go out to a customer, can be donated. For example, a cooked pizza in a restaurant kitchen is ripe for donating. However, if it goes out into the restaurant dining area, it’s no longer a candidate for donation.
“If it’s in the buffet, it cannot be rescued. If it’s in the back, we can still rescue it,” Smith says.