Common Drivers of Food Waste at Restaurants and How to Address Them

Common Drivers of Food Waste at Restaurants and How to Address Them

Managing food waste is a constant challenge for restaurants, but also a critical one for maintaining profitability. Understanding the common drivers of food waste can help restaurant operators minimize waste, and improve your bottom line. Here are some key factors contributing to food waste in restaurants and practical tips to address them.

1. Overproduction

One of the primary causes of food waste in restaurants is overproduction. Preparing more food than needed to meet anticipated customer demand often results in excess food that goes uneaten. To reduce overproduction, restaurants can use historical sales data to forecast demand and adjust their production levels. Most modern POS systems will not only capture sales by day, but also by time-of-day, which you manage how many portions, or ingredients to prep as you get closer to closing time. Implementing just-in-time (JIT) cooking techniques can also help reduce overproduction, but obviously not all concepts and leverage JIT at the same levels.

Managing overproduction across multiple locations can be even more complicated because you can't be on-site everywhere at once. One trick we've see our members use is to have closing staff text in photos of their leftovers and food prep stations at the end of the night. That way restaurant operations teams and managers can get an instant "gut check" look at the situation on the ground and take corrective action, like re-training for any locations that are consistently overproducing.

2. Improper Storage

Incorrect storage conditions, such as improper temperatures or sealing, can cause food to spoil prematurely. Ensuring that all food items are stored correctly, following best practices for refrigeration and dry storage, can significantly reduce spoilage. Regularly checking and maintaining storage equipment is also crucial.

3. Inventory Mismanagement

Poor inventory tracking can result in over-ordering certain ingredients, causing them to expire before use. Implementing a robust inventory management system that tracks stock levels in real-time can help avoid over-ordering and ensure that ingredients are used before they spoil. Good inventory management also helps manage cashflow. Even if you have frozen inventory with a long shelf, sitting on months of inventory for expensive items can be a killer to your bottom line.

4. Menu Design

Complex menus with numerous ingredients can increase the likelihood of waste, especially if some dishes are rarely ordered. Streamlining the menu to focus on popular and versatile dishes can help reduce waste. Additionally, using ingredients that can be repurposed across multiple dishes can improve efficiency and minimize waste. Further, be careful when changing your physical menus and monitor changes in demand after a menu change. A change in location on the menu can have unintended (or intended) consequences on the item's demand.

5. Portion Sizes and Over-portioning

Serving portions that are too large can lead to significant plate waste, as customers often leave uneaten food. Reviewing portion sizes and adjusting them to better match customer preferences can help reduce waste. Offering different portion sizes or allowing customers to choose their portion size can also be effective.

Waste can also be driven by employee, over-portioning (serving more than the recipe or chef intended). Over-portioning can be one of the biggest profit killers in the kitchen. In fact, we've helped multiple chains uncover over-portioning issues that were costing them thousands per location per month.

6. Staff Errors

Mistakes in food preparation, such as cooking errors or accidental spills, can lead to significant waste. Solid training for kitchen staff and implementing standard operating procedures can minimize errors. Regularly reviewing and refining these procedures can also help maintain consistency and reduce waste. Training and incentive software like On a Roll can help with reducing errors.

7. Customer Preferences

Changes in customer preferences or unexpected shifts in demand can lead to surplus food that was prepared in anticipation of different trends. Staying attuned to customer preferences through surveys and feedback can help restaurants adapt their offerings and reduce waste. Flexibility in the menu can also allow for quick adjustments based on current trends.

8. Seasonality

Seasonal variations in ingredient availability and quality can lead to waste if not managed carefully. Planning menus around seasonal ingredients and adjusting inventory levels based on seasonal fluctuations can help minimize waste. Additionally, preserving seasonal ingredients through freezing or other methods can extend their usability.

9. Special Events

Misestimating the amount of food needed for events or catering can lead to large quantities of leftovers. Accurate event planning and coordination with clients can help better estimate food quantities. Offering to-go options for leftover food can also reduce waste and provide added value to customers.


Addressing the drivers of food waste involves a combination of better inventory management, improved staff training, accurate demand forecasting, and optimized menu planning. By implementing these strategies, restaurants can not only reduce waste but also enhance their operational efficiency and profitability. Additionally, taking steps to minimize food waste demonstrates a commitment to sustainability, which can resonate positively with customers and strengthen the restaurant's reputation. And in some states, have a plan to putting food waste to use is actually a requirement.

Monitoring the drivers above will help you reduce food waste, but even with best practices you might not be able to reach zero waste. If you have usable food waste at the end of shifts, consider partnering with a donation partner like Copia, that can put your waste to use and get you tax credits.

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