As COVID-19 continues to change the landscape for food-service establishments, initiatives to mitigate food waste that combine creativity, technology and flavor with good business sense will become a necessity.
As restaurants and catering outlets around the world slowly start to reopen their kitchens for business, budgeting will be front of mind for many of these establishments, especially if fighting for survival. One area ripe for greater cost scrutiny is food waste — it’s become one of the prime casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic, yet remains a major issue in the hospitality and foodservice sector.
According to a 2017 NRDC study, US restaurants are estimated to generate 22-33 billion pounds of food waste each year, and up to 10 percent of food purchased by restaurants is wasted before it even reaches the diner’s plate. Overpurchasing, overproduction, trim waste and mishandling are all contributing factors, as are extensive menu choices that can make good inventory management tricky to juggle.
One solution that has the potential to address some of these challenges is food dehydration technology. In an interview with Sustainable Brands™, Ian Christopher, CEO of foodtech company Galley, noted growing interest from food operators in adopting the technology as they look for new ways to regain cost control.
“The technology has become more relevant because of COVID-19,” Christopher says. “There’s a lot of talk right now about restaurants needing to meet people where they are today — servicing them in their homes, doing multi-channel, off-premise and delivery only.
“There’s also this conversation around what are the sustainability trade-offs when you start actively doing that — for example, what happens to disposable packaging? Dehydration and food waste mitigation is just one area where these operators can focus to help offset those trade-offs.”
According to Christopher, dehydration works best for foods such as vegetables that have a high trim yield or that make sense to reincorporate back into the menu. Meat can also lend itself to being a good dehydrated product, especially those with sufficient fat content — such as beef or pork. Thai restaurants, for example, are using the technology to repurpose leftover beef into meat jerky.
Galley has worked with one of its customers, Eco Caters, to utilise a surplus product in the catering company’s supply chain – mushrooms that would have spoiled and gone to waste otherwise. The mushrooms were dehydrated into different powder varieties and made shelf-stable so they could be stored for future use in the kitchen. The work involved some experimentation on flavour and texture profile to ensure the powders would complement the recipes they were intended for. The result is a new preserved product line that can add a whole new dimension to menu creation.
“Mushrooms are a high-value ingredient – that’s really when you see dehydration coming into play, when it becomes a waste mitigation as well as an ingredient cost benefit tool,” Christopher says.
The cost of commercial dehydration units range anywhere between a few thousand dollars to over $10,000, so food operators need to undertake a cost-benefit analysis to ensure any investment will pay off. A good understanding of, and insight into, waste inputs and outputs within the business is critical.
“You really have to be a savvy food operator and understand your business on a granular level in order to use dehydration effectively,” Christopher says. “If you have a highly rotational menu that changes every day or every week, and you have no consistent way of understanding where waste can come in, then it’s harder to think about how to mitigate that waste.”
As well as helping to reduce costs around overpurchasing, waste disposal and labour, dehydrated foods can assist chefs in developing more sustainable menus and recipes by tapping into culinary trends such as nose-to-tail eating and whole food cooking. Some chefs have also become increasingly motivated by the challenge of creatively reincorporating as much ingredient or product as they can back into their menus.
Asked if there are any consumer perception issues when it comes to eating dehydrated foods, especially when dining out, Christopher says he hasn’t come across any negative attitudes.
“What resonates with diners is sustainability and knowing that care has been put into the creation of their food. It’s important for the food business to make sure that the product they are creating is delicious.”
As COVID-19 continues to change the landscape for restaurants and other food establishments, Christopher believes that these types of back-of-house initiatives that combine creativity with good business sense will become increasingly important.
“I see a time where food waste mitigation is something that the operator can have more control over, and an increasing trend in the ownership of food waste — not only because of greater margin potential, but also for overall sustainability.”