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November 21, 2017

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Hotel buffets, a culprit of food waste, face downsizing

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Steve Marcus

Ramen chef Joe Tang mans the Ramen Noodle Bar at The Buffet at Wynn on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014.

Lawrence Eells, the executive chef at the Hyatt Regency Orlando, in Florida, would like his kitchen, or at least its operations, to be as lean as his roast beef. So in April, he welcomed a team of researchers looking at ways to reduce food waste, especially around the abundant all-you-can-eat buffets.

Experts from Ideo, the global design firm known for such creations as Apple’s first mouse and Ikea’s kitchen of the future, studied all facets of the buffet, from food preparation and presentation to the eating patterns of guests. The idea was to try to measure exactly how much food was consumed or repurposed, versus thrown away. They also aimed to pinpoint areas where innovations might help cut waste.

Their initial finding — that guests ate just over half of the food put out — surprised almost everyone. Perhaps even more striking was that only 10 to 15 percent of the leftovers could be donated or repurposed because of food safety regulations, while the rest ended up in the garbage. The sizable waste generated by coffee, juices and other liquids added to the conundrum.

“It was a shock,” said Eells, who oversees some 5,000 event buffets annually and many more buffets in the property’s restaurants. “The scope of the problem was an eye-opener beyond belief.”

It also presented an opportunity for the hospitality industry to make real headway in addressing a pervasive and costly problem. The United States generates 63 million tons of food waste annually, at an estimated cost of $218 billion, according to a 2016 report by ReFED, a group of businesses, nonprofit groups and government leaders devoted to reducing the nation’s waste. Of that, roughly 40 percent is estimated to come from consumer-serving business like hotels and restaurants.

Though no good data exists yet about how much hotels or their buffets specifically contribute to the overall waste total, the thinking is that hotels are an ideal place to raise awareness and change behaviors around sustainability issues, as they have for water conservation.

“If we can change the way food service happens in hotels, it has the potential to influence a lot of different hearts and minds,” said Pete Pearson, director of food waste at the World Wildlife Fund. Thanks to a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Pearson is working with Hyatt, Ideo and others to develop a list of best practices for the hospitality industry to combat food waste.

By targeting buffets, Hyatt and Ideo are zeroing in on a hotel staple that by definition oozes excess.

The question is why and what can be done to rein it in without shortchanging guests.

This is potentially tricky territory. For starters, hotels are loath to do anything that might upset guests. Ideo discovered that one key contributor to the food-waste problem is a fear of not having enough food, and so hotel personnel and conference organizers both inflate expected head counts to guard against any shortage. At the same time, guests pile their plates high to avoid going back for seconds, and to ensure that they get enough of the dishes they want.

“For all these different stakeholders, running out of food is their worst nightmare,” said Hailey Brewer, a director with Ideo in New York. “Each person is a little overinsured.”

Once solutions are identified, Hyatt intends to roll them out at properties around the country, and some simple fixes have already been made in Orlando. Instead of large platters of meats and cheese, guests see sample plates that can be ordered directly from servers. Yogurt will be available in single servings, instead of large bowls. Bountiful baskets of bread and butter, long a buffet standard, are shrinking; because of changing dietary habits, they now rank high among leftover foods. Portion sizes of some items are down, too, while more finger pastries are offered in lieu of whole cakes and pies. Eells said that these changes have already cut buffet costs by about 10 percent, and that guests haven’t objected.

Other changes are in the works to engage consumers and to make buffets more data-driven. The Ideo team has been testing subtle messaging that might appear on or near buffets, along with ways for hotels to collect more information about guests’ dietary preferences and meal schedules. These so-called eater profiles would enable chefs and event planners to know in advance when diners plan to eat off-property or if they would like to request special meals.

So far, consumers seem open to providing more information about their plans and food sensitivities, especially if it aids conservation efforts.

“I wasn’t too aware of the waste, but if we could do our part that would be a good thing,” said Dinesh Collins, a travel business operator who regularly attends conferences.

The challenge will be finding the right balance between delivering a high level of service and minimizing waste.

“People don’t want to be preached to as they are going through the breakfast buffet,” Pearson said. “At the same time, we shouldn’t allow people to stack everything on their plates and then just toss it away.”