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Leftover love


Some la-di-da restaurants might turn up their noses at doggy bag requests, but many in the food industry are trying to cut food wastage by opting for menu audits, smaller plate sizes and charitable donations.

The doggy bag is now dêclassê. Uptown diners would rather forfeit what's left of their delicious chili con carne than have it packed for the run. "I would never ask for a doggy bag, " sniffs a South Bombay bourgeoisie, who claims the practice reeks of need and thrift. "In any case, the leftovers are probably dished out to the poor, so I'm really being generous. "

But the poorhouse is not where his remains are dispatched - the bin's more like it. Usually, restaurant leftovers are left to linger in a landfill. It was to address this issue of restaurant waste that a campaign was launched last October in Britain. Called Too Good to Waste, it flagged off gross food wastage in restaurants, and produced stats to indicate that for every meal eaten in a UK restaurant, nearly half a kilo of food was wasted through preparation, spoilage and leftovers. The annual total was about 60, 000 tonnes.

Although India hasn't yet done the math, the food service industry is tightening its operational systems and minimising waste because it reduces dining and ecological costs. Smaller portions and plated options are one solution.

The mere mention of banquets and buffets makes Vandana Narula see red. Chef and part-proprietor of the casual fine-dining place called The Fat Chef in Bangalore, she says Indians have a common condition called "eyes larger than stomach". Narula, a former corporate caterer for 16 years, was dishing out 25, 000 meals a day from seven kitchens. "At every buffet, nearly 20 per cent is wasted, " she says. "The problem is, if a company pays you to cater to 200 employees, you can't cook only for 170 even when you know that's a more likely consumer base. So I'd plead with companies to donate leftovers to a charity, though only four out of 40 would comply. "

Her restaurant doesn't offer a buffet. "To minimise waste, we've worked out single portions. We avoid stocking up in the kitchen too;if an item runs out, we simply wipe it off our wall. As for leftovers, our policy is to go up to the customer and ask if he'd like his leftovers parcelled. We do this because we know often customers are too shy to ask, " she says. Whatever is left after this is dispatched to a piggery, while used oil (standard procedure in the industry) is given to an industrial soap factory to use in the manufacture of soap oils.

But in a country like India, it's not so much waste on the plate as waste on-themake that has restaurateurs in a bind. More food falls en route to the kitchen due to temperature variations and manhandling than any other folly.

"India doesn't have a dedicated cold chain system, no temperature-control processes, so ingredients perish by the time they arrive at kitchens, " says Sanjiv Mediratta, group advisor, F&B Solutions at ABCTCL (Amalgamated Bean Coffee Trading Company Ltd), of which Cafê Coffee Day (CCD) is a part.

He points out that hotels and Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs) are the largest purveyors of cooked food in the food service industry. "Our vendors prepare our food on temperature-controlled production floors, the food is tested for quality, and then transported via cooled GPS-fitted vans to CCD outlets where they are delivered in chilled or frozen states to the outlet's cold storage facility. We may lose a little of our production at the manufacturing end, but there's zero loss in logistics. For QSRs, particularly those that don't cook on site, inventory management is critical, " Mediratta says.

To prevent a pileup, restaurants routinely register their product history - drawing up a list of fast-sellers against the slow-goers. "We discovered that 20 per cent of our product-line contributed to 80 per cent of sales, so we finally took the bold step of dropping the sluggish 80 per cent, " says Dheeraj Gupta, who conceptualised and now runs the vada pav chain Jumbo King across six cities. "We control waste by keeping our product line small. If bread is left over, and it exceeds its two-day shelf life, we bin it. If it's not good enough for a customer, how can it be good for the poor?"

Corporate caterers, who lay the table for thousands, develop stringent measures to keep revenue, rations and residue in fine balance. Compass Group, a global food service organisation, uses a proprietary tool to assess waste management called Trim Trax. "It monitors pre-production wastage (during peeling and preparation); post-production (unused products at point of service); and plate wastage, " says Vikram Srinivas, director, M&A. They also use seasonal and locally sourced products to stem loss through transportation and storage.

Another way to reduce waste is to sound off employees on the long-term health benefits of controlled consumption. This could be especially tricky in a place that has been traditionally given a free run of the credenza. "One of the first steps is formulating a clear communication programme on plate waste, with posters asking consumers to 'take what you can eat, eat what you take', " says Jeff Brades, vice president, marketing & communications, Sodexo India On-Site Service Solutions. "We hope to educate employees across India to be more mindful of their eating habits. " Brades says an example of an industry that keenly audits its food is the oil and gas industry. Here every gram of food has to be sent out by chopper or boat and all waste brought back to shore by the same means.

On land too, commercial kitchens attempt to run watertight systems. "Experience has taught us best practices in food preparation, and showed us how to read restaurant traffic so we don't cook more than we need, " says Ananda Solomon, executive chef at the Taj Group of Hotels. They devised a system of half portions for room service to prevent waste. "What remains, and in quantity, is usually banquet food, " he says. This is donated the following morning to charities the hotel is associated with. "If nothing's left over, we prepare a simple meal of rice, dal and vegetables for the charity, because you can't expect them to go hungry. "
However, Manish Mehrotra, executive chef at Delhi's Indian Accent, believes it's all very well to donate to charity, but a restaurant must then shoulder the responsibility of delivering quality food. Most hotels don't want to do that and try to ensure it is consumed in-house. " At banquets, for example, contract staff - cleaners, security guards, waiters, others - polish off the remains.

Abroad, restaurants actually make money off their waste by selling leftover kitchen grease and used vegetable oil to individuals who convert it to biodiesel. Solid waste goes towards processing organic fertiliser. Back home, Hardcastle Restaurants Pvt Ltd, representatives of McDonald's in West and South India, have allied with an environmental NGO called Green Yatra. The NGO plans to manage all of McDonald's waste - both wet and dry. They're testing a pilot project across 15 McD outlets in Mumbai, collecting, segregating and then dispatching to recycling units about 1500 kg of waste a day. Can't say we're not loving it.

Should you be embarrassed about asking for a doggy bag? Yes, if you go by Emily Post. "I do not approve of taking leftover food such as pieces of meat home from restaurants, "Post wrote in 1968. But these are different times and modern diners shouldn't have any qualms about asking for leftovers to be wrapped up.

Asking the server to wrap it up lets the chef know the meal was fantastic. It serves as a compliment, especially at typically upscale restaurants where the chef or restaurant owner is proud of the meal, say etiquette experts. But asking that a date's leftovers be packed and appropriating them - since you paid for it - is one situation that definitely violates doggie bag etiquette. Ditto business lunch or dinner.

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