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Milwaukee Restaurants Work to Reduce Food Waste

Local businesses find alternatives to dumpsters and landfills

May. 23, 2017
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Up to 40% of the food supply in the United States will never be consumed. That startling fact from the U.S. Department of Agriculture puts into perspective the monumental problem this country has with food waste. Most of that wasted food ends up in landfills, negatively impacting the environment. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more food reaches landfills than any other type of waste.

Food waste comes from many sources. When you find a mushy, half-eaten cucumber in the bottom of your crisper drawer and throw it in the trash, you’re contributing to a landfill. Schools, hospitals, grocery stores, manufacturers, corporations and municipalities all produce food waste. If a building has food in it, some will be wasted. That is especially true for restaurants, whose business is food.

Restaurants in Milwaukee are tackling the issue of food waste head on. Many chefs and restaurant owners feel compelled to find alternatives to throwing food in the trash because of their commitment to environmental concerns, according to Melissa Tashjian, founder of Compost Crusader, a local organic waste disposal and composting company.

“I think restaurant customers work with us because they are environmentally conscious and see an opportunity to make a positive impact in their community,” she says. Tied closely with that reasoning is the moral and ethical dilemma of throwing out nutritious food. Food is not going to the mouth of someone who needs it, and it’s contributing to our environmental crisis at the same time, which is a combination that many chefs just can’t accept.

So what’s a restaurant to do with their food waste? Many are taking a multipronged approach and dealing with organic waste in numerous ways. The most obvious is collecting all organic materials and composting them. Most restaurants don’t have the space or time to do their own composting, so that’s where companies like Compost Crusader come in. Tashjian started the company in 2014, which runs much like standard disposal services. The company offers four different size receptacles for organic material and food scraps, and restaurants pay a fee based on the size of the receptacle, frequency of pick up and distance traveled to the compost site, according to Tashjian.


Nutrient-Rich Soil

About 30% of Compost Crusader’s business comes from area restaurants. Most of those customers are able to divert 50 to 75% of their waste from the landfill, according to Tashjian. Once the organic waste is collected, it goes to Blue Ribbon Organics in Caledonia, which takes care of the composting. “We pay them, per ton, to take the material off our hands and they process it into a nutrient-rich soil amendment called compost,” says Tashjian. That compost is then sold back to Milwaukee County residents. In the past Compost Crusader has also made donations of finished compost to community garden initiatives such as Groundwork Milwaukee.

The cost of these specialized composting services can range from cost neutral—it costs the same as if restaurants were filling dumpsters bound for the landfill—to a bit of a premium. Melissa Buchholz, owner of Odd Duck and Hello Falafel, says it costs about $400 per month for two waste management services to collect the restaurant’s waste at Odd Duck alone. One is a recycler and garbage disposal service, and the other is Compost Crusader. The added cost does not deter her, however. 

“We think it is worth the extra cost to try to deal with our waste ethically and responsibly in a way that makes sense for our city and our planet,” says Buchholz. “It is more expensive to recycle and compost than it is to just throw everything in the garbage, but our motivation for doing so stems more from personal ethics than business profits for us, and we’ve been lucky to be successful enough to afford to do things in a more environmentally responsible manner.” 

There are ways restaurants can address food waste and save money, however. Using every part of an ingredient will prevent unnecessary waste. Reducing the volume of waste, whether a restaurant composts or not, will reduce costs. For example, at Odd Duck, Buchholz will use every part of a chicken: butchering it for meat, rendering the fat for cooking potatoes, and using the bones and carcass for stock. There will always be some waste—bones, uneaten portions of customers’ plates and banana peels, for example—but repurposing perfectly edible “waste” can save money.


Free Meals

Offering free meals, whether to a restaurant’s staff or to the general public, is another way of diverting food waste from the landfill. At Odd Duck, Buchholz has a daily free staff meal that she calls Family Meal. Odds and ends that would otherwise not be served to customers are transformed into a delicious staff meal. 

Ronnie Oldham, chef at Balzac Wine Bar, takes the free meal concept one step further. After realizing that there was too much food waste leaving his kitchen, even after using a composting service and feeding staff, he implemented a new program coincidentally called Family Meal. On Sunday nights, anyone can stop in the restaurant after 10 p.m., order a drink, and receive free small plates made of food the kitchen would otherwise throw away or compost. It started as a deal for service industry folks as a way to open up dialogue about restaurant food waste, but has since been opened up to anyone who’d like to partake.

Since Oldham started Family Meal three months ago, he’s fed more than 500 people 70 different dishes. They’ve served everything from pork belly ends with farmer’s cheese made with Manchego rinds, croutons from stale bread and pickled peppers, to a cinnamon cayenne chocolate torte with ice cream made with leftover red wine. 

The impact Family Meal is making on Balzac’s bottom line has been immediately apparent, according to Oldham. He estimates that by the end of the year, the restaurant will save approximately $500 in composting service fees, around $2,000 from repurposing edible “waste” and about $100 on garbage bags.

So, whether the motivation for examining a restaurant’s food waste is environmental or financial, big benefits can be had with a little more careful planning. “Just be cognizant of what is ultimately getting used and what is getting thrown away,” says Oldham. “Not only is it a good cost-cutting measure, but it makes an immediate impact on reducing waste, while helping the environment at the same time.”


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