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All You Can Eat? The Future of the Buffet

  • Date: 05 April 2018
  • Author: Monica McBride, Senior Program Officer for Food Waste at WWF

Every year, about 1.9 million conferences are hosted in the US, and around 250 million people attend them. You’ve probably been to one yourself. These 250 million eager conference-goers are fed at least one meal a day using the now standard method of delivering large amounts of food to large amounts of people in a short amount of time: the buffet. This style of food service is now the norm for large hotels and conference centers because it is easy, fast, and efficient for the kitchen staff.

But what may be a perceived efficiency in one respect, is inadvertently leading to a much greater inefficiency: food waste. Some food is over-prepared and left unconsumed on the buffet, while more is piled high and left on guests’ plates, neither of which is safe to be repurposed or donated and must be thrown away. All the money, labor, and energy that went into making that food also goes in the trash, and that is not efficient.  

The problem is a troublesome cycle of expectations. Chefs and hotel owners assume, often correctly, that clients and guests expect a never-ending abundance of food and want to provide the best possible customer experience. This leads to an “insurance” production and procurement model for events, which adds a little extra at each stage of the flow of food through the hotel. The meeting planner adds a few extra guests to cover possible late registrations, the sales staff adds another 3% to ensure they are not responsible for food shortages, and the chef adds a little more to guarantee the buffet never runs dry. The aim is for someone who visits the buffet ten minutes before the end to have the same choices as the first person through the line. By providing this experience of abundance, the hospitality industry continues to waste precious resources including the land, water, and wildlife habitat that were sacrificed to produce all this delicious food, not to mention millions of dollars from their bottom line in food, labor, and even waste hauling costs.

However, with some simple steps and an eye towards prevention, the hospitality industry could save millions, while also re-educating guests about the value of food and pushing other industries to account for the true cost (value) of food. World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) recent partnership with the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), which focused on implementing food waste prevention strategies at ten hotel properties across the United States, proved small steps by dedicated staff can make a big impact. 

The tactics included training staff on food waste prevention techniques, redesigning menus, and incorporating new service and replenishment models to buffets. Did it work? Each of the ten properties saw at least a 15% reduction in food waste and 1-3% reductions in food costs over the course of just a four-month effort, showing it’s good for the bottom line.

Infographic Hotels FLW Business Case

Infographic taken from the Champions 12.3 report.

Champions 12.3 – the coalition dedicated to mobilizing action and tracking progress toward Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 of halving global food loss and waste - also recently released a hospitality-focused business case for investing in food waste reduction. In their study, 42 hotels saw on average a 7:1 benefit-cost ratio from food waste reduction investments, plus a 20% decline in food waste. The business case for food waste prevention is clear – the average site in the study invested less than one percent of annual food sales in prevention activities and saw 7 times that amount in returns.

So, what’s the future of the buffet? Still abundant and delicious, but far more efficient using training, data, and improved communications along the flow of food.

How can you be part of that future? WWF developed a new platform called HotelKitchen.org. It contains an extensive toolkit for the hospitality industry that steps properties through establishing a Food Waste Task Force, developing a food waste prevention culture, and implementing waste reducing practices for buffets and banquets, along with a simple checklist, free training videos, and many additional resources.  

As of April 6th, WWF is expanding our hospitality food waste engagement globally, starting in Singapore where we are gathering participants from 6 of the larger hotel brands in the region along with partners from The Pacific Asia Transportation Association (PATA) and Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) to discuss opportunities for food waste prevention, donation, and diversion at local and regional properties.  And we’ve got future convenings and workshops planned for Europe, South America, and China. Just like hanging your towel or declining daily room service is becoming an accepted norm, soon the wasteful buffet will be a thing of the past.

Hospitality is a global industry - wherever you may be located, if your property, brand or organization is interested in participating in future efforts, check out Hotel | Kitchen, sign-up and join the fight to reduce food waste. It’s good for the planet, and for your business.

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