Zero Food Waste Ethos:

Zero Food Waste Ethos:

San Diego Restaurants Working to Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose


Plastic straws aren’t the only things we're needlessly throwing away at restaurants. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that between 30-40 percent of the nation’s food supply is wasted, with numbers on the rise.  According to a report by National Public Radio (NPR), one-half pound of food for every restaurant guest served, on average, is thrown away.  Zero Food Waste Ethos is a growing restaurant trend in San Diego that is not just good for the environment but also encourages chefs to get creative with innovative and delicious new dishes.

Zero Food Waste Ethos:

What is Zero Food Waste Ethos?

Zero Waste Ethos doesn’t necessarily mean restaurants are going to be throwing away their trash cans. That would be a near impossible feat for the majority of restaurants. The zero food waste ethos, instead, is a focus on reducing the amount of waste through smart ordering, portioning, total utilization, and proper disposal.

It starts with planning and preparation. Restaurants can design their menus around total utilization as well as using analytics to anticipate ordering patterns so food doesn’t go to waste. Along with this planning, developing correct portion sizes will keep cooked food from being wasted and reducing the need for takeaway containers. While San Diego just banned polyurethane containers, cardboard or recyclable takeaway containers still end up in landfills.

Zero Waste Menu Design

Some of San Diego’s most innovative menus include the use of products that would normally get thrown away. Jessica Waite and Co-owner/Chef Davin Waite of Wrench & Rodent Seabasstropub and The Whet Noodle are San Diego’s leaders in reducing restaurant waste. Waite shares, “This practice leads to a unique dining experience for our guests, as they have the opportunity to experience preparations they might not encounter at other restaurants. Some of these practices do take a bit more labor, but it is paid for by the return on the use of the item. For example, if a chef is breaking down a fish they cut out the ribs instead of throwing them away. This may take an extra 3-5 minutes, yielding ribs for two orders of karaage. Those ribs are then marinated, breaded and fried, and sold as an appetizer.”  


Other examples of creative (and delicious) menu items that the Waites created from food that might otherwise be discarded include: fish skin crisps, beet stem relish, carrot stem pesto, kale stem kraut, and their famous taco-meat substitute made from banana peels. This approach of “root to shoot” cooking is something Chef Waite has been practicing for decades and has resulted in a menu that is as delicious as it is environmentally responsible.


Even beverages can be rethought to reduce waste. Waite shares, “Keg beer, sake, and wine are economical and eliminate the need for bottles. Similarly, locally crafted tap sodas and cold brew coffee are a great compliment to our menu preparations.”


At San Diego’s recent inaugural WASTED: A Celebration of Sustainable Food event on October 14, chefs and mixologists were challenged to prepare winning dishes and cocktails using food that would otherwise be discarded. The event was hosted by Chef Works and benefited Kitchens for Good, a nonprofit focused on breaking the cycles of food waste, poverty, and hunger, through innovative programs in workforce training, healthy food production, and social enterprise.

My personal favorite from WASTED was by Sugar & Scribe bakery. The orange two-day old croissant bread pudding was served with apple compote, orange caramel, apple peel strudel, apple peel sorbet truffle, and candied pansies.

Event emcee and James Beard nominated Pastry Chef Elizabeth Falkner explains, “I was part of a generation of chef taught to trim things and get rid of parts of produce. Look at the nutrients being wasted by throwing away food; think about all the energy that goes into the plant and animal that is being wasted.” The idea of zero waste ethos, she shares, isn’t new. “Some of the best food comes from a history of peasant cooking, a mindset of utilizing what is available and making the best of it. Our country has had such a good economy for so long, it is important to remember how important conservation is.”

Good for the Environment, Good for Business

Along with doing good, zero food waste ethos can also help restaurants do well financially. Flores Financial is the go-to accounting and HR firm for more than 300 restaurants in San Diego County and Flores’ Andrew Murphy has seen first hand how reducing waste can help restaurants improve their bottom line. Murphy shares, “Typically restaurants will try to keep their waste at 1% or below however this varies from restaurant to restaurant. It is very difficult to become truly zero waste, but by having a zero waste ethos restaurants can approach having no waste.”

Murphy reveals that fine dining restaurants like steakhouses and seafood restaurants are more likely to create more waste than fast casual or counter services establishments. So what is the magic number for your profit and loss statement? Murphy says, If your waste is at 2% of sales, it’s too high.”

Waite knows firsthand how important reducing waste can be to achieving profitability. “Our restaurant concept is inherently challenged. We source the best possible product we can find, and pay more to buy this from small local purveyors. We make almost everything from scratch, so our labor is also high. We then set our prices in a way that are accessible to many, therefore reducing our margins significantly. The only way that we can do this and still run a profitable business is by making sure we waste almost nothing. In addition, we are able to use products and parts of fish and animals that other restaurants might not utilize, and this has a significantly positive effect on our bottom line.”

Zero Food Waste Ethos:

Additional Challenges

Though a zero food waste ethos is a valuable goal, there are challenges in achieving it, especially in metropolitan areas like San Diego. One significant challenge may be the lack of composting options for San Diego restaurants. While the City of San Diego provides options for food composting, there is a fee and commercial sites must be pre-approved to bring food waste to the site.

Food waste is a costly practice. According to a report by NPR, one-half pound of food for every restaurant guest served, on average, is discarded. As much as ten percent of food purchased by restaurants ends up in the landfill. This is a huge waste of resources, with a negative environmental impact. Straws do suck, but discarding viable food is just as concerning.