Hot-bar leftovers: To trash or not to trash?

February 27, 2013

A reader today in our Free Range chat posed a smart question, one that I wished we had addressed in our supermarket hot bar story (or at least in the graphic): “What happens to the foods from the hot bar at the end of the day? Are they donated to local charities/shelters? I sure hope it’s not wasted, or put out the next day!”

A few phone calls and e-mails later, I had some answers. The fact is, food is not put out the next day — at least not in the same form (more on that in a sec) — but there is indeed waste.

Wegmans, for one, prefers to toss its leftovers rather than send them to local food banks or pantries. The chain does a lot of work with hunger groups, notes Jim Schaeffer, operations director of food preparation for Wegmans, whether donating produce or canned goods or baked goods. But when it comes to hot-bar leftovers, Schaefer says that Wegmans decided it didn’t want to send food that had passed its prime. He says it’s a matter of quality, not food safety.

“We don’t want to have to apologize for the food,” Schaeffer adds.

The operations director says the trashed food is known in the industry as “shrink,” a term that no doubt has double meanings. As in, not just the physical shrinking of the food as it sits on a hot bar, but the shrinking of profits from discarded food. Whatever the definition, shrink is an unfortunate part of hot bars, Schaeffer says.

“When we pull it off, we shrink it,” he says. “That’s the cost of entering the business.”

That is why it’s important for each store to know the dynamics of its market, Schaeffer says. Does the store do a big lunch business? Or does the rush arrive at dinner? Whatever the case, kitchen teams can then prepare the right amount of food without too much shrinkage. Depending on the store, Schaeffer says, food waste can range between five and 10 percent a day.

Just about the only item that gets repurposed is the rotisserie chicken, which sometimes makes an appearance on the hot bar, Schaeffer says. If there are leftover birds, Wegmans will use them for chicken soup, he notes.

Likewise, Safeway repurposes rotisserie chicken into chicken salad, says Greg Ten Eyck, director of public affairs for the eastern division. All other leftovers are thrown in the composter.

“We compost at all our stores at this area of the country,” Ten Eyck says.

Like Wegmans, Whole Foods Market will trash any leftovers on its hot bars, but Scott Crawford, the chain’s prepared foods coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic region, says each store works to minimize waste in the first place. It’s not just a bottom-line consideration, he adds, it’s part of Whole Foods’ commitment to the environment. “Being wasteful wouldn’t line up with that,” he says.

Whole Foods kitchens rely on batch cooking at their stores, Crawford says. For example, the P Street store might cook an 80-pound batch of dal for the hot bar; prep teams will promptly cool the fully cooked batch and then reheat the lentils in two eight-pound hotel pans, placing one pan on the bar and reserving the second in a warming unit until needed. Teams will then reheat more dal in eight-pound portions as necessary throughout the day. The key to avoiding waste is to gauge demand near the end of the day and not place too much food on the bar as closing time approaches.

“If there’s a pound at the end of the night, what are they going to do with that?” Crawford asks. The answer is simple: Toss it out.

Part of the issue for the chain is food safety. If Whole Foods donated leftovers to hunger groups and the like, the company couldn’t be certain the food would be handled properly. There are too many opportunities for food to enter a dangerous temperature zone before being served.

Crawford points out, however, that the chain’s kitchens do work to reduce waste within their own stores. If produce has become too ripe for customers or if a pepper is past its prime, hot bar cooks can transform those ingredients into finished dishes. Crawford says that at high-volume stores, such as the one on P Street in the District, that can translate into saving 100 to 200 pounds of produce a day.

Interestingly enough, at least one organization dedicated to feeding the hungry says it will not accept leftovers from any public buffet, including hot bars. D.C. Central Kitchen has developed its policy to “prevent against adulteration and other food safety issues,” notes Stephen Kendall, procurement manager with DCCK.

With that said, Kendall adds that DCCK will accept “items that were prepared for a hot bar or buffet application but never actually made it there, so long as they have been held at the proper temperature and meet our other guidelines.” The majority of DCCK’s prepared food donations, he notes, come from large operations such as ballparks and convention centers, where the food has never left the kitchen or walk-in refrigerator due to overage or cancellations.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.
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