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Hotels Experiment With Reducing Food Waste: Will All-You-Can-Eat Buffets Be History?

Nancy Trejos

Hotels are known for wanting to please their guests, and feeding them is one way of doing it. But food waste deteriorates the environment. Hotels are making an effort to cut down on it. So they are earning praise for trying, but they have a long way to go.

It was a small way to help solve a big problem In an effort to cut down on the amount of food it was wasting, the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Portland in Oregon stopped offering free bread with meals at its Red Star Tavern restaurant. Four months into the experiment, the hotel noticed it used 22.5 fewer pounds of dough a week and 65 fewer pounds of butter a month. Bread was still offered for a small charge, but if guests balked, they would get it for free. Not many complained.

“They didn’t see any missed difference in terms of the quality or satisfaction of the guest,” said Monica McBride, manager of food waste at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which encouraged the hotel to experiment with its bread production and consumption. “It freed up the bakers’ time to go do other tasks that were adding more value than producing bread.” Cutting out a few pounds of bread and butter won’t solve the world’s environmental problem, but the hotel industry is one of the main producers of food, and many leftovers end up in landfills, producing greenhouse gas emissions. The labor, water and energy used to produce the food is also a loss. There’s the humanitarian aspect of it too, with hotels realizing that they are throwing away food from their restaurants and banquet and conference rooms while there are those outside their doors who are in need.

Being kind to the environment has become a big goal of the travel industry, and hotels, in particular, are stepping up their efforts, most notably by eliminating plastic straws and small shampoo single-use containers. But there is also now an appetite to produce only the amount of food they need for their customers or, in the failure to do so, dispose of it in a way that won’t harm the environment. There are various reasons for the self-reflection — both altruistic and financial.

“There’s a realization societally that we’ve had a large percentage of food going to landfills for many years,” said Yalmaz Siddiqui, vice president of corporate sustainability for MGM Resorts International, which has 30 properties. “There’s a moral responsibility to address this problem as well as a business responsibility.”

TOP CULPRITS The United States Food and Drug Administration estimates that between 30 to 40 percent of the nation’s food supply goes to waste. That is about 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food, based on 2010 figures, the most recent available.

“Hotels and restaurants and supermarkets are the top three culprits of food waste, and we run two of those things, hotels and restaurants, so it’s very important to us,” said Matt Erickson, president of food and beverage at SH Group, which runs 1 Hotels, an eco-centric brand with properties in New York and Miami and restaurants run by celebrity chefs.

Many big hotels make most of their revenue off conventions, which means that they have to provide food for hundreds or even thousands of people in one sitting. Many properties also offer buffets, especially at breakfast, as a selling point, which means a lot of food is displayed in a pretty fashion but not necessarily eaten.

The World Wildlife Fund teamed up with the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the hotel industry group, to create in 2017 to teach the industry ways to reduce food waste. With financing by the Rockefeller Foundation, the WWF got 10 hotels, including the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Portland, to do pilot projects on learning how to use food products wisely and dispose of any leftovers in a sustainable way. Hilton, Marriott International, Hyatt Hotels, InterContinental Hotels Group, and AccorHotels have all participated in the program.

The Fairmont Washington, D.C., also part of the pilot, had 49 to 33 pounds of uneaten food in the first three months of 2019. That has dropped to 35 to 28 pounds from October to December.

The hotel now does single-plated meals versus buffets. With a brisk banquet business, chefs work with event and meeting planners to try to better gauge the food needs. Any uneaten food is composted or turned into fertilizer, versus sent to a landfill.

“We used to focus so much on energy consumption and savings and have always been into recycling, but now we’re really concentrated on food waste,” said Diana Bulger, a spokeswoman for the hotel, part of the Accor family.

ALTERING PEOPLE’S BEHAVIORS Measuring the amount of food wasted is one of the best and most difficult ways to figure out how hotels are reducing their consumption. Changing the way chefs buy products and cook — and the way people eat — is also quite a challenge.

“Food waste reduction kind of involves the most human interactions,” Erickson said. “With the hotels, you can install LED lights, you can put energy management systems in, change water fixtures. You don’t necessarily have to alter people’s behavior. When it comes to food waste, you have to alter people’s behavior. You have to change their standard operating procedures on a day-to-day basis.” Most hotel companies would not disclose how many pounds of food are produced or wasted. They said they do not have the capability to measure, though a few, such as Hilton and Marriott, have set numerical goals for reducing waste.

Hilton, which has 6,000 hotels globally, is testing technology to quantify its food waste. It has set a goal to cut food waste by 50 percent by 2030 through its Decrease, Donate, Divert model. Many of its hotels use technologies such as Winnow and Leanpath that help chefs measure and monitor the ingredients they are using. Leanpath, for instance, provides a built-in scale and camera capabilities to track the amount of food a chef is using.

“Food waste has major implications from both an environmental and social perspective,” said Caitrin O’Brien, senior manager of corporate responsibility at Hilton. “We know that food production is the single biggest cause of deforestation, water extraction, and habitat and biodiversity loss.”

InterContinental Hotels Group is also using Winnow in a number of hotels to monitor and track food waste through its artificial intelligence-based smart meter that analyzes ingredients during food preparation and plates returned to the kitchen. “This then builds up a bank of data which in turn informs buying decisions for our chefs and their menu planning,” said Catherine Dolton, vice president of corporate responsibility for IHG.

Marriott, the largest hotel company in the world, is also testing out such technology. It has a poster available to its hotels internally and online to show how they should deal with their food waste.

“We don’t just want to jump to composting food waste on the front end. That’s a solution but not the primary first solution,” said Denise Naguib, director of sustainability and supplier diversity at Marriott.

This is what they suggest. First, chefs should study what past customers have consumed and properly measure their needs, then they should donate food to people, then they should donate to farms to feed animals, then they should resort to composting. Marriott has made 2020 a pinnacle year for dealing with this issue and plans to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2025.

SMALLER PLATES = FEWER BINGES Hotels, especially in Las Vegas, are not cutting down on their buffets, but they are becoming more strategic in the way they present them. People tend to fill up their plates to capacity even if they know they can’t eat all the food. Providing smaller plates means that people can’t grab more then they can ingest. Hotels want their buffets to look appealing but not to the point of making their guests crave a binge. Many hotels are presenting items in smaller plates, especially as the hours-long buffet is wrapping up.

Hyatt has made food waste management a priority, launching a guide for its 875 hotels around the world. Each hotel is required to have a food waste management plan in place. The company has a goal of reducing food waste by 40 percent by next year.

“That’s not just a hospitality issue. It touches farmers, distributors, restaurants and hotels, and households,” said Hyatt’s director of environmental affairs Marie Fukudome. “It’s a big issue not just because of the volume of waste but also now with the focus of climate change, there are climate change implications when you think of the methane emissions, for example, related to decomposing food.”

Donating food to those in need is one solution to dealing with unused food. But that is not as easy as it sounds. Hotels are reluctant to do that because they have to meet strict food safety standards.

MGM in November reached a milestone of donating more than 1 million meals through its Feeding Forward programs. It comes from meals that are not served at conventions, minibars, and warehouses. But it wasn’t that easy, MGM’s Siddiqui said.

The food has to be kept at certain temperatures and equipment such as blast chillers have to be used. MGM teamed up with local organizations to build a roving blast chiller so that more food from more properties could make it to shelters.

Which means that if hotels are going to meet this challenge, they will either have to make cuts or make investments to meet the lofty goals they have set for themselves.

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