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Every year, restaurants throw away as much as 10 percent of the food they buy, and that can cost the industry millions. But the cost doesn't stop there. This wasted food attracts rats, and when it rots in landfills, it creates methane, a strong greenhouse gas. In their quest to go green, some restaurants are trying to cut down their waste, and that includes some of New York's trendiest eateries. NPR's Eliza Barclay reports from the restaurant Lupa, owned by Food Network star Mario Batali.
ELIZA BARCLAY, BYLINE: This story begins in the basement kitchen of Lupa, where it's just three hours before the dinner service. Line cooks are tenderizing chicken, sorting olives and pushing beets into the oven. It's already crowded, and there's a guest in the kitchen today.
ANDREW SHAKMAN: The flash drive here, it does not have to be in the machine until you're ready.
BARCLAY: Andrew Shakman is president of a company called LeanPath. He's here conducting a grand experiment to see if he can get this kitchen to cut food waste and save money.
SHAKMAN: We're going to be measuring all of the food that we're throwing away before we throw it away.
BARCLAY: He set up his company's square scale, the size of a cigar box, on one of the counters. A group of young cooks has huddled around him.
SHAKMAN: So anything we overproduce, spoil, expiration or trim waste, we're going to put on this scale before it goes in the garbage or in the compost.
BARCLAY: When Shakman is done, head chef Cruz Goler takes a turn. He explains to his cooks how to weigh the food scraps in a mix of Spanish and English.
CRUZ GOLER: (Foreign language spoken), OK? Select food, pa-pa-pa-pa vegetable. Boom. Vegetables miscellaneous will put this.
BARCLAY: Then the cooks try it themselves. Line cook Glen Osterberg looks kind of an annoyed.
GLEN OSTERBERG: I have no idea how to work this machine.
BARCLAY: It's now about one hour to dinner. The kitchen feels frantic and humid. Two cooks fight over where to put a huge pot of scorching oil and Goler learns there's a leak in the pasta tank. It's not clear he can handle one more thing to worry about. But Shakman needs to show Goler how to use the software. They head into the chef's office.
SHAKMAN: What you're going to do every week is collect the data from the tracker and you'll bring it back here.
GOLER: How do we do it?
SHAKMAN: I'm going to show you. So...
BARCLAY: Goler listens for a while, then he interrupts. He's getting nervous as crunch time in his kitchen approaches.
GOLER: OK. Thank you, chef. Appreciate it. Great day.
BARCLAY: And with that, Shakman is banished from the kitchen. He was there in the first place thanks to Mario Batali, Goler's boss. A few years ago, the ponytailed TV star, his business partners decided to make their 19 restaurants among the greenest in the world. So they started to encourage chefs to buy local ingredients, compost and save energy. When it came to reducing food waste, they thought they were doing a good job, but they weren't sure how to track and measure it. Then Batali's group heard about Shakman's company. It was helping big institutions like Stanford University Dining and the MGM Grand Las Vegas save thousands of dollars in food costs.
Here's how: When cooks put food waste on the LeanPath scale, they identify it and why they're throwing it away, like overcooked meat or spoiled fish. The software then calculates what that food waste is worth. With that information, a kitchen can figure out how it needs to change, Shakman says.
SHAKMAN: Once we begin reducing food waste, we are spending less money on food because we're not buying food to waste it. We're spending less money on labor. We're spending less money on energy to keep that food cold and heated up. And we're spending less on waste disposal.
BARCLAY: But LeanPath had never been tested in a small place like Lupa, where the chefs cook everything to order. So Shakman agreed to let Lupa try the system for free. After that day in the kitchen, Goler spent a couple of months working with the system. But he ran into some problems. After the first week, some of his staff just stopped weighing the food.
GOLER: You know, here they are working six days. It's their day off, and they're supposed to be off and they're here working hard already. Am I going to break their chops about some sort of vegetable scrap that doesn't really mean anything?
BARCLAY: Shakman believes those scraps do mean something when they add up over time. He says it's just a matter of making the tracking a priority, even when a restaurant is really busy.
SHAKMAN: When we get busy, we don't stop washing our hands, right? When we get busy, we don't cut corners and quality on the plate, so it's just a question of how do we adapt. And we've seen folks who are busy who find ways.
BARCLAY: But Goler couldn't find a way.
GOLER: I've pretty much kind of pulled the plug, I guess, you can say in this thing. It didn't feel like it really works in this setting.
BARCLAY: It was tough to take the project seriously, he says, when most of what the restaurant throws away is stuff like onion skins that no one is ever going to eat. And he says forcing his staff to weigh onion skins took up precious time. His perspective: the manpower of weighing the onion skins was more costly than anything learned by doing it.
GOLER: It's a very low-margin, super competitive business. It's the crux of, you know, every environmental issue.
BARCLAY: Despite the failure of LeanPath in the Lupa kitchen, Shakman is still convinced his system can save any restaurant money. But he's learned that the battle against food waste, like so many battles people fight, has to start with winning hearts and minds. Eliza Barclay, NPR News.
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