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The Corona virus has caused a massive crisis across the hospitality sector. Is the necessity to adapt to new conditions an opportune moment for restaurants to stop overproducing food and change the way we think about dining out in New York?

Diners in New York don’t like to be told “no.” They definitely don’t like to be told that a restaurant is sold out of its signature dish. As an insurance policy against 86s (industry speak for sold-out menu items), most restaurants make more food than they need.

Many restaurants take measures to cut down on food waste, like composting, running specials, and using straggling ingredients to make family meal. New organizations like ReThink have cropped up recently, collecting leftovers from restaurants and redistributing them to hungry people, and OGs like Food Not Bombs have been waging the war for years. In Brooklyn, pioneers like Rhodora and Lighthouse have reduced their carbon footprint by working closely with producers and shaping menus around sustainable products.

Shelter-in-place orders have overturned restaurant businesses, with some pivoting to delivery or hybrid charity/disaster-relief models. While analysts have speculated as to what kind of lasting effect this will have on the industry, the future remains unknowable.

Challenging times like these present opportunities to grow and evolve, to examine ourselves and gain some clarity about what’s working and what’s not. In the words of retired restauranteur Frank Guidara, “adversity is a terrible thing to waste” (and so is food). The opportunity for the most significant impact that restaurants can have on reducing waste may involve a paradigm shift in the way we think about menus.

Restaurants track sales to predict how much of a given product they’ll use each day. Business levels don’t just influence the ordering of perishable ingredients like meat and produce, they also dictate how much of a given item the prep team will make. Restaurants that offer homemade bread, pasta, desserts, etc. set pars based on factors like the day of the week and weather conditions. Like many aspects of running a hospitality business, it’s largely a guessing game.

Especially in the fine dining sector, running out of dishes during service is a chef’s nightmare. Guests come in expecting a certain experience, perhaps even having traveled long distances in anticipation of a specific morsel. In a business with alarmingly tight profit margins, chefs do whatever they can to build and maintain customer loyalty. This can mean deploying cooks to specialty food stores to procure wild-caught black bass or roll out dough “on-the-fly” in the middle of a frantic dinner rush. In an industry where every day can feel like an exercise in teetering on the edge of catastrophe, professionals tend to err on the side of caution. Despite the best intentions, this often translates to trays of hand-pinched ravioli and quarts of peeled crudités being tossed in the trash.

In the wake of the pandemic, as restaurants struggle to rebuild, costs will be a crucial factor. The thing about wasting food is that it isn’t just bad for the environment, it’s also expensive. Cost benefit arguments are an effective tool for getting people to adopt environmentally-friendly habits, and this one comes at the perfect time.

While some restaurants consider it unthinkable to run out of menu items during service, others have been quietly operating under a sell-out model for years. One example is Andrew Tarlow’s iconic Diner, which has been open in Brooklyn for two decades. At Diner, there is no menu. Servers write the dishes on a paper tablecloth (a material of dubious sustainability… but that’s a separate discussion), and guests order from that selection. At Le French Diner (no relation) in Manhattan, the daily menu is written on a chalkboard, and items are crossed out when the last one is sold. There is no apology or panic on the part of the staff, the range is simply narrowed. This concept also applies to fast-casual spots, like David Chang’s Bang Bar, a sandwich stand in the Lincoln Center Mall, which closes down for the day when it runs out of food.

If more restaurants pivoted to this structure, an enormous amount of food waste could be avoided.

Arguably, limited supplies increase demand, and all three of the very popular restaurants in the previous paragraph are thriving illustrations of this principle. In New York, where competition for customer loyalty is as stiff as it is for eight-o-clock tables, a structural change like this would inevitably cause serious backlash. In order for restaurants to implement a system of finite availability, guests and restauranteurs alike would need to shift their expectations.

In The Third Plate, Dan Barber writes that “the future of cuisine will represent a paradigm shift, a new way of thinking about cooking and eating that defies Americans’ ingrained expectations.” Barber’s line of thought pertains to our ideas about restaurants, especially in New York, where dining out is a means of survival. As the hospitality industry rebuilds and adapts to new circumstances, what better time to create new, eco-conscious expectations?

In favor of climate policy reform and regenerative agriculture. Pasta enthusiast.

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