Reducing Food Waste: John Zucker of Cru Catering & Cru Café On How They Are Helping To Eliminate Food Waste

An Interview With Martita Mestey

Martita Mestey
Authority Magazine

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Learn all aspects of your business to fill in where needed. Again, I would never ask something of an employee that I am not willing and able to do myself. It’s important to embody this mindset in order for your team to do the same if someone else is unable to give 100% for whatever reason.

It has been estimated that each year, more than 100 billion pounds of food is wasted in the United States. That equates to more than $160 billion worth of food thrown away each year. At the same time, in many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. The waste of food is not only a waste of money and bad for the environment, but it is also making vulnerable populations even more vulnerable.

Authority Magazine started a new series called “How Restaurants, Grocery Stores, Supermarkets, Hospitality Companies and Food Companies Are Helping To Eliminate Food Waste.” In this interview series, we are talking to leaders and principals of Restaurants, Grocery Stores, Supermarkets, Hospitality Companies, Food Companies, and any business or nonprofit that is helping to eliminate food waste, about the initiatives they are taking to eliminate or reduce food waste.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Zucker.

For more than two decades, Executive Chef and Owner John Zucker has been bringing his vision to life in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. In 2001, he opened his award-winning catering company, Cru Catering, followed by Cru Café in 2002, which remains a gem of the downtown Charleston restaurant scene. Chef Zucker remains active in the nonprofit community and is a highly sought-after restaurant consultant in the Southeast.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I got my foot in the door as a busboy at a small, busy restaurant in Breckenridge, Colorado, and eventually worked as a dishwasher in the kitchen. Working in the kitchen resonated with me, so I eventually became a cook. I then went on to manage a kitchen for a restaurant that approached me a couple of years later. At some point, I thought, “I enjoy what I do, and I’m good at it. What’s next?” Fortunately, my grandmother offered to help me go to culinary school, and then I was off to Paris to attend Le Cordon Bleu. My mom convinced me to take pastry which I had no interest in but was the best choice I could have made. At graduation, I was named the number one graduate of my class, a feat that was truly unexpected.

Eventually, I moved to Las Vegas and had the opportunity to work at Chef Wolfgang Puck’s Restaurant Spago, but I knew I needed more restaurant experience to get to where I wanted to be in this industry. I had an opportunity to help open a restaurant, Canoe, in Atlanta, GA, so I worked there for a year or so. Canoe was nominated for Best New Restaurant by James Beard. Then friends approached me about an opportunity to start a consulting team in Savannah, GA. We did several restaurant openings in Charleston, SC. I was consulting at a restaurant named Sonoma and I ended up staying as their executive chef. I absolutely loved Charleston.

After a little more than a year working as their executive chef I knew it was time to pursue my own business. I moved back to my home state, California, and came to the decision to move back to Charleston and start a catering company that would hopefully lead me to my own restaurant. Funds were limited and this seemed to be the path of least resistance. When I got back to Charleston I drove down East Bay Street and saw a for lease sign on a really small building that was previously a very small home-cooked meals catering company. I eventually signed a lease on the space and that’s how we started what is now Cru Catering.

We had a few small gigs to start out and then we were hired to do a wedding for a very prominent local chef and friend. I knew this could kick start our company. I had never done a function for 400 people before but we decided to take the risk and the rest is history. We performed very well and I also had some history in Charleston with Sonoma so the word was now being spread amongst the locals. Ultimately, I knew I wanted to do a restaurant because that’s where my heart was. I leased the space on Pinckney Street, and my friends and I did all the renovations and then opened Cru Café.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company or organization?

The whole experience of opening a catering company on credit cards is probably one you don’t want to share with your readers but that IS the only true story of our start and eventual success. I took major risks and worked extremely hard for 20-plus years to make it all happen on a shoestring budget while not building a department. Banks were definitely not talking with potential restaurateurs so what money I had had to work, I did. On the same note of risk-taking, I went to Paris to attend Le Cordon Bleu and didn’t speak French, but I made it happen with the support of my great family and friends.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Most “funny” stories are stories that are better left within our Cru family, ha. I really don’t recall a funny moment to share but working hard and not taking everything too seriously was something I learned and followed for my entire career. The biggest mistake was trying to be friends with everyone who I worked with. It tends to lead to disappointment, either them in me or vice versa.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Good leadership is so much more than leading a team successfully through adversity. It is showing others you’re passionate and finding the people out there who are equally as motivated and possess similar goals and aspirations as yourself. I’ve had people working for me for the last 15, 16, and 17 years — that’s not something you see every day — and I am truly grateful for them. I played college baseball so the “there’s no ‘I’ in team” was a huge lesson in my life. I tend to treat people as if we are an athletic team where the right arm will not succeed without the left arm.

I really enjoy a hands-on approach in the kitchen, and I try to help others around me feel comfortable and confident in their abilities. I would never ask an employee to do something that I was not completely willing and able to do myself and truly believe that everyone — from the dishwashers to the chefs — is equally responsible for the success of our team. I hope that I have (and can continue to) instill some of the same philosophies that were taught to me and help my team reach and surpass their goals.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Go big or go home” — I lived by that and tried my hardest to shoot for the stars. It worked.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. What exactly are we talking about when we refer to food waste?

Food waste is food that is fit for consumption but is eventually discarded due to a surplus of products. At Cru Café we utilized ALL products that are received including any scrap from prepping items on the menu. Unfortunately, we see a ton of food waste in the hospitality industry. Cru Café operates a zero waste menu and we try our best to hit our pars for functions at catering without running out of food at the functions. Our leftovers, if not presented to the guests, go to local charities and composting sites, or are utilized at the Café when available.

Can you help articulate a few of the main causes of food waste?

Food waste can occur for a number of reasons and in a number of areas. Mostly, food waste comes from overordering, over-prepping, and poor menu design. To help ensure the freshest possible product, it is very important to have a menu that can fluctuate frequently, and running nightly or daily specials will help with products that are over-ordered or not selling. This also gives your kitchen the opportunity to showcase its talents.

What are a few of the obstacles that companies and organizations face when it comes to distributing extra or excess food? What can be done to overcome those barriers?

If you prepare your food to order there should be a minimal waste at the end of a shift. A menu design that focuses on “made-to-order food” is going to reduce your waste and improve your food cost. The best way to utilize the minimal leftover product is in a family meal setting with your employees. It will build camaraderie and take care of one meal for the day for your staff which saves them money.

Can you describe a few of the ways that you or your organization is helping to reduce food waste?

Reducing food waste certainly is a challenge in the restaurant industry; however, it is not impossible. Mindful ordering of products is one of the easiest ways a kitchen can go about mitigating food waste. Even on a bigger scale like in our catering kitchen, having a team in place to monitor and track consumption and logically predict how much of a product we will need is helpful.

Eventually, I knew we had to do something bigger. We monitored and tracked all food coming back from functions and adjusted all of our pars to reduce food waste. We also use the Café and send any additional leftover food to them to help to lower the food waste even more. Composting for our garden has also been beneficial in reducing our food waste.

We are also on a mission to commit to the use of compostable plates, flatware, and cups at all of Cru’s functions when not using china, stainless, and glassware. Our cups and to-go containers are biodegradable and we have a recycling program in place for cardboard, paper, glass, fry oil, and plastics. We also have always composted food scrap and waste, and whenever possible, we source from local farms and sustainable fisheries. In 2022, we partnered with Food Rescue US (Charleston), to transfer food surpluses to social service agencies serving the food insecure. This is something we’ve always tried to figure out how to do, but could never quite get there until recently.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help address the root of this problem?

Starting the conversation is the key here, and that’s something that can be done on every level. I think by normalizing the discussion of these issues, we can begin to hear from all different voices and backgrounds and eventually slide the pendulum in a more positive direction. Furthermore, by coming together as one — every company, every politician, every consumer — real and impactful change can be made on much larger scales than companies have the bandwidth to do alone.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Employees are the most important part of your success. Drawing back to my “team reference” above, I believe that not one single person can do it all alone.
  2. There are no days off when owning and operating your own business. I am a very active member of my “team,” from the menu ideation to the execution of the events themselves. This is imperative in ensuring your team has everything they need to be successful, and in guaranteeing quality service or product.
  3. Figure out your exit route prior to committing to your own business. When you’re passionate about something, it’s difficult to step away. Be mindful of this from the start in order to not burn yourself out in the process of pursuing your passion.
  4. If you don’t enjoy your profession don’t even try. Though this is pretty self-explanatory, it’s important to remember. When you start a business, you should go in with the intention of being there for the long haul.
  5. Learn all aspects of your business to fill in where needed. Again, I would never ask something of an employee that I am not willing and able to do myself. It’s important to embody this mindset in order for your team to do the same if someone else is unable to give 100% for whatever reason.

Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food waste? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.

I was always impressed with my friend, Jacques (Jacq) Larson, Executive Chef of Wild Olive in Charleston, and his exceptional devotion to mitigating food waste and giving back to the environment. Wild Olive, which opened its doors in 2009, sources as much product locally as possible, and the kitchen staff transform the bounty of the Lowcountry into fresh and innovative artisanal variations of regional Italian classics.

In 2013, Wild Olive was one of the first Certified Green Restaurants in South Carolina. They are committed to operating an environmentally conscious business and root themselves in not only a “farm to table” mentality, but a “table to farm” mentality as well. While continuing to purchase products locally to this day, Wild Olive also recycles and composts roughly 85% of their waste and about 1,000 pounds of raw material each week.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

It’s very important to build solid relationships in the industry, and not just with local chefs. All your purveyors, employees, community members, and anyone you do business with deserve respect for what they do and can do for you. Building a relationship through respect will be the key to your success. Not everyone will perform at the level you expect but they deserve a chance. I’m the “forgive and forget” master. It works at times and other times it will bite me in the butt but I respect people and typically get the same in return.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I grew up in an area where people tended to look down on other people who were less privileged. It taught me to treat everyone equally and look at all people on the same level. I really don’t have anyone I look up to but I always wanted to meet Anthony Bourdain before he passed. His writings reflected my path very accurately.

I still need to get to the French Laundry and would love to meet Thomas Keller. His execution is impeccable and very hard to execute. I always looked up to Michelle Richard. His passing was another hard one for me. After graduating from culinary school I knew I had few choices to progress. His restaurant, Citrus, and Wolfgangs’ Spago were my top two choices.

Joachim Splichal is someone who I always tried to follow. His catering and restaurants were a huge inspiration for me. I had someone come into the Café a few years back and he mentioned that chef Splichal recommended us to him for catering his wedding in Charleston. I had no idea he even knew who we were.

Lastly, Danny Myer is a true champion in our industry. He is remarkable for what he has accomplished on such a high level. Definitely a rock star!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can always follow us on our websites — Cru Catering: https://crucatering.com/, Cru Café: http://crucafe.com/. Additionally, follow us on Instagram and Facebook at Cru Catering Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/crucatering/, Cru Catering Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CruCatering, Cru Café Instagram https://www.instagram.com/crucafechs/, Cru Café Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CruCafeChas/.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.

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