Credit: Illustration by Julia Terbrock; Mockup courtesy of Graphic Pear

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The Cheesecake Factory’s menu has more than 160 items on it, and that’s before you count the varieties of their eponymous dessert. One section calls out new additions. “The world’s largest menu just got bigger,” it brags.

Chef Rob Rubba of Oyster Oyster calls these sorts of restaurants the Veruca Salts of the food world, and isn’t sure they’ll be compatible with the “new normal” after the COVID-19 crisis passes. “I want it and I want it now! That’s a bad thing,” he says.

When restaurants are permitted to gradually reopen after being closed to dine-in service, much will have changed. Chefs will have to be more flexible when building their menus as they encounter disrupted supply chains. Diners, too, will have to temper their expectations that restaurants will bring back all of their favorite dishes immediately.

Having lost almost two months of revenue already, every dollar will count when restaurants start serving customers again, especially because their capacities will, in all likelihood, be diminished. The city may impose restrictions on how many tables restaurants can utilize at once, and diners may be afraid to dine out until a vaccine is available. 

Forward-thinking restaurants may try to maximize their profits by focusing on efficiency and eliminating food waste. Instead of accepting food waste as a status quo cost of doing business, chefs may start seeing every dill frond that goes into the garbage as a dollar sign. Local restaurateurs, chefs, and food waste experts shared four strategies for cutting down on food waste that could potentially keep money in the pockets of restaurants fighting to rebound from the pandemic.

Shrink menus.

Founding Farmers’ combined lunch and dinner menu is among the longest in the District with nearly 100 items on offer, from millennial friendly avocado toast and Texas chili dogs to Yankee pot roast and scallops Meunière. But even the co-founder of Farmers Restaurant Group,Dan Simons, recognizes he won’t be able to reopen with the same volume of dishes. 

“Until we’re in a post-vaccine world, the reality is when you have less diners and less volume, you can’t do the huge menus because you don’t move enough product,” he says. “If you walk into a dealership and there are 75 cars to buy and only five customers a day, what do you need all that variety for?”

One reason for the shift is an unpredictable supply chain. Simons estimates that when COVID-19 arrived in the D.C. area, there was about $50 million in perishable food sitting in warehouses throughout the region with nowhere to go. “We never buy frozen chicken,” Simons says. “But all of a sudden, 14 days into the crisis, our chicken is showing up at our back door and it’s frozen. Our vendors are like, ‘Well, what are we supposed to do? Everyone stopped buying.’” 

“As a chef, you’re going to have to live with making sacrifices over what you can get and be able to change more rapidly,” says Rubba. The former executive chef of Hazel was gearing up to open Oyster Oyster when the city shut down. “Smaller menus allow you to do that.” 

Rubba’s a small menu evangelist. His forthcoming plant-based restaurant is sustainability-focused, and part of that ethos is reflected in its pared-down selections. The opening menu was only supposed to have nine dishes on it, excluding dessert. 

“The one thing we’ve always said is nothing goes onto the menu without honestly knowing where every part of an ingredient is going to go,” he says. “To do that successfully, consistently, and in an honest way means a smaller menu.” 

Simons disagrees. “People connect the size of a menu to food waste, but for us that’s not true,” he says. He talks about cross-utilizing rotisserie chicken in a number of dishes, including pulled chicken salads and chicken pot pie. “There’s a ton of food waste in our industry regardless of menu size. It all depends on if you have excellent systems in place.” 

Invest in systems and technology.

Like Simons, Chef Johanna Hellrigl believes developing systems that combat food waste is more important than slashing menu items. She served as the executive chef of Doi Moi before moving onto Mercy Me—a “sorta South American” restaurant she’s bringing to West End with her mixologist husband, Micah Wilder, and the couple behind Timber Pizza Co. and Call Your Mother

“At Doi Moi we had a medium to large menu,” she says. “Food waste was not a thing for us and I’m really proud of that.” She calculated precisely how many quarts of something to make based on how many diners the restaurant typically saw each night of the week, and she trained her staff to carefully balance new purchases from purveyors with what remained in inventory.

Claudia Fabianosits on the board of the DC Food Recovery Working Group, which was founded in 2015 to make sure excess food in the region is captured before it goes into a landfill. She thinks restaurants should use technology platforms like Winnow to track their food waste and then determine how menus can be trimmed for greater efficiency. 

Winnow uses artificial intelligence to help chefs discover insights like whether they’re constantly throwing out the same ingredient, and claims to reduce restaurants’ food costs by between 2 and 8 percent. “They can then think of a replacement ingredient that they’re already ordering,” Fabiano says.

“Celebrity chefs can bring the demand, but you have to have those systems,” Hellrigl says. “Those systems and processes will keep your restaurant afloat.”

Use every inch of an ingredient. 

“The key to using less ingredients on your menu overall is to use each ingredient creatively,” Fabiano says. “You don’t want to use the same part over and over. The customer doesn’t realize the same carrot and mushroom are in four different dishes.” 

Take the unconventional way Rubba cooks with pumpkin seeds. He presses them to make a tofu-like product with curds. When he strains the creamy concoction, the liquid left behind is similar to the byproduct from the cheesemaking process. He uses that pumpkin seed “whey” in a vinaigrette.

Other strategies for making the most out of fruits and vegetables include pickling, preserving, frying the not-so-pleasant parts, and forging a better bond between the bar and the kitchen. The latter has become trendy lately. 

Fabiano is a fan of Trash Tiki—a roving pop-up and blog founded by two bartenders committed to serving drinks that fight food waste. They make cordials out of watermelon rind and orgeat out of avocado pits and ask their followers to #DRINKLIKEYOUGIVEAFUCK. 

Newlyweds Hellrigl and Wilder constantly find ways to collaborate. “I was making buffalo milk stracciatella and he was using the whey in the cocktail to make them fluffy,” Hellrigl explains. “That has to happen more.” 

Using the entire ingredient also applies to meat. Not every restaurant is positioned to bring in whole animals because they require a chef who knows how to butcher and a kitchen big enough to get the job done. But those who can, like the team at Mercy Me, are at an advantage. 

“We’re bringing in whole steers from a farm,” Hellrigl says. “We can make sure our butcher cuts small and medium pieces as well as go-big-or-go-home pieces like a 90-day aged porterhouse. There are options to do what makes sense for you. Affordability and approachability are a big part of it.” 

Once the restaurant opens, Hellrigl says they plan to serve steaks alongside whatever vegetables are readily available from local farms. “If Earth n Eats Farm says they have a surplus of these vegetables, we’ll say, ‘OK, those are our sides.’” 

Let local farms and the seasons dictate the menu.

Some chefs build their dream menus and offer items regardless of whether they make sense seasonally or play well with the planet, like a caprese salad in the dead of winter or ahi tuna flown to D.C. from Hawaii on a daily basis. Such uncompromising tactics are expensive, make a larger carbon footprint, and may not be possible to access immediately when restaurants do reopen. 

“There will be a conceptual reset,” predicts Chef Spike Gjerde of A Rake’s Progress in D.C. and Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore. “At some point through this whole thing, you’re going to ask yourself what it’s all about, what it’s for. The answer informs what you do when you get your feet back under you.”

Gjerde has always let local ingredients and the seasons guide his menus. “Our approach is, ‘Let’s see what we can do with what we’ve got,’” he says. “I’m only going to have things on the menu that are the clearest and best expression of what this region does and what we as cooks in our kitchen can do extraordinarily well.”

The idea of allowing ingredients to dictate the menu, instead of the other way around, is nothing new. It’s how restaurants used to work before there was a robust global supply chain that enabled chefs to get their hands on whatever they wanted whenever they wanted it. After the COVID-19 crisis, the market could necessitate a return to cooking local. The Mid-Atlantic is rich with agricultural products and counts the Chesapeake Bay as part of its bounty. 

Letting local ingredients lead, Hellrigl says, helps her “flex her chef muscles.” “Working with farmers and creating your menu locally and seasonally has to happen,” she says. “Look at the Tyson [Foods] plant. We need to get back to small.” (Nearly 900 workers at a Tyson meat plant in Indiana have tested positive for COVID-19.) 

Diners will have to make some adjustments, too. “Value” in the eye of the restaurant customer has historically meant a generous portion size for the price point, impressive variety, or the ability to try luxury products shipped in from all over the world. It’ll take some effective marketing to communicate that smaller, more efficient menus that let local ingredients shine also have worth.

“People are realizing what it takes to get food from a farm to the table,” Fabiano says. When Washingtonians couldn’t find the produce they were looking for at grocery stores during COVID-19, they turned to CSAs from local farms, forming fresh bonds with the local food system. Home cooks learned how to replace an ingredient or leave an ingredient out. “That was good training for all of us. We had to do it, so restaurants might have to do it too, when they open back up.” 

“I’m hoping people are really patient with restaurants as they get things back together,” echoesRachael Jackson, who sits on the DC Food Recovery Working Group board with Fabiano. Jackson runs the RescueDish initiative, which encourages restaurants to share the ways they’re ending food waste, and also authors the blog, “Eat or Toss.” 

“We are entitled going into restaurants, expecting them to have everything,” she says. “I think on the part of diners as well as restaurants, there needs to be more comfort in knowing that restaurants might run out of this or that.” 

Gjerde worries that if there’s a renewed appreciation for the local food system, it won’t stick. Sourcing from small local farms has its advantages, but is also quite pricey. 

“There will be a return to normalcy at some point, where some of these things we’ve learned like being grateful for local sources will [fade],” he says. “I’m not sure when things are back to day-to-day if that isn’t forgotten in the face of low prices and convenience.”