Cutting food waste is a team effort that can get much more complicated when the team is growing fast. Houston-based Salata has grown to 42 restaurants, with 11 more in the works this year. Each corporate and franchise store employs between 15 and 20 people, and the fast-casual design-your-own salad chain has developed practices for cutting food waste that are a key part of the company’s training program.
Recently, I spoke with David LaBorde, director of product development and vendor relations, about Salata’s waste-reduction strategies.
On developing the training program
Training has been a huge project, a huge focus for us. We’ve been working on it intensely for about 15 months or so. We hired a consulting firm that’s helping us rewrite the manuals. We invested a lot in our training team, in developing corporate trainers to train managers and directors of training, all to make sure we’re setting stores up for success.
We had perfected the construction side and opening stores, and so we were able to crank out new stores before we could actually train a manager to run it properly. We said “Wait a minute, we need leaders to make sure we have the same Salata experience in each store.” It became a huge focus for us this past year.
On developing best food-waste practices
We’re part of the healthy dining trend and we’re all about customization, so it means being environmentally conscious and watching our footprint as much as possible.
We teach exactly how to prepare all our fruits and vegetables — here’s how you cut this, here’s how you trim that. Number one it’s to save on costs, but it’s also to make sure we’re utilizing as much of the food that’s been given to us as possible.
It’s 100% evolving. We’re constantly reevaluating and changing procedures to try to improve. For example, a year ago, we used to do it all by hand. Then we introduced a slicing and dicing machine, which can increase production and also give us more consistency and less waste. Simple machines, like a manual slicer, can have a big impact. It’s the impact it has on the restaurants — it can save labor hours and cut waste. By putting the carrots in the slicer, we’re using 100% as opposed to slicing it by hand and throwing the ends away, for example. We’re utilizing more and more of the vegetables we have.
How food-waste practices affect the supply chain
It has a lot to do with the items we use. We use a medium sized carrot because of its uniformity in size, color and taste. It’s why we have certain specs — we’re not going to get a jumbo carrot. We use California garlic and not Chinese garlic, because it’s more potent.
Franchisees do their own ordering, but we control what their options are to order from. We work closely with our vendors across the country, so they know our standards. Having those partnerships with our suppliers, learning their strengths and weaknesses is important for upholding our standards.
The distribution of moving goods across the country has been a massive part of my job, especially when you handle such short shelf-life products. But also, we make dressings and sauces, so getting a fresh mango sauce from Texas to Illinois in a cost-effective manner is a challenge. Moving product across the country and sourcing — that’s absolutely a challenge. When we have conversations about where we grow, and growing smartly and strategically, we look at growing where our suppliers are.
Tips for operators looking to cut food waste
First, I would say, work extremely closely with your suppliers and partner with them at all different levels, including distributors, manufacturers and food vendors. We did this with our salmon supplier. We would buy skin-on salmon and we would trim and there would be waste, and we would bake it and use it in our seafood dip. We ended up talking with different suppliers, getting to know them more. There was a sales rep from Orca Bay, we were getting to know them and he said, “we can cut this for you.” We said, “we utilize the waste.” He came back and said,“I can do that, too.” They ordinarily trim the fish and throw away the waste, he was able to produce a product for us with less waste because their skilled pros did it for us.
Having that kind of partnership, we can brainstorm together.
The other thing would be absolutely listening to your guests. We started out in Dallas, with big bowls, and our guests never finished their meals. They either took it home or they didn’t because it was already dressed. We created a smaller salad. Many people add a cup of soup, but it’s actually the perfect size — it fills you up, but it’s not crazy portions so you’re not throwing out so much. Guests can eat an entire meal without wasting food. We developed a new menu option that was a win-win for everyone.
It was a challenge to market. A lot of our franchisees and managers worried about the small salad introduction, they thought they would lose their shirts. They thought people would go through the line, order the small salad but get all the toppings they would get on a regular salad, but pay a smaller price. So we did more training, we put up signage, we did training videos explaining, “this is how you portion, this is how you explain to the guests.”
It took off, food costs were not impacted and now it’s about 30-35% of total sales.
On cutting waste on the kids menu
We launched our new kids meal about six months ago. We wanted to give the Salata experience to children. We used to just do a mini-salad or a mini-wrap. But in talking with a bunch of moms, including my sister who has three children, and working with suppliers, we came up with the bento box. It has six compartments, they can pick any five things they want, then the sixth compartment can be a dressing or peanut butter. kids love it, they get to pick what they want, parents love it because they can easily see what their kids are eating, and it’s got a lid on it so they can take it away. In regards to waste, it’s a customizable combo meal, in a way. They’re not throwing anything away because the child can pick exactly what they want.
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