Breaking Even

Lately, we’ve been talking about restaurant’s increasing portion sizes, with the 2,020-calorie Chili’s fajita steak quesadilla with guacamole as the enormous entree poster child. But the bottom line is this: when we eat out, we waste more food.

Considering the 1,600 to 2,800 recommended daily calorie intake, most restaurants give us way too much. Aside from the heavy appetizers and gigantic main courses, soda has about 150 calories per 12 ounces and most cups have more than that amount. While we often overeat, we also tend to leave plenty behind. As Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating illustrates, diners tend to consume a certain portion of the plate, no matter how big it is.

This overeating and overwasting mostly happens at restaurants. This takes on added significance when you realize that we’re eating out more these days. Today, the total expenditures for eating at home are slightly higher than for eating away from the home. In 2005, food at home was 51.5 percent of total food expenditures. But USDA projects that by 2009, Americans will spend more of their food dollar away from home. According to the projections (see the chart at the bottom of page 72) through 2016, that trend will only continue. These numbers are even more startling considering that the definition used for “food away from home” does not include take-out or drive-thru orders. It is only food consumed where it is sold.

Restaurant chains will tell you they’re getting more efficient and wasting less. Some are, thanks to forecasting software. But demand can be unpredictable and food sellers hate to run out of anything. As a result, they overorder. Given the move to cut electricity costs through less refrigeration space, Plus, the gains made in ordering efficiency are often overshadowed by a new kind of waste–what we throw away from our plates. This “plate waste” or “post-consumer” waste is a real issue. Unlike when restaurants order or cook too much food, plate waste can’t be donated to a food shelter.

I’m convinced that from these two trends (needlessly huge portions and increased eating out) comes a real opportunity: a restaurant that serves less food for less money. I can imagine their first ad:

         Fade in on a 3-pound plate of spaghetti. and meatballs. Cut to a painfully full man loosening his belt.  

                                            NARRATOR (in a sensible, motherly tone)

                         At Nutrio’s*, we serve our meals on plates, not troughs.

* I’m flexible on the name

All you deep-pocketed investors out there reading, feel free to contact me. I’ll need something to do once I finish this “little” project.

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