I’ve gotten the question recently from a colleague that I’m sure many of you have:
“I have a client that is hosting an event at (a hotel) buffet style who is convinced there will be left over trays of food. (The client) has told me that she often gets push back from hotels on the point of donating. I don't think they are going to buy it. Do you have any insight on how to donate un-used buffet food?”
If you’re asking yourself this question after contracting, you are a little late in the game. Food donation options should be addressed at the time of contracting so you can leverage your buying power. Some hotel groups have actually created food donation policies at the request of their clients who said they would take their business elsewhere! (Remember you have buying power!)
But it’s not too late to have the discussion if you already have a venue locked in.
Follow this two-step approach:
First step, understand your vendor's corporate policies. Some hotels will not allow food off-premise for “reasons of liability.” Others, like the Hilton Hotel Group make it a part of their corporate policy.
Hilton provides “Reduced Food Waste Menus.” In the effort to minimize waste, they commit to accurately forecast guest count and maximize ingredients. These options should be discussed in advance. In addition, they lay out their desire to donate excess food by stating “overproduction should be minimized but, when it can’t be, recoverable food should be rerouted for consumption.” See if they have local partners that accept excess food. If they don't work with a food recovery group, then look for an organization or charity in your area, like Food Rescue US, who is able to pick up the food and make sure it is delivered to those in need.
For properties that do not have a food donation policy, let your hotel know up front your desire to have excess food recovered. Caution...you may get pushback! Your response to the age old reply “we can't donate because of liability” excuse should be two words…Bill Emerson. Get to know the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act 1996. It provides broad blanket protection from civil and criminal liability for food donors in all 50 states provided that:
State and Local municipalities are catching up and adding to this. In Washington, DC for example, we have the DC: Save Good Food Amendment Act of 2017. It provides a tax credit to cover the cost of food donations and expands liability protections for food donations.
Take that, liability excuse!
If the hotel partner still will not allow food donation, you have a choice. You could seek another property that is more in thinking with your food recovery plan, or you should do your best to accurately estimate the guest count so the hotel will not overproduce.
On to the second step. Get creative. In each step of the event planning journey, a little more food is added because no one wants to be that person who made the event run out of food…planners lower the guest count knowing there is always 10% more prepared; banquet managers know this so they add to the number that gets sent to the kitchen, wait staff overstuff the buffet-because who wants a skimpy looking buffet; and chefs always prepare more because they know the number is a moving target.
All this number manipulation and mis-communication leads to overproduction, which could be one reason why you have so much excess on your buffet. Keep your event manager informed when the numbers fluctuate. Give periodic updates. And remember, be honest with your numbers!
Get creative with set ups and menus. Smaller pre-portoined options for buffets, items cooked on demand, and smaller serving platters are just a few ways to not get all that food in those ginormous buffet chafing dishes - destined to be tossed. Educate the wait staff on what is going on with the schedule and your desires so they don't overstock. Consolidate buffets instead of replenish every single station.
Focus on quality over quantity. I never want to see a mound of pastries stacked up---ever---the fewer out the better. They may need to be replenished more frequently, but at least you can do it at the consumption rate and keep more food safely in the kitchen where it can be stored for donation if needed.
You see, this is a staffing issue as well—hot, brown and a lot of it requires less staff to cook and to replenish. So have this discussion with your banquet manager so they make sure they have enough staff to meet your request. Work with the banquet and kitchen teams to come up with options that work on both sides.
If you get pushback—this is how we do it—then you politely say---this is how I want you to do it. You after all, are paying the bill.
Remember you have the ability to get creative when you know you have fewer guests than your contracted F&B minimum. Just because you have to “hit” a number doesn’t mean you have to serve at that number. You want to keep your guests happy, not force feed them because you have a contract.
If you’ve contracted and guaranteed for 800, yet you know it will look more like 600 will actually attend, talk with your sales representative and explore options. Instead of the kitchen purchasing ingredients for those 200 ghost guest meals, see if you can have them donate a wish list of purchased items for a food pantry in same dollar amount. Stop the food from getting prepared and cooked and let it go to help your community.
Additionally, you can see if you can up the quality of your ingredients in your menus-all organic or local for example.
Getting hotels to adopt food donation policies is not easy. Use your power as a consumer to nudge the change. Eventually they will catch on. And eventually we will all do our jobs more efficiently so food waste will not be an issue.