Waste not want not
I had a new experience when I dined out on Saturday night. At the end of our meal, the waitress at Richie’s Diner – a modest American-style restaurant in Darenth, Kent – asked my wife and I whether we would like to take our leftover food home with us. I was both surprised and delighted. As someone who has no qualms about asking to take away the leftovers I’ve yet to experience a restaurant that beat me to the punch. Perhaps I’ve been unlucky but I suspect that, for all the plethora of information about the environmental impact of food waste, most restaurants do not actively encourage diners to take home their leftovers.
It really shouldn’t be this way. Around 600,000 tonnes of food is thrown away by restaurants every year, according to the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA), most of which ends up in landfill. Yet there seems a reluctance to offer diners the opportunity to take their food away with them, and equally a social stigma attached to the act of asking for leftover food to be packaged up to eat at home.
When I first started dining out with my wife she cringed at my habit of asking for a ‘doggy bag’ at the end of a meal. She saw it as being tightfisted and, dare I say it, rather philistine. I suspect this is a commonly held belief. For their part the reaction of restaurant staff oscillates between amenable and snooty. Some have cardboard boxes ready and waiting; others look slightly suspicious but are willing to find a suitable vessel in which to deposit the leftover food; a minority look at me as though I’ve just asked them to sing for their tip.
Perhaps the term doggy bag is unhelpful with its inference that the leftovers are only fit for the family pet - no wonder some restaurateurs take offence (I propose 'Lefty Box' as an alternative). Nevertheless, there needs to be a culture change in the restaurant industry to make taking home leftovers the default option rather than an unusual request. All restaurants should make it their policy to ask diners whether they’d like a box for their leftovers to shift the onus away from the consumer. After all, there’s plenty of evidence that people are much more likely to go along with something if they have to opt out of it rather than opt in, pension schemes and organ donation being two such examples.
There has been some effort made in recent years to change the culture around food waste. The SRA launched a 'Too Good To Waste' campaign in 2011 with the aim of encouraging restaurants to provide a ‘doggy box’ for leftover food, yet in my experience restaurants that offer this service are still very much the exception rather than the rule.
So three cheers for Richie’s Diner and may many more restaurants follow their lead in teaching us all to love our leftovers.