Restaurants, Wasted Food, and The American People

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Uneaten food is a big problem in restaurants the world over.

Some have suggested that charging diners for uneaten food left on their plate can reduce costs for business owners, curb obesity, and stem world hunger.

A punitive policy could be dangerous if restaurants don’t keep the end game in mind.

The allure of buffets is the tacit “all-you-can-eat” promise; pay your entry fee and stuff yourself silly. A palpable excitement accompanies the buffet experience. You see the spreads of meats, pastas, vegetables, and desserts and imagine the possibilities.

Las Vegas, a city in which dining is nearly as big an attraction as gaming, appreciates the commercial pull of a well-executed eating experience.

Buffets toe the line between “quality” and “quantity” in the food industry.  A wide range of food and self-service emphasizes choice and convenience over taste and presentation. You’ll find great-tasting dishes mixed with the mediocre and barely-edible.

(When’s the last time you went to a Chinese buffet and raved about the pizza sitting next to the tray of lo mein and fried rice?


Public perception pegs the average  buffet at a lower rung on the “quality” ladder than the average a la carte restaurant. Buffets enjoy tremendous popularity in spite of this because of the volume of selection and portion of their food options. Many people overestimate how much food they will eat at a buffet. That’s a good problem for the restaurants; it increases the likelihood that a person will visit a buffet.

Instituting a “pay for what you don’t eat” policy introduces new questions to the consumer decision process. As any good businessperson knows, the more options facing a customer at the point of sale, the less likely he is to make a decision. Asking consumers to consider choices that cast your business in a bad light is a great way to lose revenue.

The more people consciously think about what they’re eating, the less they’ll eat. The less they anticipate eating at a meal, the less likely they are to choose a buffet over an a la carte restaurant.

If most buffets are relying on quantity over of quality to best a-la-carte restaurants, what will this policy do to the appeal of buffets?

A sidebar:

Cornell University has arguably the best dining hall food of any university in the country.

Unfortunately, among alumni, they’re renowned for nickel-and-diming students.

Little-known-fact: Cornell levies an additional $50 charge on student meal plan bills each semester, ostensibly for food the administration assumes you will carry out from the dining halls.

Official dining room policy allows students to take one (1) piece of fruit or dessert when they are exiting the dining hall; anything more is forbidden.

Enforcement of the “one-snack-to-go” policy was seldom enforced. Unless you walked out of the dining hall carrying ten plates of food, you were rarely hassled. Whether you frequently carried food out of the dining hall or rarely stepped foot in one, you were billed the same.

Of course, this fee was never broadcast to prospective students, their parents, or current students.

I don’t even remember how I discovered it—I wasn’t too happy when I heard it. Charging for carrying food out of the dining hall is not unreasonable; failing to disclose that charge is.

I am not sure if the administration has stopped tacking on the $50 fee to student meal plans. I graduated in 2008, so it’s possible they have discontinued it. I would not be surprised if it’s still active.

This anecdote offers a possible solution to the problem of wasted food at buffets: increase the buffet admission price to defray waste cost.

Adding the expected cost of waste to admission pricing is a viable alternative to an explicit surcharge for wasted food.

Yes, informing diners they’ll be charged for food left on any plate will prevent some wasted food. Patrons will be more likely to take just one or two plates a time and carefully think about what they want to eat.

Unfortunately, it might sour the consumer experience.

While a surcharge for extra food would not be overly burdensome, it’s a nuisance. A lot of people grab three or four plates on every trip up to the food stations—it saves time and reinforces that ‘kid in a candy store’ feeling. Adding restrictions to one of life’s simplest pleasures, rarely goes over well.

Framing effects have a major impact on how problems are resolved. Tucking expected food waste costs into the entry fee preserves the “all you can eat without restriction” veneer.

The “expected charge” model is common in the food industry.

At Five Guys Burgers you can order a burger with a litany of condiments without paying an additional cost for each topping. The reason you can put whatever toppings you want on your burger without any incremental charges is that you’ve already paid for that privilege. The price you pay for that burger already accounts for a burger ordered with every available topping. Like Netflix, you pay the same rate no matter how much you consume. Both companies stay profitable because most people don’t order to capacity, opting to order a few movies and shows a month or just a few toppings.

All businesses factor in gratuitous losses into overhead expenses—they just don’t itemize it for customers to see.

Customers might initially complain about the slight price increase for admission to a buffet, but long-term sales should be fine. People anticipate that they’ll get more food for their culinary buck when they go to an “all-you-can-eat” restaurant. The allure of limitless eating at a fixed cost is part of the appeal. Any move that threatens that perception must be examined with a fine-tooth comb.

Thinking past the initial outcomes of a new law or rule is a best practice. Anyone can predict the initial results of a new rule (in this case, less food waste—-and mitigate the damage of unintended consequences).

But what will happen years down the road?


Reasoning forward can save you a ton of trouble.

That’s the danger of not thinking past stage one: Understanding how incentives shape the world around us keep one ahead of the game.

Cultivating an enjoyable dining experience is much easier said than done.  Businesses already have a tough time generating business. Businesses that penalize diners who don’t clean their plates may realize a net loss—even after accounting for wasted food.

Patrons have certain expectations when they enter a buffet; fiddle with that value proposition at your own risk.

I can’t say that charging people for leaving food on their plates is a bad idea; it could actually improve the company’s bottom-line. Monitoring the plight of “all you can eat” establishments that institute a “pay-for-what-you-waste” policy could shed some light on its effectiveness.

Don’t be a sheep—-consider the ramifications of your actions beyond the immediate future.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *