As many readers of this blog know, I teach an entire graduate class on the importance of recognizing the signals of the need for food system and climate change, with the goal of enabling the students to reflect deeply on those signals – ultimately taking action on them to become influencers for positive change.

This week I experienced another one of those signals in the form of needless, robotic food waste at a nearby Panera Bread location.  In this case the waste was reflective of a larger systemwide issue of entrenched time cut-offs that require foodservice employees to discard certain food items once they surpass a designated time limit to meet freshness (and perhaps safety) guidelines.  For example, as I covered in a post years ago, rotisserie chickens have long been pulled and discarded in some retail operations after four hours with the intent of maintaining peak freshness for consumers (thankfully, many retailers now repurpose them into soups and salad bar offerings).   

Here’s the story (signal) from this week, followed by some takeaways for change.

I walked into my local Panera Bread site, intending to get one of their souffles for a late breakfast.  I was hustling on the way in, as it was after 10 AM and I thought I might be out of luck.

As I went through the door, I was instantly relieved to see a full tray of souffles in their usual spot on the counter.  Yet in the same instant, as I was covering the remaining 15 feet to the register, I immediately noticed that the store’s supervisor was preparing to pull the souffles off the tray and discard them. 

Surging forward, just in the nick of time, I said:  “Please don’t throw those out, I will take one.”

Without looking up, he began to deftly pull each souffle off the tray for disposal.  

I again interjected as the supply quickly dwindled in front of me: “Please don’t throw those away, they are fine for me.”

Without disruption to his disposal-focused motion, he replied, “I’m sorry, I have to, they are way past time, I have to, I have others to replace them.”

And with that, he turned and robotically tossed all of the souffles into the trash in compliance with Panera’s own internally-mandated time limits for these items.

I was struck by the supervisor’s words in this case:  “I have to.”  In other words, he had no choice – the decision to discard the food was out of his hands.  There was a rule that had to be followed that justified the waste.  While it was clear that my questioning made him uncomfortable, forcing him think about his actions, the rule gave him cover.

Further, “I have others to replace them.”  So there is an accepted cycle of waste and replenishment in place here which devalues food in the eyes of the staff – and in the eyes of consumers who experience such transactions. 

I’ve written about such rote disposal of food items due to company-mandated time intervals previously, in this case detailing a similar experience at an airport food operation at “changeover time.”  I’m always struck by how many quick service restaurants (QSR) accept that at a certain minute, food that is available for consumption crosses a demarcation line and is suddenly unfit for consumption and discarded.  It seems that our focus is misplaced – rather than striving to minimize waste by maximizing the value of such food resources on hand, operators are too often focused on minimizing perceived risk by taking actions which increase the waste of food.

And in all such cases I come away with this thought:  We have to be better than this.  We can be better than this.  And it doesn’t seem that hard. 

Let’s review this specific Panera scenario with a lens on multiple QSR and foodservice operations, because the disposal of prepared food in accordance with organizational time standards occurs every day throughout the food system.  The scale of such waste is huge, and as such, it is a significant opportunity for broad food waste reduction. 

It’s also an important opportunity to drive mindset change among foodservice workers and consumers. 

For starters, at a micro level, it would not be overly difficult for Panera to donate the souffles in this case versus discarding them.  These items represent a good source of protein (eggs, milk, cheese) for those in need.  They could just as easily be placed in the refrigerator to ensure safety, and there are plenty of donation partners and apps to handle the logistics.  I’m guessing Panera may have other food items (beyond the end-of-day bread that is already donated) to include as well.

Second, operators should give managers and frontline foodservice workers the ability to make good decisions in such cases.  When a customer is in front of them expressing the desire to pay for such items at changeover time to prevent waste, staffers should be empowered to meet the customer’s request.  Aside from reducing waste, staffers can satisfy customers in the process rather than running the risk of alienating them.   

Third, and related, rather than disposing of such food, why not make it available for employee meals on site, or allow them to box it up to take home?  It’s a good bet that such meals could help meet the food security needs of many employees.  I know the counterargument:  employees will then intentionally overproduce food in order to take it home, resulting in increased costs.  But that can be easily measured and managed, while the demonstrated trust will strengthen workforce culture.

But this issue goes much deeper – there’s an important systemic element to consider related to challenging these timing-related rules.  And there’s an important leadership opportunity for Panera as well. 

Throughout QSR, retail, and other foodservice organizations, we have a slew of rules and operating protocols that fuel excessive waste of food.  Workers become numb to the waste; it’s normalized, so they don’t question it.  And that mindset carries over to their behavior as consumers.  If they see prolific waste in their workplace, are they inclined to focus on waste reduction behavior at home?

My colleague Jonathan Bloom cites a number of factors in school food operations, for example, that lead us to reinforce food wasting behavior rather than creating a culture of food waste reduction behavior.  This, of course, is just the opposite of what we want to do, as the consumer segment is the largest percentage of food waste in the U.S., and it is critical that we change the behavior of youth in order to create a shift from a wasteful culture of food to a culture of food responsibility.  Our ability to sustainably feed the estimated 2050 global population of 10 billion citizens likely hinges on that shift.

So there’s a huge opportunity for Panera and other foodservice operations to challenge these entrenched rules, including time limits designed to maximize freshness, taste, and texture for prepared foods, which lead to so much waste and which reinforce a broader cultural acceptance of food waste.

By institutionalizing rules about when specific food items cross the line from good to bad, and discarding them without regard for customer preference or other opportunities to divert them from landfill, we do more than disempower staffers – we reinforce the notion that wasting food is not only easy but the right thing to do.   

It’s worth noting that in this case, beyond the supervisor, the teenage employee at the register who witnessed the entire transaction was completely unfazed by the needless waste.  How will such observations affect her at-home behavior?  How will she influence others in her circles? 

We know we still have much work to do on awareness-raising and education programs to steer consumers to reduce food waste, but if foodservice organizations don’t push the envelope, starting with very easy, responsible adjustments to waste-creating rules as seen here – this necessary journey will be that much harder and take even more time – and we can’t afford delay.

The odd thing is, Panera already does a lot of good work regarding food system change.  I’ve previously written about their donation efforts with end-of-day product, and in that piece I noted that I was impressed that the organization’s commitment to feeding hungry people had clearly been embraced by the frontline worker with whom I spoke. 

Further, Panera’s food beliefs reflect sound values; the organization is committed to “clean” food as reflected by their No-No List.  Panera contributes to its local communities through food donations and financial contributions.  Regarding the environment, Panera has committed to becoming climate-positive by 2050 in line with science-based targets, and was the first national restaurant company to join WRI’s Cool Food Meals program – helping to educate and nudge consumers toward low-impact, plant-forward meal choices. 

All of these efforts are highly commendable, and since Panera clearly “gets” the importance of food system change, including waste reduction, my expectations are higher – so I’d like to push a little harder. 

I’d like to think of Panera as a change leader, an organization capable of evaluating the waste associated with such rote timing protocols and making changes to reduce it – changes which could lead other organizations to follow. 

So here’s a brief thought.  As part of its journey to being climate positive, Panera’s sustainability team should consider how much carbon impact is associated with food that is discarded due to operating protocols like those covered here.  By extrapolating this situation across Panera’s entire footprint, how much food waste (and carbon impact) could be saved?  How much higher-quality food could be donated versus discarded simply by refrigerating the product for subsequent pick-up by a donation service?  Alternatively, how much benefit could the company provide my making such food available for employees? 

The Panera example indicates a larger opportunity to reduce food waste across foodservice operations by challenging entrenched rules, particularly those related to time cut-offs and the subsequent handling of that food (i.e. challenge the “default” to disposal versus donation or some other pathway that extracts some value from these food resources).

There’s also a critical opportunity to engage and educate foodservice employees (and by extension, consumers) and help lead broader culture change toward food waste reduction.  By exposing employees to food waste reduction efforts in the workplace, we can expect such behaviors to carry into their homes.  We can change mindsets.

Many of these entrenched rules provide a level of comfort to foodservice organizations.  They allow them to manage perceived risks related to customer satisfaction or brand viability on freshness and safety grounds. 

At the same time, these rules create excessive waste.  For the good of our culture and planet, they need to be challenged.

C’mon Panera, you’re doing good work, you can do even better.  How about taking on this issue?  Break some rules, change mindsets, and bring other foodservice organizations along with you.