Running a restaurant is messy. Dealing with garbage, trash, grease, unsold food, and food left on patrons’ plates is unpleasant, expensive, and depressing. [above: toy dumpster]
This topic has been haunting me ever since I read the following sentence in an 1877 newspaper: “The harbor of New-York is made unhealthy by the decaying food of hotels.”
That was still the era of American-plan hotels where meals were included with lodging. It cost nothing extra if a hotel guest ordered everything available, saying, “Bring me some oysters on the half-shell, green turtle soup, some clam chowder, some halibut steak, green goose and apple sauce, lambs’ fries, sweet potatoes, egg-plant, succotash, stewed tomatoes, Roquefort cheese, lemon pudding, cranberry pie, cakes, watermelon, and French bread.” Most of the dishes ended up sampled but otherwise uneaten and were thrown out. European visitors were invariably horrified.
The notable exception to the American waste of food was the Chinese cook, commonly found in restaurant kitchens throughout the West in the 19th century. He was hailed for being “the most economical buyer imaginable,” one who “uses up what he has and wastes almost nothing.” When he was in the kitchen, little garbage resulted.
But there was not always a clear definition of garbage, revealing another, less savory way of reducing its output. Some lowly restaurants, even as late as the 1930s, considered food left on patrons’ plates perfectly okay to serve to guests once again, though possibly in a different format such as soup or hash. This practice led discriminating guests to avoid ordering hash unless it was on the menu of a first-class, shiny modern restaurant.
Over time, it became a violation of sanitary codes to serve anything left anywhere on a guest’s table, which would include untouched baskets of bread. And, increasingly, the practice of feeding kitchen scraps and plate scrapings to pigs or – in the case of unordered entrees – donating them to churches and centers providing charity meals, was ruled out.
The prevention of edible food waste in restaurants has become a goal at various times in past history. Both of the 20th-century’s world wars, when food and restaurant prices rose, brought attention to food waste in homes and eating places. Another decade of concern was the 1970s when rapid inflation caused consumer prices to soar at the same time Americans became aware of the problem of hunger here and around the world. [above: Cathy comic strip]
Most of the time, though, everything went into trash cans, or dumpsters. They arrived on the scene thanks to the Dempster brothers who developed their Dempster Dumpster in the 1930s. But note the fish hanging out of the toy dumpster shown above. That would cause problems for a restaurant manager who would be certain to get complaints from neighbors about the stench if the lid wasn’t kept firmly closed. In 1968 a Chicago neighbor of Chances R begged a newspaper’s help column to “use your magic wand” to deal with the eatery’s “fetid” smelling garbage cans that were “overflowing and left uncovered.”
Another problem restaurants – and municipalities — had to deal with was kitchen grease building up and clogging drain pipes. As early as 1883, some cities took action to keep grease out of city systems. That year St. Paul MN adopted a requirement that a grease trap “be constructed under the sink of every hotel, eating house, restaurant or other public cooking establishment.”
Traps are designed to separate water from a sink from the grease floating in it, permitting the grease to build up into a semi-solid block that can be removed periodically by a service that disposes of it. Disposal, though, could be a thorny problem of its own at times as town dumps closed down. Also, fly-by-night collectors sometimes deposited grease along roadsides.
Eventually, slowly, other states, cities, and towns enacted grease trap ordinances similar to St. Paul’s. And yet trapless restaurants continued to exist. It was only in the 1980s, after years of official pressure, that half a dozen restaurants in Hingham MA installed grease traps. The harbor was too handy! About that same time restaurant grease restaurant grease threatened operation of the sewage treatment plant in Fort Myers FL. [restaurant at the Hingham Yacht Club shown above]
Fortunately, getting rid of cooking oil turned out to be easier since the contents of an outdoor rendering can may be recycled and used for fuel. [above: grease and oil containers]
In the 1960s throwaway paper bags, napkins, cups, and straws, as well as plastic lids and small servings of sugar and condiments proliferated, especially with the spread of fast food outlets that eliminated dish washing and laundry. Even table-service restaurants got into the act with custom printed placemats and individual packets of crackers and breadsticks. [below, Sardi’s, NYC, 1962]
Litter at drive-in restaurants was a chronic problem that led neighbors to complain. Towns drafted ordinances to control the problem, such as one in Michigan in 1965 that targeted “paper cups, straws, napkins, garbage, beverages and all other waste matter intended for disposal which, if not placed in a proper receptacle, tends to create a nuisance by rendering property unclean, unsafe and unsightly.”
Although single-serve packages caused waste, they were advertised as a solution to waste in that they prevented restaurants from having to throw out leftover or mishandled condiments, crackers, etc. That was also a frequent claim made by companies that produced frozen entrees for restaurants that would not be taken out of the freezer until ordered by a patron, preventing the restaurant from preparing food that no one wanted.
What is fascinating is industry’s response to restaurants’ problems with waste, smells, and general ickiness. There was no end of advertisements in trade magazines promising to do away with all the problems. One that made me laugh with its slogan “Smash Your Trash” was the Can-O-Rid Can and Bottle Crusher that reduced trash volume and hauling charges by crushing jugs and bottles “to bits.”
The Stomach, a 1970s counterculture vegetarian restaurant in Portland OR, found a different kind of solution to handling garbage. They composted it and suggested customers who were organic gardeners should feel free to “raid the restaurant’s garbage pail.” In 1973 a grease hauling company in Houston adopted the slogan “Recycling for a Better Tomorrow for the Benefit of Mankind”.
Alas, today restaurants still struggle with waste, trash, grease, and garbage.
© Jan Whitaker, 2023