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Reducing Food Waste: Tony Smith of Restaurant365 On How They Are Helping To Eliminate Food Waste

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This article was published in Authority Magazine.

By Martita Mestey

It has been estimated that each year, more than 100 billion pounds of food is wasted in the United States. That equates to more than $160 billion worth of food thrown away each year. At the same time, in many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. The waste of food is not only a waste of money and bad for the environment, but it is also making vulnerable populations even more vulnerable.

Authority Magazine started a new series called “How Restaurants, Grocery Stores, Supermarkets, Hospitality Companies and Food Companies Are Helping To Eliminate Food Waste.” In this interview series, we are talking to leaders and principals of Restaurants, Grocery Stores, Supermarkets, Hospitality Companies, Food Companies, and any business or nonprofit that is helping to eliminate food waste, about the initiatives they are taking to eliminate or reduce food waste.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tony Smith.

Tony Smith is Chief Executive Officer and a Co-founder of Restaurant365. Tony’s career has centered on using software to solve business issues across various industries. From the beginning at Restaurant365 he spent the majority of his time designing and creating an innovative product that would move the industry forward. In his current role he’s passionate about company vision & long-term strategy, building an engaging & inviting culture, and growth of individuals & the business. A lifelong learner, he earned his bachelor’s degree in business management & information systems from Brigham Young University, Magna Cum Laude, and has been recognized for leadership with awards such as Innovator of the Year in Orange County. A dad-joke connoisseur, Smith enjoys having fun while trying out new restaurants, spending time with his wife and 4 lovely daughters, singing and watching college football.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

aybe I’m dating myself, but the internet wasn’t widely used when I was growing up, and we didn’t have a computer at home. I didn’t even have email until I got to college, so I had almost no experience with computers and technology, but I was interested in business and knew computers were going to be a major part of business life. I wanted to be comfortable with them, so I decided to major in Business Management & Information Systems. I never expected, though, to work in computers — I thought I’d work on them.

What surprised me next — but shouldn’t have — I got hired for what I studied, and soon found that I really loved solving business problems with software. I’ve built my career around that ever since. It all started with just wanting to be more comfortable with technology, but it grew into a real passion.

That interest in solving problems with software drew my co-founders and me to the restaurant industry. The problems restaurants needed to solve aligned perfectly with our skills, and when we looked at what was available on the market, we knew we could create better solutions for restaurants to help them thrive.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company or organization?

When we started, we weren’t restaurant people, we were software people. We needed to become restaurant people quickly. I remember many late nights hanging around restaurants until they were about to close and then chatting with managers, watching them do their job, and even helping them count inventory on a couple occasions to see it all firsthand. It felt a little like stalking.

The morning after sessions like this we’d hit the office early and design solutions to the problems we saw and write the software immediately. The same week we’d get something into their hands to test…the early days were fast and fun.

It is shocking how complex running a restaurant is and the amount of challenges they face, but restaurant people are so hardworking and passionate about what they do. It’s a privilege to work with them and help solve problems like reducing food waste, controlling costs and inventory, scheduling and payroll inefficiencies, etc. When we save them time on administrative items, they can focus more on what they love — connecting with customers and growing the business.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early on, we brainstormed this great idea for a software feature…or so we thought. We spent about a month developing it, and I was sure customers would love it because it was ‘so cool’. But when we launched it, not even one customer was interested. Apparently me thinking it was cool wasn’t enough, and we ended up scrapping it completely.

That said, something positive came from that experience because we learned from it. Moral: It doesn’t matter how cool you think a feature is — it has to add real value by solving a real problem for someone.

Luckily, it was early on and only took a month, so it wasn’t too costly a setback. It made us more careful going forward to make sure that what we develop really adds value, and that’s been our focus ever since.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I define leadership as having a vision and giving your team the tools, space and freedom to accomplish it. Individual contributions are important, so you have to surround yourself with talented people.

As a leader, when you unite a team around a vision, your talented people will amaze you with their ingenious solutions when you don’t micromanage. So, leadership is about that balance: supplying a vision and the tools, then getting out of your people’s way so they can make it happen.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorite quotes that applies to life and business is from the movie “A League of Their Own.” Star player Dottie Henson is quitting the team right before the World Series, and team manager Jimmy Dugan confronts her. Dottie says, “It just got too hard.” Jimmy replies, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”

That line really stuck with me. I put it up on my wall at home and at the office. I’m all about that quote both at work and in my personal life — my daughters are probably sick of hearing it. You can always say something is too hard as an excuse not to pursue it, but if you go in with confidence, you can solve hard things. You can create some truly amazing solutions that help individuals. You can build a company or even change an industry.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. What exactly are we talking about when we refer to food waste?

There are a lot of types of food waste — it’s a serious problem in America, and it occurs in many categories, including the grocery sector and households. In the restaurant industry specifically, it’s important to understand that restaurants are like mini manufacturing plants. They’re combining a number of ingredients to create a new finished good for every plate ordered.

So, to do that, they have to stock a lot of ingredients. Unlike metal parts in a typical factory, in a restaurant, the ingredients perish fast, so if you don’t use them quickly, or order the wrong amount, they go to waste. The less efficient restaurants are in controlling inventory, the more expensive it is and the harder it is to turn a profit. And, unfortunately, the more food that goes into the garbage. That’s the food waste problem in the restaurant industry.

Can you help articulate a few of the main causes of food waste?

In the restaurant business, the main cause is inefficient control of inventory, as we touched on before. Restaurants use a lot of produce, which has a short shelf life, and other perishable ingredients that have expiration dates. So, they have to be really adept at forecasting demand and controlling inventory to avoid wasting food.

What are a few of the obstacles that companies and organizations face when it comes to preventing extra or excess food? What can be done to overcome those barriers?

There are a couple of traps restaurants can fall into that result in food waste. Managers usually order the food, and sometimes they’ll just order the same quantity as they ordered previously without counting what they have on hand. That will inevitably lead to wasted food. Another obstacle is when managers don’t understand the recipes in detail to fully account for how much of each ingredient will be used in a given day.

In a restaurant, food has to be ordered in advance, so it’s really important to forecast what will be needed accurately. If restaurants can be more efficient in how they forecast demand and handle ordering and inventory control, they can make dramatic improvements: we’ve seen it with the restaurants we work with.

Can you describe a few of the ways that you or your organization are helping to reduce food waste?

We provide software solutions to restaurants that help them address these specific problems. For example, our software makes it easy for restaurants to track waste, which makes them aware of the problem, and awareness is the first step in solving it.

We also provide tools that help restaurant managers forecast what sales might be, track recipes so they have a better idea of what they need in terms of ingredients and suggest quantities to keep food management tighter and avoid waste. As I mentioned, we’ve seen restaurants turn their operation around by using these tools, dramatically reducing waste and increasing profits.

Are there three things restaurants in communities can do to help address the root of this problem?

The first step is to do a thorough assessment to understand the scope of the problem and go from there. The next thing restaurants can do is to use software to help track food waste because that’s the best way to get the information they need to address the issue. The third step is to be diligent about using the tools they have on a regular basis to fight food waste — it’s critical to know what’s happening so they can turn things around.

What are your “5 things I’d tell someone who was just starting out.” Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Embrace what I call JOMO: the joy of missing out. It’s okay not to be copied on every single email or attend every meeting — sometimes missing out on that gives you time to do something that adds more value. Also, keep in mind that shorter emails can be life changing — try to keep them under five sentences. Bullet points are your friend!
  2. Invest in and obsess over your company culture. You need talented people who can create great solutions and contribute to your company over the long haul — people who have critical expertise that you don’t have. Surround them with a great culture.
  3. Make sure you understand the implications of fundraising, so you’ll know your options and understand what’s the right timing and approach for your business. At Restaurant365, we self-funded for seven years and then took on minority stake venture capital partners. It worked out great for us but having a solid understanding from the beginning is important.
  4. Always make sure the focus of your effort is to add value or solve a problem. Don’t develop a solution just because you think it’s cool.
  5. Be curious and open to connecting with anyone who comes your way because everyone has something to teach you. You’ll be surprised what you learn from unexpected sources if you have the mindset of always expecting to learn something.

Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food waste? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.

Second Harvest Food Bank is a wonderful organization that’s making a real difference in people’s lives, and we encourage employees to volunteer with them because we believe so strongly in their mission. Second Harvest is a part of Feeding America, a nonprofit founded decades ago by soup kitchen volunteer John van Hengel. It has a network of more than 200 food banks nationwide, including Second Harvest.

I admire the organization and encourage anyone reading this to donate some time or money to Second Harvest or a similar organization to help be part of the solution of redirecting food to those in need before it becomes wasted. For example, the Second Harvest of Silicon Valley food bank serves about 450,000 people each month.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I believe we’d have a kinder, more civil society if everyone had one online persona. Too many people are emboldened by hiding behind anonymous accounts to engage in personal attacks, which makes a respectful conversation impossible. That degrades the experience for everyone and divides society instead of helping us find solutions together. It may not seem like a huge problem, but so much discussion takes place online using forums where people can open anonymous accounts instantly.

On the one hand, it’s wonderful that we can connect with people all over the world so easily to share experiences and ideas. But when a small subgroup uses this capability to disrupt discussions and attack people with impunity, these platforms’ potential to be a force for good is compromised. I’d like to see a kinder, more genuine and civil online space, with people united in effort to solve problems.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

I’d love to share a meal with Keanu Reeves. I’ve always enjoyed his movies — such an entertaining actor. But more than that, I’ve heard a number of stories of how genuinely kind and thoughtful a person he is, and also extremely well-rounded and adventurous. He spends time helping people and stays grounded in an environment where one could easily lose touch. I think it would be fascinating to have a chat about how he approaches life, hear some crazy stories he must have, and learn some things from him along the way.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Visiting our site, Restaurant365.com, is a great way to find out more about how the company helps restaurants thrive. I’m also on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/tony-t-smith/.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.