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Your Uneaten Hotel Breakfast Is Now Feeding the Homeless

A Montreal-based site is connecting hotels and caterers with shelters so that uneaten banquet food won't be tossed into the trash.

by Karon Liu
May 12 2015, 3:00pm

If you've ever been to a conference held at some hotel, you know that despite your best efforts to raid the bagel bar or shove slices of smoked salmon down your pockets, there's still a crap-ton of untouched food destined for the trash at the end of the day. Well, hotels are paying attention to that, too.

Food waste is becoming an increasingly pressing issue as chefs like Dan Barber are cooking with otherwise discarded food, craft brewers are making wine from overripe mangos, and Dutch food trucks are rolling around Amsterdam serving airport-shot geese. Now, Montreal-based site La Tablée Des Chefs is connecting hotels and caterers with local shelters to provide a safe way for surplus food to be given to those in need. We spoke with the site's founder, Jean-François Archambault, about the logistics of running something like this, and what happens if someone actually finishes that bagel tray.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Jean-François. So, how did the idea for this come up? Jean-François Archambault: The food recovery program started when I was in hotel management school. We were preparing so much food and they threw away a lot of it because there were only 20 students, but we were practicing to cook for 80 to 100 people. The rest of the food was always thrown away, and it didn't make sense.

How much would usually be thrown out? Let's say we cooked for 80. I'd say more than half of the food would go to waste.

After that, I was in the hotels and worked the banquets as the assistant maître d'—and after that I was in sales selling the banquets packages. We'd walk the floors and see the clients and the banquets with the buffets and coffee stations. Twenty-five to 35 percent of the food would be thrown away. I worked at four-star, five-star properties and at those places, the kitchen staff would always fill the buffet at the end. So the last person who gets to the buffet would have the same choices of four, five sandwiches and salads as the first guy. There are those guidelines and expectations that generates a food surplus, so I was seeing all that food at the end. It didn't make sense.

READ MORE: These UK Cafes Serve Delicious Casseroles Straight from the Garbage

When did it all start? I launched it in a pilot phase in 2003, but in 2005 we really kicked it off with the Bell Centre, where the Montreal Canadiens play. It's the largest food outlet in the city and feeds some 20,000 people. There are 134 executive suites and we recover all the food from there. It's not hot dogs and pizzas—it's good food like lamb chops, couscous, and pasta. We get that food and safely put it in containers and they pick it up the next day. After a typical game we can feed anywhere from 700 to 900 people.

How does the site work? I wanted to create this network that served as the in-between for the hotel industry and the individual food shelters. We're like a broker that matches the hotels with these shelters, which need either a refrigerated truck to carry the food, or be really close to the hotel. A chef would create a profile of the type of food he's recovering (saving) and sets up how much food that he needs to get rid of each week. We send them aluminum containers, bags for bread and baked goods, and plastic containers for liquids.

Once they're connected with a shelter, the shelter gets a calendar of pickups, the hotel address, the chef's name, and the frequency of the recovery. On the day of the pickup, they go back on the site to report how much food they got, so the hotel knows how much food they recovered.

A common hotel will recover anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 meals a year. Now we have [about] 60 organizations. We also work with caterers, but more with larger events where they go in and do a punctual pickup.

What happens if the shelter gets there and there's not a lot of food left over? That's always a risk, but that's good because it means there's no waste. But we have two staffers who look at how much food the shelter received, and they'd call the shelter and see what can be done better next time.

This was created for chefs, not food shelters. This was made as a way to make better use of the food, not for creating food for shelters. For us, the side impact of what we do is that chefs look at the amount of food they gave in the year and they'd go, "Oh my god, I gave 15,000 meals last year. Maybe I can reduce the number of meals I produce and next year I'll recover 7,000 meals."

READ MORE: Cut Food Waste By Eating Your Water Bottles

I thought shelters don't take food that's out of packaging due to sanitary reasons. In 2001, before I started the program I needed to have the seal of approval from the ministry of agriculture, so I went through the National Assembly of Quebec. I had 45 minutes with the minister of agriculture, who's responsible for the food inspection agency, and she got me a group of people from the agency to co-create a food security chart that the chefs have to follow (when packing the food). It's the same inspectors that inspect the chefs' restaurants.

Sounds like a model that can be taken to other cities. It is! We've taken it from Montreal to Trois-Rivières to other cities in Quebec. We've also launched at the Westin hotel in Ottawa. We signed up with the Sheraton and the Delta hotels in downtown Toronto. We're going to sit down with Second Harvest, which is the food bank in Toronto and see if we can find a way to work together to get the food from the hotel industry and try to link to shelters that they support.

The site will also be translated in Spanish because we're also in Mexico City. In 2010 we won a social enterprise bid called the ABC Foundation out of 150 entries and we paired with Starwood hotels and their properties: The St. Regis, The Westin, the W, the Sheraton, and the Méridien, and we're starting with the Westin in Cancun in a month.

Sounds like you're on your way to reach every city. Technology is so simple now to get access to, and anyone can use it to create a social impact. We don't have the luxury of hiring more staff, so when we get organizations on board, it helps us grow. It brought out what I had in my head for many years. We're up to half a million meals and that's only with 50 or so establishments. Imagine if we're worldwide in the major city centres. We can reach millions.

Thanks for speaking with me, Jean-François. Archambault was in Toronto to talk about social innovation at the annual Terroir Symposium this week.