The First Step To Avoiding Food Waste: Efficient Storeroom Procedures

There is a mantra that every chef knows and drills into the heads of every prep and line cook: “First In, First Out.” Abbreviated to FIFO, this simple principle is at the core of avoiding food loss and waste in a busy restaurant kitchen.

What it means is that you use the older food before you use the new food–preferably, even before you have new food come in. You want to avoid as much overlap between new and old ingredients as possible, although, you -never- want to go with an empty cooler, freezer or pantry. At the same time, you don’t want to have stuff on your shelves that dates back to the Clinton administration, either.

How does this get done?

It requires work, but keeping inventory of what you have and making note of what you use over the period of a week or a fraction thereof (for fresh seafood, you don’t order enough for a week, necessarily, you order enough for a few days, and have several orders come in through the week). These records help the chef avoid over-ordering perishable foods such as meats, fruits, vegetables, fresh herbs, dairy and eggs, all of which are expensive, and can really drive food costs up if they end up in the trash bin.

Once inventory is done, preferably weekly, and orders are made, then orders must be received and put away properly in order to maintain the ideals of FIFO.

When a chef or cook takes an order or perishables in the back door of a restaurant, it behooves him or her to examine each item carefully to make certain that it is as it should be. Lettuce should be crisp, not wilted, eggs should be properly and carefully crated, clean and unbroken and crabs should be alive and wriggling, not dead and smelling of stagnant ocean. Most reputable purveyors will not send anything but the best to their clients, but everyone has a bad day and everyone makes mistakes. Examining the order in front of the delivery person is the way to ensure that if an item is not of the proper quality, the problem can be rectified immediately by alerting the delivery person and if necessary, the customer service department right away. Then, the offending item is loaded back on the truck and a credit is issued on the order. If you wait until the truck is off to another delivery to complain, it is much harder to get this level of service, and you may end up with food that is at the worst, unusable, and at best, questionable.

After the order is in the back door, then the more physical work of FIFO begins.

Instead of putting new stock willy-nilly onto the storeroom shelves, the proper procedure is to pull the older stock to the front of the shelves, and put the newer stock behind it. The same goes for refrigerated and frozen stock. When we are discussing walk-in refrigerators and freezers, that is a lot of cases of food to be moved, but it is necessary if we are to keep the food contained therein at its peak of freshness and flavor.

One thing I started to do with refrigerated and frozen stock when I was responsible for receiving and stock rotation in a chain restaurant years and years ago, was I would write the date an item came into the restaurant in a black permanent marker, and the expiration date in red. This way, I could keep track of shipments and easily make certain that older product was used before newer, thus reducing accidental food waste by 10 percent, which in turn, lowered food cost.

Proper management of refrigerators, whether they are walk-ins or reach-ins, also is crucial to controlling food loss; food safety also begins in a well-managed refrigeration unit.

Many foods have the potential to carry food-borne bacteria which can, if improperly handled, result in an outbreak of food-borne illness. In order to avoid these possibilities, it is imperative for chefs and cooks to carefully stock and clean the refrigerator.

Cross-contamination occurs when one food comes into contact with another, and can lead to illness, even if the food are fresh and otherwise safe to consume. In order to avoid this there are established protocols determining where different types of food are placed in the refrigerator. Foods which have a high potential to carry harmful bacteria, and which can easily contaminate other foods by dripping on them or touching them, should be stored on the lowest shelves of the refrigerator, and should either be placed in fully enclosed containers or, should be placed on trays in order to hold any liquid which may escape. On the lowest shelf, the only thing the liquid could contaminate is the floor, but still–it is best to be avoided. It is easier to stop a leak in the first place than it is to clean it up afterwards.

Raw chicken, seafood or meats all should be stored on the lowest shelves of the refrigerator, placed with the oldest stock in the front, the newer stock behind, and they should all be labeled and dated. That way, if a prep cook or line cook needs to take stock out, they can easily reach in and grab the oldest ingredients and use them first, thereby reducing stock loss. In the fast paced world of a restaurant kitchen, you don’t want your cooks having to slow down and think about which container of chicken legs they want to use–they need to just reach in and grab the proper ones on the first try.

Raw eggs are also stored near the bottom of the refrigerator, because most commercial eggs in the US have the potential to be contaminated with salmonella, just like raw chicken. This avoids the possibility of an egg cracking and dripping on something like lettuce which is going to be used raw in a salad.

Fruits, vegetables and herbs that are going to be eaten raw should go on the top shelves, while already cooked (and fully contained and thoroughly covered) foods, dairy products, jarred condiments and vegetables and fruits which are going to be eaten cooked can all be kept in the middle shelves.

These sorts of strict protocols governing which shelves upon which we store foods in a refrigerator seem somewhat draconian and overly cautious, but the truth is, they reduce the chances of cross-contamination which not only reduces the incidence of food born illness, but also reduces the possibility of food waste, because if cross-contamination occurs, any contaminated foods must either be fully cooked before eating or thrown away.

Take for example, the possibility of raw chicken dripping onto an entire case of romaine lettuce which was meant to be eaten in a salad. Salmonella bacteria cannot be washed away with just water and mild detergent–bleach is necessary to fully disinfect anything touched by salmonella. Bleach, however, makes an awful salad dressing, so it is obvious that one cannot safely eat Caesar salad that has had raw chicken juices dripped on it. Lettuce -can- be cooked, but is it likely that anyone is going to want to eat an entire case of stir-fried or braised romaine lettuce as a dinner special? While some chefs might try such a tactic to save the lettuce, most would just throw it away, thus wasting an entire case of otherwise edible food.

It is best to simply avoid any such occurances by careful management of recourses and storage facilities.

How do restaurants keep fresh produce fresh?

Truly, it is most often done by using it as fast as possible, but there are also some tricks chefs and cooks use to keep some highly perishable foods fresh for the longest period of time possible.

Lettuces are washed as soon as they come into the back door, and are allowed to dry thoroughly before being put away in loosely wrapped plastic bags or loosely covered plastic boxes. Air-flow helps keep leafy greens leafy and crisp; dry lettuces keep fresh for a longer time than wet ones–degenerative bacteria need moisture in order to work. Keeping the lettuces, or any vegetable or fruit, for that matter, whole until soon before service also keeps them fresh for a longer period of time.

Fresh herbs, on the other hand, tend to like a bit of moisture in order to stay crisp and appealing. You can either dunk the cut stems, like a bouquet of flowers, into a container of water and loosely cover the tops with a plastic bag. This raises humidity slightly while still retaining air flow. Or, you can lightly dampen paper towels, and either loosely wrap them around the herbs and put the herbs in an open container or layer the herbs between the damp towels.

Fresh seafood should be kept in containers of ice to keep them very cold and fresh, and the ice should be changed as needed.

And of course, some fresh vegetables shouldn’t be kept in the refrigerator at all–potatoes, onions, garlic, shallots, and sweet potatoes should all be kept in bins in a dark, cool storeroom where humidity is low. Keeping them in a refrigerator lowers their quality significantly–potatoes will become mushy, and garlic and onions risk becoming moldy and sprouting under humid conditions.

That’s it for today–our next topic to cover is what to do when there is a surplus of raw ingredients which are on their way out to the trash bin. You know, vegetables and fruits which are not really fresh enough for their originally intended purpose, but which are not bad enough to discard.


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  1. Very elaborate and informative article.I haven take note of few things.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by shibani — April 8, 2008 #

  2. Thanks Barbara! You explained the whole FIFO concept extremely well, and how to properly stock and manage a refrigerator unit! Lots of home cooks have no idea of the proper areas to store raw meats and such (always on the bottom!)

    As for potatoes and onions, in extremely dry climates (like where I live), it’s better for home cooks to store them in a vegetable bin the fridge–since home cooks don’t use them as fast as professional kitchens. If I store onions and potatoes in my dark pantry closet, they just dry out and become rather nasty. Cooks Illustrated, some months ago, did a test of storing potatoes and onions together in a vegetable bin in the fridge over a couple of weeks, neither item suffered much in quality at all.

    Oh..I also am in the habit of dating EVERYTHING that comes in at the bakery, both with the receiving date and with the expiration date.

    I am so completely anal about my food cost, I don’t let anyone else but me do the inventory and place delivery orders :).

    Comment by Roxanne — April 11, 2008 #

  3. I really appreciate this series. Way too much of the stuff from my CSA subscription ends up thrown in my compost heap, either because I don’t get it processed and frozen as soon as I know I’m not going to use it right away and it ends up rotting in the fridge, or else because I forget it’s in the freezer and discover it buried under stuff three years later. It’s a sad fate for tasty vegetables that good people worked really hard to grow.

    Comment by Castiron — April 11, 2008 #

  4. Castiron: when my family got a separate freezer I started keeping a simple list of what was there. It’s just an excel sheet with item, approximate amount, and date. I hang it in the kitchen and annotate by pen. Every couple of weeks I print out a new one. Don’t forget to date the package as it goes into the freezer.

    It takes very little time to keep current – the hard part is the remembering, not the doing. I find that I stock the same items, so often all that needs changing is date.

    An added benefit: I don’t need to open the freezer and waste energy, just to see what’s available.

    Comment by Harry — April 14, 2008 #

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