THE BACK PAGES

Are those leftovers on your plate?

If so, it may cost you—some restaurants are dinging customers for their wasteful habits

NANCY MACDONALD June 12 2006
THE BACK PAGES

Are those leftovers on your plate?

If so, it may cost you—some restaurants are dinging customers for their wasteful habits

NANCY MACDONALD June 12 2006

Are those leftovers on your plate?

If so, it may cost you—some restaurants are dinging customers for their wasteful habits

taste

NANCY MACDONALD

Tired of food being wasted, Dragon House, a $5.95-aplate Chinese buffet in suburban Iowa, laid down the law recently, telling a Des Moines family of regulars they were no longer welcome. According to Chen Huang of Dragon House, the family of four was industriously wasteful. “They came to the Dragon House every Saturday, and wasted food every time,” says Huang, noting that this is the restaurant’s first blacklisting in its 10 years in business. Taking single bites from plates overflowing with egg rolls and crab ragoon, the family would leave the rest to be tossed, often wandering back up to the buffet for more.

Will other all-you-can-eat restaurants— by definition, “take as you please”—look to curb our enthusiasm and limit our waste? Will buffets start charging extra for uneaten food? It turns out some establishments already do—especially the all-youcan-eat sushi restaurants. In the face of rising costs, they say they’re just looking out for their bottom line. And it’s a trend that Vancouver’s reigning king of sushi, chef célèbre Hidekazu Tojo, says he understands all too well.

Not that he’d do it, of course. Tojo, the creator of the California roll, is credited with introducing sushi to the West Coast mainstream in the early seventies. The owner of Tojo’s restaurant (included in the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die) regularly hosts politicos and rock stars (like the Strokes, on a recent weekend). Tojo thinks Vancouverites eat more sushi than people anywhere else in the world—including Japan. (Indeed, there are three times as many sushi joints as McDonald’s outlets in greater Vancouver.) But

as restaurants tried to attract more patrons with all-you-can marketing, which first appeared in the early 1990s, the economics changed for restaurateurs. “People are paying less but eating more,” Tojo says. “They’ve got to make up the difference somehow.”

And so outlay must be checked. The trend to control food waste is especially noticeable in the greater Vancouver area. Sui Sha Ya, the mid-market Lower Mainland all-youcan-eat sushi chain, charges for leftovers—when patrons leave more than five pieces uneaten. At Robson Sushi Japanese Restaurant, which after 9 p.m. charges $9-99 for its allyou-can-eat menu, manager Sunni Chen explains that he proactively discourages waste by curbing customers’ orders. “Seventy-five per cent are regulars, so we take control. We know how much they take, and we don’t allow huge orders,” Chen says. When customers do overdo it, he charges for leftovers but, unlike some sushi sellers, Chen lets you take your scraps home.

Typical of many sushi outlets, the Shabusen Yakiniku House, a downtown sushi/Korean barbecue buffet, has a eat-the-whole-piece policy: if you order the all-you-can-eat sushi, you must eat the rice the fish sits on, too. “Otherwise,” explains manager Allen Wong, “we see people ordering 10 pieces, eating the fish off the top, and leaving the rice behind.”

Wong rarely charges extra for the Korean barbecue—but he carefully controls it, offering patrons more meat only after they’ve finished their previous round.

No one in Vancouver says they can remember who first instituted the leftover policy, though most have been employing it for the past two to three years. And it’s not limited to the coast. “First time, we don’t charge,” says Allen Chen, manager of Toronto’s Sushi Star Japanese Restaurant, one of several Toronto-area enforcers. But if customers keep wasting, “if they’re being unreasonable,” Chen says, he will ding them according to the industry norm—between $1 and $2 per piece.

Winnipeg’s Affinity Vegetarian Garden has tried a different tack. Featuring soy versions of ham, pork, fish and goose, the downtown restaurant caters to Winnipeg’s white-collar lunch crowd with a pay-byweight buffet. Meanwhile, it’s not just buffets and all-you-can-eat outlets getting in on the act. At Montreal’s east-end Spirite Lounge, punishment for wasting food ranges from fines to excommunication. Nightly, the pious establishment offers a single vegetarian/organic meal choice, which patrons order in one of three sizes. If you can’t clear your plate, you’re fined ($2) and denied dessert. But dessert lovers beware: if you choose but can’t finish dessert, you’ll be banned, Des Moines-style. So eat hearty— but don’t leave a trace. Nl