Could this startup abashment restaurants into crumbling beneath food?

Marc Zornes has a confession to make: he found some mince in his fridge the other day that was a few days past its use-by date and had to be thrown out. Some might consider this a relatively minor slip-up – but for Zornes, the co-founder of a startup combating food waste, it represented an affront to his principles. “It was devastating,” he says. “I don’t claim to be perfect at home, but that doesn’t happen very often.”

Zornes’s company, Winnow, provides technology that helps restaurants cut food waste. In the UK, where £13bn worth of food is thrown away every year, the hospitality sector alone is wasting £2.5bn of food. Zornes, a former business consultant, launched Winnow in London in 2013, with co-founder Kevin Duffy. Starting the business was like a calling for him: “There are a lot of things someone could be doing with their life. Me, I want to see this food-waste issue fixed,” Zornes says.

Winnow’s technology involves a scale that weighs food waste bins and a touchscreen where kitchen staff can log the type of food they are throwing away. The tech then assesses the value of what’s being dumped, both in terms of cost and environmental impact. Chefs can use the resulting analytics, which take into account the restaurant’s menu, to make their kitchens run more efficiently; this, Zornes says, enables them to cut food waste by between 40% and 70%.




The smart tech system tackles food waste in the restaurant industry.

The smart tech system tackles food waste in the restaurant industry. Photograph: Winnow

Their clients include Compass Group, the contract caterer, hotel giant Accor, and Ikea, which has become as famous for its meatballs as its flat-packed furniture. Ikea recently credited Winnow with helping it save the equivalent of 350,000 meals in its in-store restaurants in eight months. The tech also has the support of big-name chefs such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who described Winnow as a “no-brainer for the hospitality industry”.

One of the biggest crimes against food in the industry is caused by what Zornes describes as “the fear of running out”. This is when a kitchen produces too much of a dish in case there won’t be enough to meet demand, resulting in trays of leftover food. “That happens all the time in kitchens – it’s a well-known operational phenomenon,” says Zornes. Edible food getting chucked during the production process is another issue. One kitchen they worked with was using the juice and seeds from tomatoes as an ingredient for a dish and throwing out the leftover pulp. When Zornes asked if there could be a use for the pulp, the staff realised it could be used to make a sauce, turning a waste product into a valuable ingredient.




Marc Zornes.

Marc Zornes.

Awareness around food waste was low when Winnow launched. Zornes, who is from Missouri, had experience in the food industry, having worked at US food wholesaler C&S Wholesale Grocers in his early career, but it was while he was a consultant at McKinsey that he got the idea for the business. A report he was working on highlighted food waste as a major opportunity; it also revealed that there were few companies, apart from US tech startup LeanPath, working in the sector.

One of the big initial challenges was convincing chefs how much was being thrown away. “Waste is one of these things that by definition is boxed and taken away quietly,” says Zornes. “You ask people what they throw away and they say they think it’s 3-5% of what they buy, when the reality is somewhere between 5% and 20% – most of it happening before it even gets to a plate.”

Now there’s a growing number of food waste startups – with one, Toast Ale, which produces a beer made from leftover bread, sharing the same office as Winnow. Others include Rubies in the Rubble, which turns surplus food into jams and chutneys, and Too Good To Go, an app that enables people to buy food from restaurants that would otherwise go to waste. Zornes believes it will take an army of startups like these to bring the $1tn worth of food wasted worldwide every year down to an acceptable level.

Winnow saves the 1,000-plus kitchens it works with an estimated £12m a year, but this is just “scratching the surface”, says Zornes: “In the [global] hospitality industry alone it’s a $100bn problem.” The fact that cutting waste saves companies money is clearly helping drive change, however. “We are starting to move [food waste reduction] from something that was niche a couple of years ago to something organisations are starting to take a serious look at,” he says.

Bringing the technology to other sectors and into homes, which the company trialled in partnership with Sainsbury’s, is not in the immediate plans, but is something Zornes “keeps an open mind” about. It has just received $7.4m (£5.6m) in funding, to be invested into the technology and the expansion of the company, which has offices in London, Asia and the Middle East.

Zornes gets satisfaction out of the fact that making a profit and keeping investors happy directly aligns with his ideals. But what motivates him is simple. “I think food is too valuable to waste,” he says.