Ever wonder what happens to all that food left over from a hotel buffet? Here’s how one entrepreneur is using technology to solve the problem of food waste in Singapore.
An idea for change
It all came about when PRESTON WONG, in his final year of the graduate law programme at the National University of Singapore at the time, witnessed his family throwing away consumable but expiring food from the fridge. It was then that Preston hatched the idea of a mobile app that could reallocate surplus food.
After much research, he learnt that food wastage in Singapore amounted to an astonishing 800,000 tons or more a year. And, while there were charities working to reduce food wastage, he felt a solution involving technology could create greater impact.
In 2016, Preston began exploring the idea of an app with his co-founder, Kenneth Ham, who, at the time, was a computer science undergraduate. After a year of market research and development, the two launched the free app in 2017. It was Singapore’s first mobile reservation platform for surplus food, encouraging consumers and businesses to “treat food as treasure”. Their company became one of the pioneer start-ups in the budding surplus food space, says Preston, Treatsure’s CEO.
Of course, it was a challenge convincing businesses to come on board initially. Those more traditionally inclined toward throwing away food were mostly focused on taking care of their core businesses rather than food wastage.
“At the same time,” says Preston, “those businesses who were more receptive thought it was an innovative idea and, of course, felt that perhaps it was time they used technology to increase their reach while at the same time doing some good.”
In 2018, Preston and his team created the takeaway “buffet-in-a-box” concept with the goal of helping hotels reduce wastage. App users can purchase takeaway boxes during the last 30 to 60 minutes of a hotel’s buffet mealtime, filling each box with their preferred foods from the buffet line for just $10 – a proposition that strikes a “winwin” for everyone, says Preston.
“Buffets are normally a strictly dine-in affair for most hotels. But, this is the first time in the Asia Pacific region that customers are allowed to take away buffet items.”
Five hotels initially came on board, with Grand Hyatt Singapore being the first partner hotel of the bunch. No surprise there. The Grand Hyatt has been instrumental in Singapore’s sustainability movement as far back as 2010. That’s when it began managing food waste at the source by reducing the total number of suppliers and focusing on sustainably sourced ingredients. Additionally, the hotel uses a food waste plant to convert 1,000kg of daily food waste into pathogen-free organic fertilisers. These are then used at the property’s green spaces.
“We are a 677-room hotel with 16 event venues and five restaurants generating over 5,000 meals daily. We recognised early on that there is a massive opportunity for us to do good for the environment and the community we operate in if we can better manage our food waste,” says Chef LUCAS GLANVILLE, Grand Hyatt’s Director of Culinary Operations. “It’s very heartening and encouraging to see start-ups such as Treatsure stepping up to this responsibility as well. We do not see this cannibalising our business in any way. Rather, it’s an opportunity to provide better value to diners – whether they’re dining late after work or simply looking for the best deal – while better managing our edible leftovers.”
Other hotels soon followed suit, including Novotel Singapore on Stevens and Mercure on Stevens. Both hotels have weighed food waste since last year in an effort to stay aware of the amount being prepared. They’re also constantly looking for like-minded partners to find solutions for food waste, says KEVIN BOSSINO. Kevin is Vice President of Operations for Accor Singapore and GM of Novotel and Mercure on Stevens Road.
“Including Treatsure into our ecosystem benefits all stakeholders in both hotels. For our guests, we provide a value-for-money buffet-in-a-box concept in three restaurants; for the hotel, we reduce the amount of food that goes to waste,” he says.
There are four other Accor properties in Singapore that also use Treatsure to redistribute spare food that’s still perfectly safe for consumption: Swissotel The Stamford, Fairmont Singapore, Novotel Clarke Quay and Ibis Novena. In fact, the concept has proven so effective that Accor is looking to expand the use of the tool within its hotels internationally, says VERONIQUE AUGIER NEL, Director of Communications and Corporate Social Responsibility (Asia Pacific) for Accor. Food waste has risen by 40 percent in the last decade. Veronique says that Accor is pledging to reduce this by 30 percent before 2021.
Hotel Jen Tanglin and Hotel Jen at Orchardgateway are also Treatsure partners, both committed to sustainability and growing public awareness of the impact of food waste in Singapore. The hotels, part of the Shangri-La Hotel Group, see the partnership with Treatsure as the perfect opportunity to “leverage the power of technology to tackle the topic of excess food from buffet spreads.” So far, reception of the buffet-in-a-box concept has been positive, with thousands of boxes sold in the last few months, says Preston. “This is a saving of thousands of portions of food!”
He says he sees a number of regular customers, particularly when they work or live nearby one of the hotels. Many customers don’t have time to cook, he says, so they grab a buffet-in-a-box for themselves and even their families, as multiple boxes can be purchased per person.
Here’s how it works
The customer checks the app to see when the partner restaurants are serving buffet meals that day. The restaurants listed in the app will “light up” depending on whether they’re open. After clicking on the desired restaurant, a meal can be “reserved” during the last hour of the buffet. The user then has 25 minutes to get to the restaurant to redeem the meal. Alternatively, they can walk into the restaurant to redeem on the spot. However, this option carries the risk of getting there only to find there are no more boxes available, as each buffet limits the number of boxes taken away each day.
Whether the customer redeems on the spot or reserves in advance, he or she will scan a QR code at the outlet before making payment at the restaurant in person. The customer is then given a “Treatsure box” to fill with the food items of his or her choice. (Note: some hotels have exclusions on raw seafood, sushi, cheese and other items for safety reasons.)
Preston says the Treatsure team is seeing a lot of curiosity from the public – Singaporean and expat alike. In fact, many expats download the app when they arrive, because sustainability is part of their home country culture.
In addition to the recently added option of purchasing surplus or “ugly” fruits and vegetables through the app and having them delivered, Preston says that Treatsure has just starting reallocating other surplus products with shelf lives such as dairy products, potato chips and sauces. The company also recently partnered with Unpackt, Singapore’s first zero-waste packaging grocery store. Treatsure has a display shelf of surplus goods there for users to grab and go at the store’s Tanjong Pagar and Thomson outlets.
“Supermarkets won’t take items if they have an expiry date within a certain number of months,” he says. “They often reject the items and send them back to the suppliers. We’re trying to step into that problem, rescuing the items with short life spans.”
App users can also expect expansion to more hotel locations across Singapore, an increased number of hotel partners, and more suppliers with diverse products.
Additionally, the Treatsure team is looking to “drive meaningful change in terms of packaging”. In the future, it hopes to replace the disposable (yet biodegradable) takeaway boxes that are used now with reusable containers. In the meantime, fine-tuning the app remains a priority, says Preston. “Development is still ongoing and it’s still quite new. We’re going to continue to improve the product as we go, based on user feedback.”
The Treatsure app is available for download from the App Store and Google Play. For more details, visit treatsure.co.
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