Until recently, hundreds of pounds of restaurant food waste from meat scraps, bread and cooked food ended up in the landfill every month. Starting in October of 2018 the City of Austin passed an ordinance that all food-permitted business must divert organic material from landfills. Enter GrubTubs, a new Austin-based company that’s come up with an innovative way to close the food-waste loop by turning restaurant waste into economic, protein-rich animal feed. Instead of farm-to-table, think of it as table-to-farm.
This regenerative agriculture startup, brainchild of founder and CEO Robert Olivier, collects leftovers from restaurants and delivers them to a participating farm where they become food for grubs. In turn, the grubs serve as feed for chickens and pigs — potentially saving farmers thousands of dollars every month. Since the surge after the new ordinance, the company’s clientele has grown to over 100 restaurants.
Here’s how it works: GrubTubs provides restaurants with a supply of stackable, easy-to-carry, airtight tubs, which take up much less space in a kitchen, bar or service area than a traditional trash can. This makes it easy for employees to separate raw food scraps, spent coffee grounds and leftover cooked foods — including those scraped off plates — from other waste. Olivier notes that this increases food-waste recovery from 20 percent to 90 percent, thus reducing trash and recycling management costs and pickup frequency.
The tubs have screw-on lids that seal tightly, so there’s absolutely no smell, no leaky mess, no flies and no pest concerns. “Having the GrubTubs system gives our customers a clearer look at their food-waste levels,” says Olivier. “And they end up being able to adjust their [product] orders accordingly.” Once filled, GrubTubs collects the tubs of fermented waste and delivers them to the farm, along with a vial of grub hatchlings. Hatchlings consume the food waste and turn into full-grown, high-protein grubs in about two weeks. Because the grubs eat twice their body weight every day, they reduce the volume of the food by 80 percent in about 24 hours.
Farmers collect and feed the grubs to livestock, which much prefer the grubs over more expensive soy and corn feed. This can save a farmer up to $1,000 per month on feed for 1,000 chickens — allowing farmers to increase their livestock and scale their business while selling quality food back to restaurants at an affordable price.
As one of the early adopters of GrubTubs, Chris Dufau, general manager at downtown bistro Le Politique, is an outspoken proponent. “The system works great for our team,” he says. “It reduces landfill waste and trips to the dumpster. Keeping our food waste separate also reduces the footprint of trash receptacles in the kitchen. It’s good to know that most of our trash is being reutilized.”
Once the tubs are filled at Le Politique, they’re set outside the kitchen on a cart. When the cart is full, the tubs are wheeled to a designated area. Workers then bring in clean tubs to start the process all over. GrubTubs picks up the filled tubs once a week. “The system is easy to implement, and our staff was eager to learn about how it works,” says Dufau. “The benefits definitely outweigh the upkeep.”
At Eberly, Chef de Cuisine Jo Chan has had a similar experience. “[GrubTubs] has been a fantastic addition to our restaurant,” she says. “Aside from the obvious benefits of repurposing waste, it has helped us identify and reduce waste within our own kitchen — forcing our team to really look into the waste we create and take ownership of our responsibility in the lifecycle of food.”
“The response has been really positive,” says Olivier. “Most of our customers start small, since they’re not sure what to expect, but quickly come to embrace GrubTubs and end up expanding to other parts of their operations or to other locations.”
Olivier loves the idea of eventually expanding to serve residential customers but wants to focus on restaurants first. “And when we say restaurants, this means anywhere that food is sold: corporate cafeterias, grocery stores, hospitals, etc.,” he notes. Reaching this lofty goal would be a huge step in the right direction toward a more sustainable Austin.
By Claudia Alarcón • Photography by Andy Sams
For more information, visit grubtubs.com or call 1-844-478-2882.