Toronto restaurant fights food waste by chopping menu prices till all the dishes are gone

It’s 3:51 p.m., and Chef Ashley MacNeil is busy planning how to run out of food. Sunday brunch service has ended at Toronto’s Farmhouse Tavern, and she has already cubed and deep-fried the morning’s excess biscuits into croutons to adorn tonight’s house salad. Now she’s fretting over an excess of shaved Brussels sprouts, which aren’t something she wants to freeze. She sighs and hopes it’ll be a big salad night.

In a black wool hat and maroon t-shirt, MacNeil eyes the shimmering, skin-on fillets of trout. Fourteen will be enough for tonight’s Fish Dish entrée, she decides, and asks one of her cooks to double wrap and freeze six, which she’ll later cure into gravlax. “You want to run out, but you want to make sure that you have enough of a selection so people come back,” says MacNeil, 34. “It’s a weird teeter-totter game.”

That game begins around 5 p.m., as the horseshoe-shaped restaurant begins to fill with diners ordering “buck a shuck,” or 1 Canadian dollar ($0.74) oysters. The promotion is just one of eight hourly food and drink discounts designed to attract and retain customers on Sunday evenings. The goal is to sell out of perishable food and open bottles of wine so that Farmhouse can shut up shop with an empty refrigerator for the three consecutive days it is closed. Oh, and this weekly event is called “F*ck Mondays.”

Come again? The strong language stems from owner Darcy MacDonell’s lifelong dread of the coming work week and how, in the restaurant business, quiet Sundays lead to either throwing away food or freezing it. Because he is adamant that “freshness is omnipotent,” refrigerating unserved items and corking wine bottles are not options.

That philosophy led MacDonell to create Farmhouse’s compelling offer: Come thumb your nose at Monday by enjoying an affordable evening that’ll help us finish our food and drink.

A table of three women, having arrived at 4 p.m., are doing their very best to help out. “We came for the CA$4 Caesars ($2.98),” says Andi Wheelband, 36, a drink similar to Bloody Marys. “And then one Caesar turned into two Caesars, which turned into oysters and a bottle of white wine.”

As afternoon turns to evening, she and her friends order two half-priced appetizers and pints of beer on special for CA$6 ($4.47). By 8 p.m., they are ready to share a few half-price entrees — the Short Rib Pasta for CA$10 ($7.45), and the Fish Dish for CA$12 ($8.94). All three women have work in the morning but — Monday be damned — at 9 p.m. they’re discussing which glass of wine to sample next.

At that exact hour, says bartender Riley MacLean, 29, “Any open wine is CA$9 per glass [$6.70]. “It’s pretty easy to steer people toward the open wines when you tell them it’s half price.”

Despite a casual environment — waiters wear mismatched t-shirts and the décor leans toward cowhide banquets and photographs from the MacDonell family’s Ontario dairy farm — Farmhouse is not cheap, and Toronto is not an inexpensive city. MacDonell is adamant about serving premium, local food and drink, and that comes at a cost. Which makes the deep discounts of “F*ck Mondays” even more compelling.

Farmhouse relies on chalkboard menus, the better to cross off dishes as the night wears on. Yet, on Sunday, there’s far more 86-ing on the central board. When that happens, all eyes turn to the server as she or he reaches over or around diners to cross off an item. “There are definitely noticeable sighs, and guests vocalize their heartbreak when they miss out,” says MacDonell.

Farmhouse Tavern relies on chalkboard menus, the better to cross off dishes as the night wears on. Photo by Jonathan Bloom.

Those dramatic erasures also create some urgency. A young artist couple, Candace Bell and Anthony Ficaro, voice two of those sighs as the carrot tartare appetizer disappears from the board. Their dismay is short-lived, though, and they switch to the bone marrow appetizer to accompany an order of 36 oysters. “That things could run out makes us order faster,” says Bell, 34, a Sunday regular. “That’s part of the deal when you come out on a Sunday. It’s a bit of a gamble.”

Another duo arrives at 8:50 p.m. and rushes over to the blackboard just as the Duck, Duck Goose! is crossed off. They order a dozen oysters, bone marrow, foie gras, tomato tagliatelle, and the Fish Dish. The dwindling supply is sparking demand. “We started to see the good stuff was going away, so we ordered quickly,” says Tara Veysey, who comes once a month with her husband, Charles. “We end up ordering more because of the specials, but we’d come here anyway.”

Farmhouse is comfortable striking dishes from its chalkboard menu any night. Yet, the price for other restaurants that refuse to run out is either unfresh food, abundant waste, or both. A recent study found that restaurants, hotels and institutions are responsible for 13 percent of avoidable Canadian food waste. The U.S. restaurant sector generates 18 percent of total U.S. food waste, at a cost of roughly $25 billion.

MacDonell, who learned to loathe waste while growing up on his family’s farm, implemented “F*ck Mondays” upon opening Farmhouse in June 2012. “It became clear that we would likely always struggle to get diners in after a certain point on Sunday evenings,” he says, with the restaurant located in a hip, but family-filled, neighborhood called The Junction. “I hate freezing stuff, and I hate throwing food out, so we needed to find a solution that would help us use up as much as we could before closing for three days.”

By 9:30 p.m., the kitchen has closed, and MacNeil is pleased with her nearly empty fridge. There’s still an abundance of shaved Brussels sprouts — it turned out not to be a big salad night — but she plans to pickle them early next week. Most of the garnishes were already pickled and will store. Aside from about 8 ounces of chimichurri sauce that won’t be as bright in four days, Farmhouse wasted no food on this Sunday and virtually no food the rest of the week. What the restaurant didn’t manage to use went into its green, city compost bin.

Chef Ashley MacNeil shows off the croutons for the night’s house salad. They were made from the morning’s excess biscuits. Photo by Jonathan Bloom.

That’s no small feat, given that Farmhouse fed upwards of 70 people this evening. “It does take a certain amount of managing and mental energy, but it’s worth it when at the end of the night, there’s virtually no food left,” says MacDonell.

Yet, there is another reward aside from that satisfaction. At 10:32 p.m., the staff — bartender, chef, cooks, servers and dishwasher — congregate at the bar to finish off wine bottles that are less than half full. “It’ll be a quick one, because we’re all pretty sick of each other by this point,” MacNeil quips.

The next morning, MacNeil will process the croutons into breadcrumbs, a garnish for a Thursday dish she has, on Sunday, yet to conceptualize. Such decisions are better left for later. “That’s a Monday thought,” she says with a smile.

Corrects to make clear that the Caesar is similar to a Bloody Mary.

Lead image: Farmhouse Tavern in Toronto has found a way to turn quiet Sundays, which often lead to either throwing away food or freezing it, into a way to sell out of menu items. Photo by Jonathan Bloom

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