From dinner plate to doggy bag: Why some restaurants still say no to packing up food

The Moroccan Soup Bar in North Fitzroy is using biodegradable containers for diners to take away unfinished food or a ...
The Moroccan Soup Bar in North Fitzroy is using biodegradable containers for diners to take away unfinished food or a doggy bag.  Photo: Penny Stephens

More than 7 million tonnes of food are thrown out each year in Australia, but many restaurants would rather bin your leftovers than allow you to take them home in a doggy bag. 

While there are no laws in our country that prohibit restaurants from offering takeaway containers for leftover food, the risk of lengthy litigation or reputational damage from a poorly stored and reheated meal has seen the practice discouraged or, in some cases, banned altogether.

Hana Assafiri is the founder of Fitzroy restaurant Moroccan Soup Bar, where she is bucking the trend. For years, Assafiri encouraged her customers to bring all manner of pots, pans and even Milo tins, so any leftovers could be packaged sustainably and sent home safely.

For Grana restauran in Sydney, the benefits of reducing waste and keeping customers happy make doggy bags worthwhile.
For Grana restauran in Sydney, the benefits of reducing waste and keeping customers happy make doggy bags worthwhile. Photo: Edwina Pickles

The scraps that remained were turned into compost that would eventually be used in agricultural production across Victoria, but fighting climate change can be costly – the restaurant forks out about $1000 a month to close the loop.

"Businesses bear the brunt of making those commitments," Assafiri says.

"I always encourage people to take leftovers home if they want to. It's ridiculous that restaurants should have to fear litigation, and insurance premiums going up, just because of one or two irresponsible individuals who leave their leftovers in the car for 10 days before consuming them. 

"The name, 'doggy bag', probably explains how the industry feels about it."

"We're better than that. We should be able to have a reasonable conversation with our customers and trust them to be responsible if they want to take their food home."

The Department of Health warns against the potential risks of doggy bags, as lukewarm food provides an ideal breeding ground for bacteria which can lead to food poisoning. 

The risk is greatly reduced by ensuring leftovers are refrigerated within two hours, then reheated at a temperature of at least 75 degrees.

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Sydney-based Scott Brown, director of House Made Hospitality, says his restaurants such as Grana in Circular Quay try to mitigate the risk by educating customers about "the danger zone" before packaging their leftovers into biodegradable containers. 

"You've got to try to minimise food sitting in that danger zone as much as possible, and some food products are more susceptible than others," he says.

"Proteins such as seafood and chicken fall into the super high risk category. In that case, we'd just explain why they'd need to get it into the fridge within a shorter period of time.

Grana staff educate customers about "the danger zone" before packaging their leftovers into biodegradable containers.
Grana staff educate customers about "the danger zone" before packaging their leftovers into biodegradable containers. Photo: Edwina Pickles

"We put so much time and effort into preparing and presenting our food, it would break our hearts to just throw it in the bin."

Despite the environmental advantages, many restaurants prefer to keep a tight lid on their leftover policies. Questions posed by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age to several hospitality businesses were dodged by both fine-dining and budget venues. Many operators claimed their "customers generally eat everything on their plate", and therefore couldn't comment on the matter.

"Some restaurants are happy to pack up food, others bluntly refuse," says Callan Boys, editor of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide. "Totti's in Rozelle packaged our table's leftover roast chook and potatoes the other week – which tasted even better for lunch the next day.

Hana Assafiri  of the Moroccan Soup Bar in North Fitzroy always encourage people to take leftovers home if they want to.
Hana Assafiri of the Moroccan Soup Bar in North Fitzroy always encourage people to take leftovers home if they want to. Photo: Penny Stephens

"But next week, a restaurant at Crown wouldn't let my dining mate take home some rib-eye steak left on the table."

It's understandable, says Kenneth Yardy, the solicitor director of Surry Hills hospitality law firm Yardy Legal. 

"There's no specific law that prevents doggy bags, so court cases brought against restaurateurs aren't very common," he says.

"The biggest issue is reputational damage."

In NSW and Victoria, once leftovers have been removed from the restaurant, it's the customer's legal responsibility to ensure their food is handled correctly. Should the leftovers cause food poisoning, however, restaurants could still be taken to court.

"What you'll find is, if there's been a few complaints, someone will eventually ring the council and the council inspector will head out there, give out a bunch of tickets, and take the restaurant to court," Yardy says.

"Then you get on the name and shame list, and people can look you up. That's huge reputational damage."

The maximum penalty for serving unsafe food is $250,000, Yardy says.

There are ways for restaurants to mitigate the risk. Time-stamping takeaway containers and providing clear food storage instructions can go a long way, says Yardy.

"One of the defences to being sued under the Food Act NSW (2003) is to show you've done everything that a diligent restaurant should do," he says.

At Ovolo in Woolloomooloo, restaurants such as the popular vegan offering Alibi will soon require customers to sign a waiver.

"This policy will ensure that we are not liable for anything that may happen once food has been taken off our premises. We can't guarantee the food will be safe to eat when the diner chooses to come back to it," says Ian Curley, the national director of kitchen operations for Ovolo.

"Once we have the waiver in place we will feel more comfortable with [allowing doggy bags]."

For some, such as Shane Delia of the Melbourne-based Delia hospitality group, the risks just aren't worth it. 

"We don't encourage it for a multitude of reasons. It's definitely not something we want to support," he says.

"For one thing, the food from premium restaurants doesn't really translate well to takeaway containers. No one wants to put a beautiful dish in a sticky takeaway container.

"The name, 'doggy bag', probably explains how the industry feels about it."

Though the law stands in the restaurants' favour, Delia says a case of food poisoning from poorly-handled leftovers is more likely to be resolved at the restaurant.

"No restaurant has got the time, the money or the patience to spend on lawyers to debate liability with their customers," he says.

"We're in the business of hospitality. We want to exceed customers' expectations, we don't want them to go home and get food poisoning. 

"In our industry, we want to be very risk averse."