Why Do Restaurants Waste So Much Water Defrosting Food?

A new defrosting system offers a more sustainable solution. 

On a typical day at a Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar location, cold water flows from kitchen sink faucets constantly—sometimes for up to 12 hours a day.

Because the six restaurants are located in land-locked Colorado and Missouri, it’s not realistic to only use fresh seafood (though Jax buys fresh when possible). Several of the restaurants are inside historic buildings, some that are more than 100 years old, so space is tight, which means chefs can’t easily begin thawing frozen foods in the refrigerator several days in advance.

This used to mean that there was no other option but to turn on the water and let it run.

Boss Defrost
Courtesy of Boss Defrost

“It’s embarrassing, but that’s what we had to do,” said Sheila Lucero, executive chef for Jax, part of the Big Red F Restaurant Group.

The situation was particularly frustrating because of the restaurant’s deep commitment to sustainability in other ways. Jax is a leader in the James Beard Foundation’s Smart Catch program and partners with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, among other initiatives.

But Lucero was not alone—far from it. Running cold water from the tap for hours to defrost frozen foods is standard practice in restaurant kitchens all over the country, thanks to food safety rules created by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and enforced by local health departments.

Today, though, the faucets at Jax are off and Lucero is breathing a little easier thanks to a new water-saving defrosting invention called Boss Defrost. Lucero says it’s now her “favorite toy” in the kitchen.

Boss Defrost
Courtesy of Boss Defrost

The concept is simple: when plugged into a power outlet and placed in a container or a sink full of water, the device recirculates the water over sealed foods. It uses approximately ten gallons of water at a time, a huge improvement from the current method.

A faucet releases 2.5 gallons of water for every minute it runs, according to Boss Defrost co-founder Mac Marsh. Under cold running water, it takes one hour to defrost every pound of frozen meat—150 gallons per pound. Multiply that by the many pounds of food defrosted in restaurants across the country every day and you get a lot of wasted potable water. Plus, to prevent cross-contamination, chefs use multiple sinks for defrosting different types of food.

Marsh often witnessed this running water defrosting process while working as a hotel engineer at the Art hotel in Denver. Whenever he got called to the kitchen to address maintenance issues, he’d notice clean water running in the sink. He wanted to know why.

“Every time I would go up there, I would see the water running just to defrost the food. That left a lasting image in my head,” said Marsh, 30. “I went to the chef, actually, and was like, ‘Hey, why are you doing this?’ because it just really bugged me to see all that water going down the drain.”

Marsh soon learned about the food-safety defrosting guidelines designed to keep guests from getting sick. If letting frozen foods thaw in the refrigerator isn’t possible, the next best option is to submerge the food in running water that’s 70 degrees or below, which helps prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and pathogens. There’s no wiggle room here, either. Restaurants that don’t meet these standards risk getting a citation from their city or county health inspector.

Boss Defrost
Courtesy of Boss Defrost

Marsh, then an undergraduate at Metro State University of Denver studying biology, was so frustrated by the wasteful practice that he decided to focus his efforts on devising an alternative solution.

Marsh brought the problem to Roger Abathan, a fellow hotel engineer studying industrial design at Metro State. They bought two 3D printers and used computer-aided design software to draw up plans for a device that could mimic the flow of cold running water, while using far less.

Once they 3D-printed a prototype, they brought it to the hotel kitchen to test it out, slowly making tweaks to improve their new invention.

They also began sharing it with some Denver-area chefs for testing and feedback, including Chris Starkus, then executive chef at Urban Farmer.

The device struck a chord with him. After using a prototype at the restaurant for a few weeks, he was floored by how drastically it improved the kitchen’s culture. He initially worried that none of the chefs would actually use it, but it became one of the most in-demand tools in the kitchen.

He was so inspired by the new tool that he left his executive chef job in early December to join Boss Defrost as its chief sales officer. His wife, Diana Lopez Starkus, also came on board to handle marketing and brand development.

“We had a lot of initiatives at [Urban Farmer] that were driven by making us more sustainable,” Starkus said. “But I realized I could spread this sustainability initiative to more than just one restaurant or one restaurant group, that it could legitimately be nationwide and global.”

Many chefs, including Starkus, had the same reaction when they first heard about the invention: why didn’t anyone come up with this before?

“At first I thought I was living under a rock because it seemed like this perfect answer—why haven’t I ever seen this before?” said Josh Niernberg, a pro-snowboarder-turned-chef who owns three restaurants in Grand Junction, Colorado. “It’s crazy to me there hasn’t been anything on the market sooner. It just seems so simple and obvious.”

Chefs say that not only does the device help conserve water, but it also helps free up much-needed prep space in the kitchen. It can be used in a container on a table, freeing up sinks for other uses.

“Literally, it’s a no-brainer,” said Gregory Gourdet, director of culinary operations at Portland’s Departure and a Top Chef finalist. “You plug it in and go. We just got it last week, and it’s cranking.”

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