A growing effort to turn excess restaurant food into community meals gets an urgent pandemic upgrade.
By Matt Jozwiak and Daniel Humm as told to Chris Mohney
Matt Jozwiak is the co-founder of Rethink, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing hunger by turning unused food into meals for the food-insecure. Daniel Humm is chef and co-owner of New York’s Eleven Madison Park restaurant and Make It Nice restaurant group.
MATT JOZWIAK: I was a cook at Eleven Madison Park and really wanted to do something more. I always said I wanted to serve the other 1 percent. So I left Eleven Madison Park to start an organization that collected excess food.
Daniel was nice enough to let me collect excess food from NoMad and pilot it out. We built a relationship with his organization, Make It Nice. We started making a couple of thousand meals a week by collecting excess food from a group of restaurants.
When COVID hit, Daniel called me and wanted to really do something. We were trying to decentralize Rethink as it is, because we create food for 12 community centers in New York. If we went down because somebody got sick, 12 community centers would go down. He generously offered his kitchen as a commissary kitchen. We’re going to cross a quarter million meals there, and across the other 27 restaurants that we partner with we’ll have done over a million meals during COVID.
We found a lot of success in collecting excess food by making it as easy as possible. A lot of people, when they have these programs, they don’t really think about the chefs. Chefs work 14-hour days. They’re exhausted, so asking them to do any extra work—it’s not fair. So we created systems that were chef-focused and provided containers and training and labels, just to make it as easy as humanly possible.
But we were always a hunger-focused organization. We just took excess food because it was the cheapest food we could find. If it were cheaper to buy it, we would’ve done that. So in the long term, when we were looking at what to do and how to scale, it just makes more sense in the future to teach chefs how to use their excess, pay the restaurant to do a little more work and hire another cook or do a couple of things, and then package the meals and get them out.
Rethink is essentially turning into a food and tech company. We’re putting a lot of money and a lot of time into developing software that allows the restaurant to schedule pick-ups, give them the guidelines, track their cash contributions, and categorize their in-kind donations—similar to the way that Goodwill and large clothing manufacturers work. It’s never been done in the food world because people are concerned about liability and all that kind of stuff.
The software that we’re building creates the relationship between the community center and the restaurant, and leaves Rethink more or less out of it, other than food safety and the financial benefit. Once we get to a good point with that, and it’s up and running and tested, we’re going to go for a really substantial scale nationally.
This process led to the idea for Rethink Certified. We did some market research that found 34 percent of people won’t eat at a restaurant that isn’t contributing to the community. We use that certification to drive sales in the new restaurant economy.
DANIEL HUMM: From a chef’s point of view, what I realized when I started doing this work was that every chef can produce a delicious and inexpensive meal. Through Rethink, if a restaurant produces 200 meals a day and Rethink buys the meals from the restaurant, then that’s $1,000 a day the restaurant will receive. That is more than it will take to produce them because the chefs in each restaurant can use leftover parts of the products. It will help restaurants cover the fixed costs that are already in place. Every restaurant has some downtime, and that can be used to produce these meals.
Chefs are crucial in the conversation about food. The problem isn’t that there’s not enough food, and that’s why people are hungry. It’s a breakdown in communication. The farmers are not communicating with the chefs, and the chefs are not communicating with the food pantries. If all these chefs are always looking for food that is less expensive or some product that is overripe to re-use, it addresses the main objective, which is to solve hunger. But it also addresses waste.
It’s so important today that brands have a mission. For a luxury brand like Eleven Madison Park, just feeding the rich—I don’t think it’s going to work. In the future, I think luxury brands, or any brands, need to have more meaning to them. You can see it in the younger generation. People who are going to work with us day to day—they want to work for a place that stands for something bigger. Restaurants will benefit from doing good in the world.
MATT: We’ve even had some people reach out to say, “Hey, I have a restaurant that might not reopen. Is there an opportunity to turn this into a community kitchen?”
Our hope is that a restaurant is going to develop a relationship with a community center. Even a year ago, restaurants had no idea that they could even donate their food. So if we get that relationship going between the farm, the restaurant, and the community center, we’re really excited to see what comes out of it. Maybe it’s more meals. Maybe it’s a volunteer day. Maybe it’s job training for people who are constituents of the community-based organization. The possibilities are endless.
DANIEL: In the short term, there may be a situation where a restaurant will be able to turn on the lights sooner than otherwise because of this work. But overall, we want to end hunger in America. There are a lot of restaurants in this country. If a lot of them are participating, this is really how waste and hunger can be solved.
Every chef has communication with the farms on a daily basis. Before, you might talk to the farm about your daily needs, and then maybe you would talk about your needs in two months and what’s coming up, so you can plan for the menu. Now, you add to the conversation—you’re just planning another meal, with the understanding that it has to be inexpensive.
A lot of the time, when you write a menu as a chef, you’re set on certain things. For these meals, it’s more like, “Hey, what do you have?” The farmer has beans or tomatoes or whatever, and based on that, you make your meal. That’s how we cook for our staff. We don’t write a staff meal menu, and then find ingredients for it. We look at what we have, and they cook the meal. This is more along those lines, which is super helpful for the farms. Every farm has something they couldn’t sell or something they’re bringing back from the market. Farmers at the Union Square Greenmarket—at the end of the day, they have some stuff that if they can just drop it off and give us a really good deal on it, then it helps everyone.
It’s a tough road ahead for our industry. I think we haven’t even fully seen how tough it will be. Some restaurants have reopened and are doing outside seating. That might end when the weather changes, and we might still not have indoor dining. If we get to a place where they have to shut down again, some restaurants probably won’t make it.
Also, our industry is unemployed. Now the unemployment benefits have gone away. In my own restaurant, a lot of people have moved away from New York, thinking about changing careers and so forth. Of course there’s going to be a rebirth. New businesses will open, and there will be a fresh excitement about it, which I’m looking forward to.
The pandemic has exposed a lot of areas that have been broken for a long time—food waste, food insecurity, all the racial issues that we have in this country. It’s pretty wild. We feel grateful to be alive and energized and motivated to really be part of the change.
MATT: On the other side of all this, I hope we’ll respect the whole industry in a way we never did before. Because we’ll realize how important this industry is to our economy going forward.
DANIEL: We have to be more thoughtful in everything we do, like what ingredients we’re buying, what farm we’re buying from, what these people stand for, who our employees are, and how we recruit them. I think we will go into a world that will hopefully be much more thoughtful, much less wasteful.