Cheap restaurant food that helps the planet? LA is signing up


Jackie’s Bakery sells dozens of discount pastries at the end of each day using an app that helps prevent food waste. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

The whole interaction takes less than two minutes.

John Monk walks into a West LA pastry shop called Jackie’s Bakery, flashes his phone at the woman behind the counter, and she hands him two giant paper bags full of pastries. If he’d bought them over the counter an hour ago, he’d have paid around $40. Instead he just paid $12.

“I know that the restaurant industry has so much waste. And so it's a good way of getting a deal, as well as not wasting,” he says.

He’s talking about a phone app called Too Good to Go, which gives you a map of nearby restaurants selling their end-of-day leftovers for 60-80% off. By matching hungry cost-conscious customers with surplus food, the app’s creators say they are minimizing waste, though it’s worth noting that not all the goods on the app were destined for a landfill.

How it works

You don’t get much say about what goes into the goody bags. Monk didn’t know exactly what he was buying from Jackie’s Bakery, but at that price, he didn’t mind.

“Our pastries range from $3-4,” says Jackie’s employee Alejandra Ulloa as she pops half a dozen pastries into a bag she’ll sell for $6. 

Ulloa says the bakery has been using the app for three to four months, and it helps drum up business when customers come in for a good deal, then return later to buy pastries at full price. 

“[They’re] like, ‘Oh, I tried your bag. I really liked that muffin. So let me go ahead and come back tomorrow and try that muffin and get another muffin,’” she says.

Too Good to Go is especially popular among businesses that produce baked goods since they can’t sell stale food the next day. So there’s no shortage of pastries, donuts, pizzas, and bagels available.

Every time Jackie’s Bakery sells a $6 bag, the app takes $1.79. The profits for the bakery aren’t huge, but it’s better than nothing. 

But is it actually food waste?

Too Good to Go’s public relations manager, Sarah Soteroff, says the app’s creators aimed to prevent food from ending up in a landfill, feeding no one and emitting greenhouse gasses as it decomposed.

“There's no shame in having surplus food waste. The problem is what are you going to do with it?” Soteroff says. “One of our founders was working for Nestle, the food production company, and saw so much continuous waste and was horrified by it. And so she thought there should be a way that stores could be selling their surplus.”

Soteroff estimates that in the 11 months since the app expanded to LA, they’ve saved 300,000 bags of food from 600 participating businesses here.

But diverting food is not necessarily the same as preventing waste if that food would have fed people anyway.

Melissa Acedera, founder of a local food pantry called Polo’s Pantry, tells KCRW that her organization relies on leftovers from food businesses, and since Too Good to Go entered the market, they’re drying up.

“It's definitely disrupted us heavily, just because one of our partners told us recently that they had partnered with Too Good to Go and decreased the amount of meals we were able to receive from them,” Acedera says. “It makes me sad to … tell our partners, ‘Hey, look, we just don't have anything.’”

Until recently, Acedera says, she had a steady source of pre-boxed meals from one local chain – but now those restaurants would rather make a buck by putting the leftovers on the app than donate them to her.

“Why do we have to keep squeezing every dollar that we can out of this?” she asks. “Can we just give this to people who need it the most?”

Meanwhile, DK’s Donuts in Santa Monica doesn’t choose between donations and discount sales. They do both.

“We've donated to schools, or we've had requests for those donations,” says co-owner Jennie Fou Lea. “We fulfill those first and then … we generally are able to put out about 15 to 20 bags [on the Too Good to Go app] a day.”

Fou Lea says they were among the first stores to sign up. She says it definitely helps financially, but primarily she just feels better knowing her donuts aren’t going to waste.

There’s also nothing stopping customers from sharing food with the people who need it. That’s happening regularly at Jackie’s Bakery.

“There's this lady that comes every Friday and she gets a bag to give to her homeless guy that lives downstairs,” says Ulloa. “So I try to give her more food items, like the salads or the sandwiches, because I know you don't get filled up with pastries.”

Soteroff says LA is the app’s most successful city yet, and it’s growing. A launch is planned for Santa Barbara later this month, and another is slated for Monterey later this year.