This Chef-Driven Start-Up Harnesses Food Waste to Feed Those in Need
When Matt Jozwiak, formerly a cook at pedigreed restaurants including Eleven Madison Park and Noma, staged in France, he was amazed by how fine-dining kitchens effortlessly exhausted their ingredients: Fennel branches were used to smoke salmon; salmon bones were carefully scraped for tartare—nothing was wasted. Back home in the United States, by contrast, food waste was commonplace—70 billion tons of food went to landfills each year. Certain there must be a better way, Jozwiak launched Rethink Food in 2017, collecting excess food from restaurants, grocery stores, and corporate kitchens to create meals for those in need.
While 2020 proved a thin year for silver linings in the hospitality industry, Jozwiak saw a chance for his nonprofit to give restaurant employees the work and dependable revenue they desperately needed, while tackling rising food insecurity and cutting down on wasted food. Jozwiak's former employer and 2005 F&W Best New Chef Daniel Humm proposed heading up a new project called Rethink Certified to establish partnerships with restaurants, asking them to develop and cook meals for New Yorkers experiencing food insecurity in exchange for a guaranteed fee paid out by Rethink Food, therefore allowing operators to both retain staff and make rent.
Once certified, restaurants benefit from Rethink Food's operations support, which includes access to a platform that allows operators to track meal demand in specific neighborhoods. "We see ourselves as a conduit. The chefs [contribute meals], and then we matchmake in the community," says Jozwiak. Pre-COVID, Rethink Food was distributing 8,000 meals per week, and they've served over 2.5 million meals in total, prepared by restaurants like Adda, Gramercy Tavern, and FieldTrip and distributed at more than 75 different local organizations, including Brooklyn's Prayer Mission, soup kitchens like Neighbors Together, and community centers, such as the Bronx House and APNA Adult Day Care in Coney Island.
This year, Rethink Food aims to operate food trucks and cafés in cities like Chicago, Nashville, and San Francisco that will operate on a pay-what-you-can model; their first café, which opened in Brooklyn in May 2020, offers an ever-changing restaurant-supplied menu that might, on any given day, include barbecue chicken or salad, as well as pantry staples, for a requested $5 donation. Humm and Jozwiak are looking to hit 400 Rethink Certified restaurant partners in the next year. "We have to take our time and develop relationships with local chefs and really figure out [what each community needs] before we go in there," says Jozwiak. "A lot of what has been successful comes from being thoughtful and trying to understand the climate."