Restaurant challenges supermarkets to quit tossing food

Rub & Stub, an eatery that only serves food past its sell-by date, joins the battle against food waste

On the surface, the idea of a restaurant serving food that is about to be tossed out by supermarkets and distributors seems, well, a bit sketchy. 

However, the founders of Rub & Stub, a new eatery in Copenhagen, feel like it is an idea whose time has come in a country where the average household of two adults and two children throws away about 105 kilos of edible food each year – one of the highest amounts in the world.

“Too much food is thrown away in Denmark, and we wanted to do something about it,” explained Rub & Stub’s co-founder Sophie Sales.

Sales and her team of volunteers have been open for about a month, during which time they have been experiencing the growing pains that come with any new venture.

“It has been great, but it has also been challenging,” she said. “We do not have any firm deals with distributors or supermarkets yet – mostly because I think they do not really understand the concept.”

Sales has been working hard to dispel the notion, both at home and worldwide, that Rub & Stub – which loosely translates as lock, stock and barrel – is somehow selling garbage.

“When they wrote about us in France, they sensationalised the headlines to say “Garbage on the plates”, which may sell papers, but isn’t true. We get our food before it is past its sell-by date and thrown out,” said Sales.

Sales stresses that all of Rub & Stub’s food is fresh produce, meat and other items that were about to be thrown out by supermarkets and distributors.

A non-profit effort
Another misconception is that Sales and her group are somehow profiting from the restaurant. 

“People ask us why we don’t just give the food to the hungry rather than make a profit from it,” she said. “They seem to have missed the non-profit/charity part.”

The restaurant has only two paid employees: a project co-ordinator and the chef, Irina Bothmann.

The rest of the staff are volunteers and the profits – when they start coming in – will be donated to charities supported by the RETRO organisation, which funds projects in Sierra Leone and other parts of the world.

Training the enthusiastic but green volunteer staff has been one of the challenges.

“We have a lot of volunteers,” said Sales. “We have recently cut our opening hours so that we can invest more time in training during this start-up phase.”

Sales said that teaching the volunteers to run the restaurant independently will pay off in the long run.

Another small bump in the road was the restaurant’s early meal prices.

“We had to adjust the prices on the menu because we had simply been too generous,” said Sales. “If we are to generate funds for charity, we have to be able to sustain ourselves here at the start.”

Supermarkets and distributors need to get on board
Bothmann said that she has been involved with the project for two years, and that for it to succeed, there will have to be a sea change in the way Danish supermarkets think.

“We are trying to get them to donate food that they would throw out anyway, but there is always the suggestion that we should be paying them for it.”

Bothmann hopes that once companies see that food waste is an issue that people care about, the companies will get onboard.

“Now that we are open, we can go out and say that we are really doing this and hopefully get them to donate food that no-one wants to see go to waste,” she said.

Bothmann said that one of the most interesting parts of her work is seeing just what is available on any given day.

“I try to plan ahead as much as I can, but if someone calls and says they have a donation, we have to find a way to get it.”Chef Irina Bothmann and Rub & Stub volunteers prepare for the day ahead (Photo: Ray Weaver)

Sales had hoped to have standing deals with distributors before Rub & Stub opened – even considering delaying the opening until they were in place – but found that it was hard to explain the concept to people who were accustomed to tossing nearly expired food into the bin.

“We had hoped to secure some permanent deals before the opening, but it was hard because this is such a new concept,” said Sales. “Potential donors found it hard to believe that we would really open,” she said.

Sales said the decision was reached to jump in and hope the distributors will catch up.

“The concept makes sense to people with an interest in food, sustainability and modern consumer society,” she said.

United Against Food Waste
Selina Juul from Stop Wasting Food has been at the forefront of the movement to get Danes to address their food-wasting habits for a long time. 

“I think that Rub & Stub is the kind of innovative concept that we need to have more of in Denmark,” she said. “Food waste at Danish canteens, restaurants and catering companies runs up to 140,000 tonnes a year; that is a lot of food.”

Rub & Stub joined Stop Wasting Food and other organisations yesterday at Rådhuspladsen, the city hall square, at what was billed the largest event to combat food waste in Denmark’s history   

Karen Hækkerup (Socialdemokraterne), the food and agriculture minister, gave the keynote address at Friday’s event.

“It is incredibly important to be aware of food waste,” she said. “Everyone can make a difference, but it is not as much about legislation as it is changing behaviours.”