When junk food is good for you

A restaurant making the most of waste

Thanks to top chef attention, turning surplus food into gourmet meals has received plenty of media coverage. But why do so few of these initiatives go permanent? Real Junk Food Manchester in the north of England, is breaking the mold.

Restaurants serving food that would otherwise be wasted are nothing new. High-profile chefs such as Gordon Ramsey and Alain Ducasse have designed menus for food waste experiment WastED in New York and London, and there are many examples of pop-ups doing similar things all over the world. However, few have made the step up from pop-up to permanent. Along with Loop in Finland and Dutch chain Instock, Real Junk Food Manchester is one of the exceptions.

Challenging financials

“We are quite rare because there are some fundamental financial challenges,” says Director Chris Haydon. “For instance, when thinking about a permanent location, you need to consider the cost of commercial rental and business rates.” Restaurants working with food that would otherwise be thrown away are often run as not-for-profits on shoestring budgets. This affects their ability to plan long term because it’s difficult to set aside funds for expansion or to cover leaner times.

“It has always been our aim to be self-funding”

- Chris Haydon, Director, Real Junk Food Manchester

“It may seem to make sense to look for willing sponsors, but that's a risky strategy as they could pull out at any time. That’s why our aim has always been to be self-funding,” adds Haydon. “And while the volume of potential surplus food is massive, there are challenges around actually sourcing it, which makes long-term business planning extra tricky.”

15 tons of food saved

Despite the challenges, Real Junk Food Manchester opened a permanent restaurant in September 2017. It has saved more than 15 tons of food from the trash in its first six months.

“We source perfectly edible items from local supermarkets, wholesalers and artisan producers,” says Corin Bell, Haydon’s fellow director at Real Junk Food Manchester. “We want to raise awareness of food waste and tackle it as much as possible. The depressing thing is, there's no danger of running out of edible food that goes to waste at the moment.”

100% made from surplus

Since 100% of its ingredients would otherwise go to waste, devising the menu presents a different challenge every day. “We never know what’s coming, so the chefs have to think on their feet,” says Bell. “We get certain things regularly, but every so often there’s a surprise, like when a local grower gave us a bumper crop of oyster mushrooms. That’s when their creativity really comes to the fore.”

“Everyone should have access to delicious, healthy food”

- Corin Bell, Director, Real Junk Food Manchester

“Everyone in society should have access to delicious, healthy food, which is why we operate a ‘pay-as-you-feel policy',” says Bell. “That brings in a real cross-section of society – from chief executives and office workers to asylum seekers and homeless people. And it encourages genuine interaction that you wouldn’t get out on the street.”

Caring for the community

For Bell, it’s just as important Real Junk Food supports the local community as it is to feed it. One of Real Junk Food’s aims is to provide recipes and information to help them reduce food waste and eat well in their homes. The project has plans to offer basic cookery courses in future. It also aims to assist people getting back into work by offering placements and training.