CREATIVITY IN HOSPITALITY: INTERVIEW WITH JO HERCBERG, FOUNDER AND DIRECTOR OF THE REAL JUNK FOOD PROJECT SHEFFIELD
A must-read for food lovers, environmentalists, everyone in the hospitality industry, startups and social enterprises. An inspirational story of enormous impact and growth, with plenty of lessons learnt on the way.
What is The Real Junk Food Project Sheffield?
We’re a food waste based social enterprise, repurposing good food that gets wasted for a million different reasons. Food that we believe is good enough for anyone and everyone to eat. We intercept food destined for landfill from shops and supermarkets that would normally be wasted because of over orders, misprinted labels or best before dates that are past (on things like jams where it is a manufacturer’s guideline, not a safety guideline).
How long has TRJFPS been running and where did the idea come from?
After ten years in the travel tech corporate world I knew I would have to move to London with the career and my heart just wasn’t in it. I was looking to start something different and knew it would be related to food. I needed something to get my teeth into but didn’t want to go back to school and retrain as a chef. After a year of searching I saw an article in the Guardian about the project and had a moment! There was one in Doncaster so I got in touch. We have been running since spring 2015. The wider project started in Leeds in 2013 and there are now 126 UK projects and some globally too. We all run as independent charities / social enterprises but with the same principles - working with 90% food waste and a pay-as-you-feel concept.
My grandma was a really really good cook, the kitchen was the heart of her home. From a very early age she taught me to cook. She got up stupidly early to bake bread and let me make hedgehog shaped rolls. I was always ridiculously excited about going there. At school I loved food tech and always cooked from scratch, much to my uni housemates confusion.
Practically, how did things actually start with things like the rallying of volunteers and the conversations with supermarkets?
At first we mainly contacted small independent shops who were supportive and it was fairly easy as we just started with monthly pop-up events to raise awareness about food waste. As it expanded we got a van and did daily pick ups. We started with M&S - the communication being with Head Office. Public pressure has meant that the supermarkets are keen to have that charitable element that they can show to their shareholders too. Some, like Ocado, contacted us. For supermarkets we offer a very reliable service with six days a week pick ups at a time that suits them - this totally changed the scene in Sheffield.
With volunteers I was probably quite naive at first. Again starting with the pop-ups it was fairly straight forward - I put a message on Facebook and we had drop-in meetings. But as we scaled to the cafe, even though it was only three days a week, it was tough coordinating so many people. I’m not a trained chef, it’s just something I do in my head, and then one (or twelve) volunteers would turn up and want guidance on how to run a cafe when I didn’t know! I was chef, manager, front of house, volunteer coordinator, etc.
Now we have a lot of systems in place and we’ve automated as much as possible. We have a volunteer volunteer coordinator, inductions, training programmes. It’s so important because the volunteers do it for so many different reasons and have such different levels of expectation. There are lots of wraparound issues, for example, for some English is not their first language, they have barriers to accessing employment or mental health problems so need extra support.
What have been your biggest achievements so far?
Still being here after three years. Last year we went through a period of enormous growth complete with blood, sweat and tears. We fed 80,000 people last year. We didn’t even tot up the numbers until recently as we were working so hard day-to-day with our heads down, so it’s really nice now we can actually look back at what we achieved. We’re totally self-funded, not grant funded and we’re proud of making it work as a social enterprise on the pay-as-you-feel scheme. Recently we’ve been shortlisted by the local papers for best small business.
What have been the most challenging things?
Making it work and being self-funded have been huge challenges. Also managing and changing people’s perceptions of us. Last year we had a lot of press (including BBC North and leafleting) saying that we were giving away free food. This hit us hard and undid a lot of good and created a lot more work with having to us manage this alternative view and wrong assumptions of us as a foodbank. First and foremost our focus is as an environmental organisation - shouting about the amount of food that’s being wasted that’s good enough for everyone to eat, with a sharehouse market and pay-as-you-feel concept.
What drives you?
At first, it was looking at the food that we got in that day - seeing what we could cook with it, and using weird and wonderful techniques to preserve it or extend the life. Now the operation is so much bigger, I don’t cook myself anymore and I see the wider benefits to the local community, like our volunteers who had barriers to accessing employment now getting their first jobs as chefs.
Have you seen a difference in public response and trends since you started?
We are better at telling our story now and changing people’s perceptions on a one-to-one basis but we still have more to do on a larger scale. At first I had time for things like writing blogs and press releases but as we got busier it became the last thing on the agenda. This year we have a placement student and I can see the positive effect already. She is going to write about the journey of food and help people understand that this is not ‘free food.’ We still have to pay for all the overheads, vans, storage, the cafe... I’ve only realised recently that it’s basic human psychology to not value something that’s free so we’ve added a £1 service charge and we can really see the difference in how our team are valued and their own levels of self-respect too. It took us 12 months to work this out.
What’s your best bit of advice for being successful in the hospitality industry?
Do different things to fit different audiences - 'menus for venues' as they say! At our pay-as-you-feel cafe we keep things quite simple as that’s what people want. We also put on higher end events for a different target market where the 30 places will sell out in less than a minute.
What do you cook for yourself at home?
Anything and everything. I’ve not done a weekly shop for three years and we don’t earn big salaries so using the food from the project is part of being able to survive. This is great financially, but can be a burden when you’re tired and have to be in permanent Ready Steady Cook mode. I grow my own veg too and in the winter I like to make curries and roasts and in the summer things like salads and frittatas.
What’s next for you and TRJFPS?
Soon we’ll be hiring a full time Ops Manager which will give us a bit more space strategically. My fellow director and I are going to look at the board and the governance. Personally I’m planning a side project making products out of the food we get in like chutneys, jams and dehydrating them.