Tokyo-based startups look to link consumers with restaurants to curb food waste

by Sakura Murakami

Staff Writer

In affluent Japan millions of tons of still-edible food waste are thrown away each year, evoking a sense of guilt for many. According to the agriculture ministry, 6.46 million tons of untouched food were discarded in 2015.

Entrepreneurs are now looking to use technology to tackle the issue, launching new online services that link restaurants with consumers wishing to buy food that would otherwise be discarded, for a much lower price.

Sosuke Uemura is president of Shifft Inc., which launched the Reduce Go smartphone app service on April 5. He believes the business should be driven by economic benefits, not just by the goodwill of the parties involved.

“Some people may be particularly conscious (of food loss) issues, but I don’t think the majority of people would bother to pick up food from a nearby restaurant just because they want to reduce food loss,” said Uemura.

“I wanted to create a system where we can cater to other motivations (such as seeking economic benefits) while also reducing food waste,” he said.

For that reason, the Reduce Go app is designed to offer registered users economic benefits, allowing them to pick up food directly up to two times a day from restaurants and food outlets for a monthly fee of ¥1,980.

Using a smartphone, users can check what food they can take on a given day. Take-away meals available may include pizza, ramen, bento, curry with rice, and various breads.

Approximately 25,000 users have already signed up for the free version of the app, and 32 restaurants, bars and shops in Tokyo and its nearby areas have signed on to the food giveaway.

CoCooking Inc., a Tokyo-based food service led by President Kazuma Kawagoe, is another firm that has recently launched an online marketplace that links food establishments and consumers.

At its Tabete website, consumers can buy meals and food products that would otherwise be thrown away.

The menu for the day may include chicken with rice, Thai-style fried rice, and Vietnamese fresh spring rolls, all sold at a heavily discounted price.

Users are asked to collect the food at restaurants or shops, all located in Tokyo.

Kawagoe once worked as a cook at a restaurant, so he has seen the vast amounts of food that are often thrown away. That’s why he felt obliged to launch a business to reduce food loss, he said in an interview with The Japan Times.

Kawagoe recalled that many customers — in some cases dozens — didn’t show up after making a reservation.

Sometimes, “everyone just exchanged business cards and went home without even touching the food we served. It happened all the time,” he said.

“Food loss is a necessary evil of capitalism … I think the best solution is to create a social movement against food waste,” Kawagoe said.

Kawagoe hopes his platform will raise awareness of food waste and ignite the social momentum needed to instigate bigger changes to the food industry.

“I hope users will have a moment of reflection when they open their fridge after buying food about to go to waste on Tabete, a moment when they think — ‘I just saved some food from a restaurant, but have I been doing enough to reduce my own waste?’ ” he said.

Some restaurants and shops contacted by The Japan Times welcomed emerging services like Reduce Go and Tabete.

“Things beyond our control — such as changes in the weather or temperature — have a huge impact on the number of our customers, so it’s very hard to predict how much we should bake on a given day,” said Koji Yokota, of Boulangerie a la Demande, a bakery in Tokyo that has signed up to Reduce Go.

“I always wanted to do something about excess bread at my bakery … so there was no reason not to sign up to a program that was designed to solve that problem. We’re really happy that all of the perfectly edible food that we would discard, now won’t go to waste,” he added.

Such food loss initiatives are “a great way to acquire new customers too,” said Akio Ueda, manager of Tavola 310, an Italian bistro in Tokyo. He has registered with Tabete.

Both Reduce Go and Tabete launched last month, and the level of success they achieve as businesses remains to be seen.

But Rumi Ide, an expert on food waste, praised the initiatives and similar social businesses, saying they may create a sustainable system that counters food waste.

She pointed out that organizations based purely on donations often find themselves without the funds and resources needed to sustain their activities.

She also argued that a much more fundamental change is needed for restaurants and grocery stores.

“The restaurant industry has a belief that missing out on an opportunity to sell their products is bad for business. But that’s what creates food loss,” she said.

“To create more than we need has become the norm. … We need to ask the question: do we really need to produce this much?”