PARIS – In the food service sector, business managers draw parameters from several indicators to calculate the approximate number of customers they will have on a given day. Solving this puzzle is, to a certain extent, straightforward, but there is always a degree of uncertainty. Local vendors, food chains and restaurants tend to adjust their supply upwards in order to ensure that they will have enough food to satisfy their customers´ desires. And, while that makes perfect business sense – the return on investment will almost always be higher than the actual costs – it means that a percentage of the food cooked that day will be unsold at closing time and, excluding some exceptions, it will be unfit to be sold the day after. This poses a problem: What to do with the surplus? Some businesses keep the food for themselves or donate it to charities, but the reality is that the majority of that food surplus ends up in landfills. Fortunately, innovative ideas to tackle this issue are already being successfully implemented and commercialised, and rising rapidly in several countries.
In the last couple of years, we have seen a number of new startups harness the power of mobile technology to bring food surplus redistribution ideas to the food service sector. They have designed apps that provide a digital platform to link up vendors and customers, where vendors can offer unsold fresh produce at a discount shortly after rush hour or before closing time, and customers can buy items at a cheaper price while reducing food waste. PareUp is a New York City-based app that allows retailers to post unsold, unexpired good food for a discount. Too Good To Go – founded in Denmark at the end of 2015 and expanded to Norway, Germany, France, Switzerland and the UK – defines itself as “hyper-local environmental social enterprise dedicated to reducing food waste,” and links food buyers to delicious food at prices from as little as 2 pounds and a maximum of 3.8 pounds.
A very similar startup, and the main focus of this article, is Optimiam – a company created with the mission to help retailers sell their unsold food surplus via a geolocated mobile app. It was founded by three people in late 2014 in Paris and now, only after two years, the staff has increased to over fifteen employees and there are vendors all over France using Optimiam´s app. All of these startups have a competitive edge in their respective markets: they play both a commercial and a value-added social/environmental role. “So, basically, it is a system that […] to throw less and earn more and the consumer to eat cheaper while they protect the planet,” said Raodath Aminou, one of the founders. Last summer I travelled to Paris to interview Raodath in her office to talk about the app, behavioural consumerism and food waste in France.
The issue of food waste in France gained momentum in 2015 thanks to Arash Derambarsh, municipal councillor for the “Divers Droit” in Courbevoie, a commune outside the centre of Paris. Derambarsh, who had been advocating against food waste at the local level, took to the French parliament a petition signed by more than 200,000 people to stop supermarkets from sending edible food to landfill and from deliberately poisoning products with bleach to stop them being retrieved by people foraging through bins. His efforts catapulted an already tangible social and environmental issue into the national public sphere. The petition spawned a deep concern amongst Members of Parliament about the large amounts of edible food being thrown away at the supermarket level, urging them ultimately to put into place a new piece of legislation in mid-2015. Such new law laid down a framework under which supermarkets, provided highly regulated health standards were to be ensured, could create mechanisms that would enable food surplus redistribution to charities and people in need, thereby also tackling poverty and hunger. Its success went beyond national borders as over one year later, on 14 September 2016, a law on food waste came into force in Italy with the goal to facilitate the donation and distribution of food and pharmaceutical products for social solidarity and for limiting waste.
France ranks fourth in food waste and losses in Europe. A study of data collection and analysis across Europe revealed that food waste in the EU-28, in 2012, across all sectors, amounted to 88 million tonnes. After households (53%) and processing (19%), food service was the third sector contributing the most to food waste in the European Union (EU-28) with a 12% of food waste, both food and inedible parts associated with food (“Estimates of European food waste levels” EU FUSIONS. Stockholm, Sweden. 31 March 2016). In France, following data provided by France´s Ministry of Agriculture, Agri-Food and Forestry, approximately a total of 6,5 million tonnes of food are wasted every year. And, out of that amount, based on data provided by Bio Intelligence Service in 2010, in France, the Food service sector in the country is responsible for wasting annually little over 1 million tonnes of food.
When was Optimiam born? How has it grown since its inception?
Raodath Aminou (Co-founder): It was born in October 2014. When we began Optimiam we were three co-founders – the Business Developer, myself as Project Manager and then the CTO, who is a developer. Today we are a team of fifteen people in this main area, which is the commercial area, we have the business developer and the account manager, then we have the marketing side and then we have the developers´ team.
Were your backgrounds related to social entrepreneurship and/or food waste?
Raodath: Not at all, it actually came to me. I had this idea when I met a Japanese caterer who was yelling at people who were coming across the store “buy one, get one free”. I just got interested by that discount and I asked him why he was doing that. He told me “I am doing that because I am going to close my store in two hours and this is fresh product. I prefer to sell it cheaper than throwing it away.” And I found it really interesting as an initiative but I had to come across his store to be aware of that. That´s why I thought about the idea to create a digital link to connect the retailer and the consumer.
Does this Japanese retailer use now Optimiam?
Raodath: No, he is not part of Optimiam because his store is in a hipermarket and the decision is not his but the decision of the hipermarket.
Did you have any financial support at the beginning?
Raodath: We started the first year winning some contests. We applied to some contests with cash prices and then I think in one year we raised 125,000 euros. That is how we actually financed our growth. Then we did a first fundraising in January 2016 of 600,000 euros in order to grow.
What types of local retailers can sell their fresh products via Optimiam?
Raodath: We have three types of shops: We have independent retailers like bakeries, pastries, restaurants; then we have food chains, and then we have supermarkets like Carrefour, etc.
Do you think there was a demand for this kind of service? Did you carry out market research?
Raodath: Yes, we asked many restaurants for this information. “Are you looking for a way to sell your food surplus? Are you looking for a way to maximise your profit?” Yes, we asked many of them and they were looking for a solution.
What is the average time slot in which Optimiam sellers publish their surplus products? What is the average percentage of price reduction?
Raodath: No, we don´t give them some, they can put it at any time. Most of them are at the end of the day. We have around six hundred daily discounts. The average discount is around 40% off and starting from 1pm we can start to have discounts on the app.
What communication channels did you choose, from the very beginning, to raise awareness about Optimiam?
Raodath: At the beginning we used street marketing. We called it “food surplus from our retailer for free” and we gave it for free to people at our university and at our retailers to raise awareness on this food waste issue that we are trying to solve. So, it was a lot of street marketing. Then we had some press coverage talking about it and we also had some interventions in universities or in social events of food waste issues. Now we continue to do it, but we also spend some money on digital marketing, like on Facebook ads or on Instagram.
Do you collect feedback from Optimiam users? How do you do it?
Raodath: We are a team, but it is still small, we don´t have someone really dedicated to it. We actually try to send some surveys to consumers to ask them why they are using it, how they are using it and what we can improve in our app. The last one that we did, I think, it was last week. Why are they using the app? The two main reasons they give us are: today eating is cheaper and then the action is also good for the planet.
The products that your retailers offer through Optimiam have a double added value – cheaper and help redistributing food surplus. What do you think is the stronger reason why your users choose to buy products through your app? What profiles of consumers can you identify?
Raodath: I think it depends on the type of the consumer. We have two types of consumers: the younger ones are really driven by the price reduction and the older ones are really driven by “I want to do an action for the planet.” That´s what we are seeing in our surveys.
After using Optimiam, do you think users get a sense of what the implications of food waste are?
Raodath: No, I think the consumers, when they heard about Optimiam, really downloaded the app because of, as we said, the double value. It is not just a discount app, it´s an app with discounts, but also good for the planet. I think the first differentiation between this app and all the discounts apps that exist is that our clients are thinking of the social goal but merely because of the discount. But, I don´t think that, after buying food, we really know that this food is coming from this part of the world. I don´t think they are really interested in that, they just know that “my local bakery puts food on Optimiam, ok, I want to buy, I want to eat a croissant, it is better for me to buy it there than in another bakery which is not Optimiam.” I think we are looking for the final action, that we can do to save the food, more than all the social action behind it.
What do you think are the main causes of food waste at the retail, catering and household level in France?
Raodath: The reasons are really diverse. The retailers are wasting food because in France is bad to have empty shelves. Also, it is bad not to have beautiful products. So, they are really used to order more, more and more to provide shelves which are really full. Same thing for the bakeries, same thing for the restaurants, same thing for the retailers. That is why we have this food waste issue today, because they cannot afford to have clients in the store and just have no products. So they prefer to buy it and then not selling it. For example, let´s say a bakery in Paris, which makes around one million euros of revenue per year, lost 5% of revenue in food waste. So it´s around 50,000 euros that they lost in revenue. But the actual cost is maybe 10,000 euros that they spent to buy this product so it´s really cheaper for them to buy more than to lose a client.
On the user part, how do consumers waste in France? Because we are not paying attention to the eating habits. For example, when we go, mainly in Paris, to do our groceries every two days because we do have a small apartment, we don´t really take our car to do our shopping, we just go to the convenience store every. We don´t do our shopping list to really care about what kind of products are missing, we just go there every two days and buy food for two days and if we don´t eat it we just throw it away. For certain things we don´t really use recycling on the food, when we don´t finish it; few people are thinking of putting it in the fridge and putting it another day in a doggy bag and take it back to work the next day. And, also, when we go shopping without shopping list, when we come to the store we have these discounts “buy one, get one free” or ”buy two and get the third free” so we really also fall for this kind of discount.
How do you think recent legislation banning supermarkets from sending food to landfill, pushed forward by Municipal Councillor of Courbevoie Arash Derambarsh, has influenced or marked the work of entreprises in the field of food waste?
Raodath: To be honest, this is what I say to people who are asking this question: this legislation actually benefits us just for the notion, just on the consumer side, it really raises awareness on the food waste issue on the consumer side. But on the business side, many of them are already aware of the notion, they are looking for ways. We have been talking to a supermarket since 2014. So this legislation doesn´t really accelerate, maybe it accelerates the contract at the end. But this notion has already been in discussion between us and the big companies for months and months.
So what is the problem then?
Raodath: Oh, we do not have the same priorities. We know that we have to do something but it takes time for them, 4 or 5 months to sign a contract. So, big companies want to do it but it is not like a bakery that, if it is ok, just signs the contract today. Big companies have a legal part, many steps that we have to validate before launching a contract with them. That is what is actually taking part. We know that we have the law that obligates us to do some things. Even without the law I think they are willing to do it but the decision cannot be decided in one day like an independent retailer. [Recent legislation banning supermarkets from sending food to landfill] It´s simbolic, it really brings the discussion to the table, I don´t think that any big company just woke up after this legislation.
Should the pressure come from the customers themselves expressing their desire to the directors of retail companies to see food waste reduced?
Raodath: Yes and no, because I am a marketplace and I need to have an offer before ensuring my demand. First of all, I have to have the supermarket on my side before attracting the consumers. If I have many consumers who are using the app, I can put some pressure on supermarket. But it is also frustrating for the consumer because, I know, today in a market mobile app is really difficult to retain consumers. So if I did a big press conference, “I need you to focus, I need you to come with me on this food waste struggle, I need you to sign this petition or whatever” they will do it. But after the first, second or third time they go on the app and they don´t see a retailer in their area, they are just going to close the app and delete it.
How important is it for Optimiam to network with local and international initiatives and to belong to networks such as FSE Network?
Raodath: Mingling, working with other initiatives, ecosystems in which to put pressure on the retailers, the bigger ones – supermarkets and hypermarkets – which is where we have the biggest amount of food waste. The more we are, better that it is, but it is good to have this network in order, to avoid to have many initiatives who contact us. For example when I talk to my client, the big one, they say “we have been in touch with this company also, which is one of your competitors, who want to fight against food waste.” It´s good, but it´s really better if one big representative analyses this company´s needs. It is a big challenge, because you have some of us like Optimiam, Phenix, etc., who are really commercial, who are really startup and who need to make money and then we have more associations that do not need to make money and don´t also have the capacity for solutions to this business.
Photo (Above): courtesy of ©Optimiam (Facebook profile)