At a time when we’ve been hit in the pocketbook from high food costs, there lurks a slew of bargain hunters who belong to an underground network that pays a fraction of what the rest of us suckers pay for high-end cuts of beef and some of the city’s best pastries.
At least that’s what it felt like when I stumbled upon the app, Too Good To Go, which has a cultlike devotion of Seattle penny pinchers who are on this little secret: You can hoard all the discarded food delivery orders, bruised fruits and day-old croissants you can eat for pennies on the dollar.
The stampede over these leftover pizza slices and near-expiring deli food begins when store managers and chefs post on this app that they have a surplus of food nearing their “best by” date that they need to ditch. Sellers appoint a time as to when bargain hunters can pick up these mystery bags that usually cost anywhere from $3.99 to $6.99.
In recent weeks, savvy shoppers have scored a $6.99 Metropolitan Market pastry bag with a loaf of bread and five baked goods including its famous chocolate chip cookie. In Ballard, the $4.99 bags from acclaimed bakery Cafe Besalu included a handful of pastries such as a kouign-amann, croissant and quiche.
If you’re not skittish about food nearing its expiration date or misshapen veggies, these hauls are a great bargain.
Based in Copenhagen, Denmark, Too Good To Go has launched in major restaurant cities such as Paris and New York City, and in the last two years, has expanded to a dozen U.S. metropolitan areas including — in May 2021 — Seattle. To sell on this app, the food surplus much be discounted to at least a third of the retail cost, according to the Too Good To Go policy.
Since January 2022, more than a 1 million consumers in the United States have downloaded the app, the company reports. A company spokesperson said many are turning to the app for discounted meals because they don’t want to pay full price or can’t afford to pay for the high cost of food these days.
Grocery prices, according to the July Consumer Price Index, have risen 13% higher than a year ago.
In Washington state, around 25,000 residents have used this service, the company reports. It has become not just an app to get discounted food, but a lifestyle, with consumers planning their meals around restaurant leftovers or grocery ingredients they buy on the app.
Ronald Woan, of Redmond, who orders the food surplus mostly because he doesn’t want it to go to waste, gets muffins and other day-old pastries from his neighborhood Peet’s Coffee or Caffe Ladro for breakfast. For dinner, he picks up groceries or a prepared meal bag for $5.99-$6.99. Sometimes his haul is enough for a week’s worth of meals.
“It’s much more economical than going out every day,” he said. “The fun aspect of [a mystery grocery bag] is there is an Iron Chef aspect to it — how am I going to make a meal out of it?”
About 250 restaurants and stores around Western Washington sell their perishables on Too Good To Go.
In January, Carol Kwok, of Sammamish, started a Too Good To Go Facebook group for her circle of friends to share pictures and notes on which restaurants offered the best discounted deals. Within a few months, she was floored to find hundreds of strangers signing up on her Facebook group and critiquing their mystery bags as if it were Yelp. Others offered recipes or tips on what to do with the day-old pastries when they get a bigger haul than expected. (Make bread pudding out of the croissants, one member posted.)
For Kwok, the app is a cost-effective way to sample a variety of menu items to help her decide whether she wants to frequent that restaurant in the future.
In the past four weeks, I‘ve ordered a dozen meals from restaurants and grocery stores on this app to see what the fuss was about. What I found:
Your bounty varies. A $6.99 mystery bag from the Safeway deli on East Madison Street netted me a single serving and a family-sized serving of chicken Alfredo, a tray of chicken teriyaki with chow mein noodles, four chicken egg rolls, a medley of veggies for stir-fry and a dinner-size Cobb salad.
I didn’t realize I had hit the jackpot until other consumers posted that their Safeway bags contained only half of what I scored.
There’s a lot of competition for the leftover food at popular spots such as Cafe Besalu in Ballard, Meesha in Fremont and Cookie’s Country Chicken in Ballard. Savvy app users track past posting times and closing times to figure when these restaurants sell online.
For instance, Cookie’s Country Chicken boxes up the leftover mac and cheese and other sides along with drumsticks and fried chicken nuggets around 8 p.m. on weekdays and 8:30 on weekends. Crafty consumers have their fingers ready during this time slot to pounce on these $3.99 to-go boxes that are sold after 8 p.m. (Cookie’s Country Chicken also plans to start boxing up leftovers after its lunch rush.)
Some great deals where you don’t have to be quick on the draw:
Metropolitan Market offers a $6.99 bakery bag with doughnuts, loaves of bread, cookies and, if you’re lucky, a slice of its great Hummingbird cake. Its mystery deli bag usually includes a handful of soups, salads and pasta trays.
Talented baker Christina Wood of Temple Pastries in the Central District makes stellar rye pastries you can’t get elsewhere in the city, along with excellent croissants. She sells leftovers on this app at around 2 p.m.
I’ve also had great luck scoring high-quality produce, meats and coffee beans from The Naked Grocer on Capitol Hill, Central Co-op on East Madison Street and The Bean Box in SoDo, respectively.