Food transformed: from garbage to gourmet

A London-based catering business is turning surplus artisan produce into high-quality, affordable meals


This article has been created by Positive News and supported by Elysia Catering


Think of projects that are putting waste food to good use and likely to spring to mind are all-purpose, easily adaptable dishes like veg soups and simple curries. But it’s not just wonky veg that gets wasted. Although the vast majority of the UK’s 200,000 tonnes of retail sector food waste comes from supermarkets, it’s a problem that impacts independent artisan food suppliers too.

The scale may be small (estimated at less than one per cent of the UK’s food waste total), but the quality from these suppliers is high. Everything from specialist cheeses to organic granola, and handmade crispbreads to sought-after coffee beans, get chucked out every day in the current food system.

This is where French entrepreneur Sophie André comes in. In 2016 she moved to London and began by setting up a business delivering artisan food across the city.

It’s a result of the handmade process – there are always some products that will not turn out perfect

“Food delivery seems to be a big thing here,” she says. “So I started delivering products by bicycle. Talking with local producers I learned that a small part of the production is sometimes wasted due to the size or shape, but the quality of the products remains unchanged.

“For instance, I met with Hedie – the founder of the organic granola brand Husk & Honey. She explained to me that some batches may be a little too brown or contain an additional spoonful of honey compared to the regular one, so she would not sell it to the cafes she is working with. It was clear to me that I could do something about this and put it to good use.”

And so, André’s catering business, Elysia, was born.

Unlike many food waste projects that have sprung up in recent years, including the likes of The Real Junk Food Project, Gleaning Network and The People’s Fridge, the idea is not simply to redistribute waste food, but to provide a high-quality product. Elysia offers breakfasts and canapes specifically aimed at business meetings and events.

Once sourced, Elysia uses the waste products to create “simple, natural, straightforward” meals. Perhaps unlike other waste food, the supply is regular. “Suppliers will always have a certain amount of surplus.” So the menus remain regular too – something that André believes benefits both her business and the customer.

“In terms of supply, there’s quite a wide range of food that is available because there will always be broken crispbreads for example – it’s a handmade product, so there’s always a small amount that have imperfections or that didn’t reach the standard.”

Sophie André, founder of Elysia Catering

The company uses both surplus products such as sourdough bread, artisan croissants and organic granola, as well as products made from waste food such as flavoured hummus and chutneys – transformed from ‘wonky veg’. As a result, Elysia has rescued an estimated four tonnes of artisan food from going to landfill since business began in 2016, and has sold meals to more than 7,000 people.

But it’s not about profit. A social enterprise, Elysia not only works to cut the UK’s food waste (which is the highest rate in Europe), uses recyclable packaging and delivers by bicycle, but also aims to make what are otherwise usually expensive products more affordable, as well as helping to support local food producers and independent suppliers.

“We don’t work with supermarkets – only independent, local producers and growers who make their food products by hand and exclusively with natural ingredients,” says André. “I don’t know anyone else doing this at the moment. It’s very specific to this type of food and I wanted more people to [be able to] afford it.”

The idea was to create benefits all along the supply chain. It’s a win-win for everyone

To make this happen, Elysia buys food at a cut price from 25 suppliers (and the list is always growing). They have been specially selected for their high-quality food. The fee covers all of the production costs, plus gives producers a small margin of profit.

“At first some of them didn’t understand why I wanted to pay for the surplus food,” says André, “but once they understood the business, everyone was quite happy. The supplier gets money for something they would have wasted, I have high-quality products and the customer has their breakfast or event catering at a lower price for the quality of the food. So there are benefits all along the supply chain. It’s a win-win for everyone I think.”

When it comes to supermarkets, it tends to be the expiry dates that drive waste. But for the small-scale artisan producers Elysia works with, other factors come into play: cancelled orders, not meeting retail standards, overproduction, damaged packaging and end-of-day leftovers.

Even with high-quality ingredients and artisanal care, some products, says André, will inevitably turn out imperfect: from cheeses with a crack under the rind, to broken crispbreads or leaky salted caramel-flavoured chocolate bars.

An event catered for by Elysia Catering. Image: Secrets of Green

“I would not blame the producers at all,” she says. “It’s just a result of the handmade process really. There are always some products that will not turn out perfect. And of course as consumers, we choose what we normally see. When a crispbread is broken next to a crispbread that is not broken, the consumer will choose the one that is not broken. The problem is more the system overall.

“It’s about changing the perception of waste products and I think catering is one way to do that. That’s also why I use only high-quality food – to show that there’s no problem at all with these products.”

To bring this message to more people, André’s next step is to create an online platform that connects businesses like Elysia with artisan producers who have surplus food. Still in its early stages, she hopes to have the platform up and running in 2018.

“There’s so much potential in other cities, and even other countries. I feel like more and more people are becoming interested in issues related to food: eating better, eating healthier, and trying to take care of the environment.”

 


 

7 producers putting excess food to good use

 

1. Rubies in the Rubble

Image: Rubies in the Rubble

Since 2011, the team at Rubies in the Rubble has been turning wonky fruit and veg into chutneys and jams.

 

2. ChicP

Image: ChicP

London-based ChicP turn surplus veg into flavoured hummus.

 

3. EasyBean

EasyBean creates handmade crispbreads using chickpea flour. These are cut into small batches with offcuts, edges and broken pieces sold to Elysia so that they don’t go to waste.

 

4. Toast Ale

Image: Toast/Tom Moggach

Toast brews its award-winning ales in Yorkshire using the excess bread that results in overproduction. Up to 25 per cent of the UK’s bread goes to waste before it even reaches our homes.

 

5. NomNom Chocolate

Image: NomNom Chocolate

This Welsh chocolate maker sells on its misshapen chocolate bars at a reduced price. Minor imperfections sometimes occur as a result of temperature fluctuations during tempering or from broken packaging.

 

6. Notes

Image: Notes

This east London coffee company roasts its beans in small batches to keep quality high. But even with artisanal care, some batches are inevitably not quite up to standard. Any beans that don’t make the grade are offered up to be rescued by projects using unwanted food. Despite being ‘waste’ they still make for a great tasting coffee, says Sophie André from Elysia.

 

7. Husk & Honey

Image: Husk & Honey

Husk & Honey sells off irregular batches of granola at a discount price. Minor imperfections include slight overcooking, a little too much honey or simply excess production from regular orders.

 


This article has been created by Positive News and supported by Elysia Catering


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