In April 2022, California passed SB 1383, a bill that sets goals to reduce disposal of organic waste in landfills, including edible food. The legislation has prompted a wave of startups focused on how to help restaurants and grocery stores reach those goals (as you’ll see by the multitude of sponsored results when you Google “SB 1383”). One app, Too Good To Go, has come up on our radar a few times in recent months, as Nosh readers emailed my editor with stories of excellent dining deals, and Instagram’s algorithm suggested the company to us with an alarming frequency.
The company offers diners food from a variety of local restaurants delivered in a “surprise bag;” items that would otherwise be wasted at the end of the business day. The bags range in cost from about $4-7, which is a relative steal by Bay Area standards. But what do you get for that low low price? Are these good or bad surprises? Is Too Good To Go’s promise of delicious dining too good to be true?
There was only one way to find out: for a full, five-day work week, I would restrict my restaurant dining to meals arranged via the Too Good To Go app, to see how reasonable it might be to make this a regular option for East Bay diners. This is how it turned out.
I get anxious about adding a new application to my phone, because in my old age I believe my phone feels heavier with every piece of software I add. But anything for Nosh! After downloading the app, I get a confirmation email congratulating me for my choices in saving money on take out while attempting to eliminate food waste and save the planet. Unfortunately, I couldn’t act on its prompt to set text message alerts up, as the dialogue box to enter numbers suffered some sort of glitch and wouldn’t appear.
Once the app was installed, I was easily able to scan through my restaurant options, adjust distance from my current location and (for our purposes at Nosh) eliminate anything outside the East Bay. Payment options were more flexible than many found on other food apps and included Google Pay, PayPal and Venmo; pickups for each day can be scheduled in advance or as an impulse buy, with its “before it’s too late” option. I also learned that most restaurants’ surprise bags have a specific window of time designated for pickup, and that many locations listed a limited number of surprise bags.
Lucky Chef Chen
3542 International Blvd, Oakland
Surprise bag cost: $6.60
Surprise bag contents: Beef and broccoli, Kung Pao chicken, pork sparerib on top of shrimp fried rice
Scheduled 7:30-7:45 p.m. pickup; Location closes at 8 p.m.
I was pleased by my luck in finding parking at 7:15 on the dot, right in front of Lucky Chef Chen’s doors on International Blvd. Despite my slightly early arrival, I was told I needed to wait until the 7:30 pick up time. There was a full display case of food and the restaurant was set to close in 45 minutes, but the app rules meant the order wouldn’t be filled until the designated pick up time. Lesson learned.
When I returned, the server packed a heap of meat items on top of rice in a plastic container. A college-aged, more carnivorous version of myself would have been ecstatic about the piled together beef and broccoli, Kung Pao chicken and pork sparerib on top of shrimp fried rice. But the older adult version, with dietary restrictions and awareness of what a meal like this right before bedtime might do to me, knew that regret was in my near future. But because this was a surprise bag, I couldn’t request any substitutions, I was told.
Looking at Lucky Chef Chen’s regular prices, a two item combo plate is $6.29, and a four item combo is $9.99. So, there was a small price savings for the plate I received. But unless I could find a person willing to take this meaty plate of food off my hands, I wasn’t going to save the planet today.
411 30th St., Oakland
Surprise bag cost: $4.40 (canceled)
Scheduled 2 p.m.. pickup; order canceled at 12:27 p.m.
The Tuesday in question was Valentine’s Day, aka Galentines or Single’s Awareness Day. Whatever we call the day, it was time to spend it with my one true love: takeout. I would be out and about that day, so I decided to try something for breakfast or lunch. To my dismay, there were very few options available, with locations indicating “1 left” or “Sold out yesterday.” By 9 a.m., I had made a selection from Petit Cafe, with a pickup time of 2 p.m. However, as often happens for single people, my Valentine’s Day would end in disappointment.
At 12:27 I received an email from Too Good To Go that said that it had “canceled the pending payment and the reservation will be removed from your account within a few business days.” The $4.99 I spent to reserve my surprise bag would be refunded in no exact time, at some future date. Scrolling to “Pick Up Now” option, I selected Too Good Gourmet, a bakery in San Lorenzo.
Tuesday, second try
Too Good Gourmet
2380 Grant Ave., San Lorenzo
Surprise bag cost: $5.99
Surprise bag contents: Four boxes of cookies. Red velvet, Valentine’s sugar cookie, cake cookies and polvoróns, plus a case of eight boxes of shortbread cookies.
Scheduled 1:00 p.m.-4 p.m. pickup; location closes at 4:30 p.m.
When I arrived to pick up the items, I saw a room packed with cookies, chocolate-covered strawberries and pina colada tea cookies. The strawberries and pina colada cookies aren’t on offer, though: The clerk hands me a bag containing a number of other pre-packed boxes of cookies, and says I can take a box of cookies from a full pallet of Valentine’s sugar cookies.
The surprise bag was definitely a savings compared to the listed price of the company’s cookies, which are produced in its San Lorenzo factory and sold nationwide. For a person dining alone, though, this is a lot of cookies to consume before they go stale, so I spent my drive back home going through my mental rolodex of who might want to share this mass-produced dessert bounty with me.
571 5th St, Oakland
Surprise bag cost: $4.40
Surprise bag contents: Chocolate chip cookie, chocolate croissant and plain croissant.
Scheduled 2:15-2:45 p.m. pickup
Went to San Francisco to visit a friend, and while I was there I checked out San Francisco’s Too Good To Go options compared to the East Bay’s. There was a noticeable selection difference, with far more commercial locations, like Peet’s coffee, in the city.
At 2 p.m. I made my way back to the East Bay and decided to use the “before it’s too late” section. At Shapeshifters, there were two customers in front of me also using the Too Good To Go app, both of whom seemed very excited about receiving their surprise bag. Sadly, the cafe’s salads or sandwiches weren’t on offer, and after yesterday’s massive cookie haul a second day of desserts wasn’t as sweet a surprise as it might have been.
7 Stars Donut Chinese Fast Food
3060 East 9th St., Oakland
Surprise bag cost: $6.60
Surprise bag contents: Two egg rolls, chow mein and sweet and sour chicken.
Scheduled pick up 6:45-7:00 p.m.
Life being life, the day had nearly gotten away from me before I remembered my Too Good To Go commitment. I headed to the “before it’s too late” section before it was too late, and by 5:45 I’d reserved a dinner for an hour later.
After two days of dessert, it was nice to have a substantial and savory dinner, even as a last-minute pick. Looking at the 7 Stars menu, a two-entree combo plate is $13, so my meal was almost 50 percent savings; its curious, though, that so many of my dinner picks were so laden with meat. Are there fewer carnivores in the East Bay than restaurant owners expect there to be?
7000 Bancroft Ave., Oakland
Surprise bag cost: $5.99
Surprise bag contents: package of 12 English muffins, cinnamon raisin bagels, cinnamon swirl loaf cake and Cheesecake Factory brown and serve wheat baguettes.
Scheduled pick up available at 2:30 or 5:30 p.m.
For my last Too Good To Go day, I wanted to check out the offerings at a grocery store to see how useful it might be to people who are looking for lower-cost market offerings. Gazzali’s is a family-owned local market mini-chain with a nice selection of foods from the MENA area.
After a placed my order on the app, I went to the store and the designated pickup time but didn’t see an immediate place for a pick up. I asked one of the clerks, who let me wait at one of the registers while they went to the bakery. While I was waiting, I asked how they chose their selection of items. One clerk told me that in the beginning, they would pick one item from each section of the store — produce, canned goods and bakery. What they found was that people complained about the items and wanted to return them. Rather than exert themselves, they select one section of the store for each Too Good To Go order — in my case, the bakery — to create less conflict with the customers. So, that’s why I ended up with a bounty of bagels, cakes and other various carbs, all for $5.99.
Definitely a discount compared to the sticker price, but as with many of the meals I ate this week, I wondered if these were foods I’d go out of my way to accept if they were offered for free.
Is Too Good To Go a good way to eat?
The abundance of sugar and meat made wasn’t a menu I could follow every week. With the psychological effect of feeling like I got a great deal, I could see how this could lead to a lot of meals consumed for the sake of consumption, not because I wanted the dish.
On the plus side, it also made me think more carefully about the culture of food and food waste. I learned about some new locations to visit, and was reminded of some longstanding ones, which is great. There’s always room for amazing food finds.
Similar to the baffling ongoing dialogue about the price of eggs when compared to the frenzy of purchasing Beyonce tickets, I had so many questions about two opposing thoughts ‚ one of abundance in food and the other of scarcity. There is a point when not having the correct options means that efforts to minimize waste actually increases it.
On the one hand, I was offered the chance to select a box from a large pallet of cookies from the Too Good Gourmet Bakery. On the other side, I was not allowed to select from the mountain of remaining food, and was handed a large plate of pork that I couldn’t consume. Refining the app to just show vegetarian or vegan options limits choices even further: there was only one location offering plain rice, and meals involving fresh produce or leafy greens were in remarkably short supply. The Too Good To Go offerings mirrored a lot of the same concerns raised about government subsidized meals: an over reliance on starches, refined sugar and flour, while fiber and vegetables are largely absent.
With the continuing reports that food banks are struggling to meet the needs of their communities, as well as the new laws reinforcing the reduction of wasting food and the rising costs passed onto the consumers, there’s a lot of potential for local food businesses and Too Good To Go. But right now, its limited local selection, and some venues’ execution, leaves a lot to be desired.
With some clearer guidelines for food service providers on what constitutes food waste and how to dispose of overages, there’s a chance that the mounds of unsold food at the end of the business day could be put to better use — and if Too Good To Go can attract more East Bay businesses into participating, the app could become a useful and nutritious lifeline for anyone looking to cut down on waste and save some money in the process.