A new restaurant chain called Leftovers recently opened in downtown San Jose, California. Imagine going to your favorite deli and getting a sandwich with a big bite mark it in; most customers would be confused or infuriated, but not at Leftovers, where, as their catchphrase says, “someone else starts a meal and you finish it.”
“It tastes just as good as other restaurants, we heated it up in the microwave,” said owner Saul Richards, pointing to one customer’s meal.
“Other restaurants are doing the same thing, they just don’t tell you.” In Diesel jeans and a plaid-red dress shirt he looked like he belonged more in a wood shop garage than in a restaurant.
He wiped the beads of sweat off his brow with his rolled up sleeve and told me about hard working American dreams. “It’s enough that these people get some food in their bellies. We don’t believe in reservations
– not for our Indians and not for our restaurants.” Strange and keen comments from a man who is concerned with “eliminating elitist, hipster enabling, restauranteer practices,” such as making customers wait for tables in semi-filled or nearly empty establishments.
“Let’s cut the bullshit,” he said, calling San Jose, the choice location for his first restaurant, “basically just one big parking lot.” Adding that, “restaurants shouldn’t be so pretentious.” I noticed how the dirt brown walls of the restaurant accentuated the dimly lit tables and creaky chairs.
Despite his commitment to microwaving meals he says that, unlike many tourist traps, “our food doesn’t require that you be drunk in order to enjoy it.” Meals are served in doggy bags and plastic take-home containers.
The restaurant plans to be a “three star establishment” and Richards says that, “American’s love mediocre, two-star, food; our place is a step up from that. We strive to serve average food.” Richards has encouraged patrons to join a “dine-and-donate” program where participants donate the leftovers from their meals to the restaurant; the food is then re-sold to other customers.
So far he has about a 90% success rate. Customers are also encouraged to bring in their own leftovers from their homes, other restaurants, and even catered events. And Richards has teamed up with other local businesses to take the food they would otherwise discard.
But where does he draw the line? “Food waste is a huge problem in this country. If it was going to be thrown in a dumpster it should be in my fridge. If it was in a dumpster, well, then it belongs there, I guess.” And although he waxes expressively about free cuisine streams and maximizing revenue streams he knows that the food must be created somewhere, by someone. But he explains, “Business is about building relationships. And people feel good about donating.”
But some customers have expressed concerns about food safety and the inherent sanitary implications involved. Although Richards isn’t worried, “Our kitchens and fridges are glass-paned and open for everyone to view; food isn’t stored for more than three days. And no more than six for baked goods.” But his statements may seem misleading according to some concerned food advocates who say that the food is already three to six days overdue in the first place.
“I don’t pull any punches,” Richards said. His food is clearly marked with age labels. And the oldest food has a 2 inch image of a revolver’s chamber on its packaging
– indicating that customers are playing Russian roulette with their stomachs. “People think it’s funny and they do feel safe knowing that they are making informed decisions.”
Initial Yelp reviews of the restaurant have been mixed. Some are calling the restaurant a charade, while others are praising its home-grown atmosphere and feel. Asked for his response, Richards said, “I don’t take much stock in soft extortion rings masquerading as legitimate review sites.”
And Richards has been approached by both Groupon and Living Social to do “daily deals” to promote his new establishment too. He declined, explaining that, “It’s bad for business in the long run. Those places will get you a lot of customers quickly, but they’re coupon cutters who will take their food home with them.” And his business depends upon people recycling their food back into his fridges.
Top sellers currently include: cold pizza, Chinese take-out, thanksgiving bits, soups, sandwiches, and casseroles. With household budgets, and belts, tightening around the country Richards may be onto a new model of restauranteering.