Bridging the Gap

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For those who know us, or have seen us in the press, Rethink is generally known for where it sources food. Those are the high-end restaurants, of course, that used to dispose unused ingredients we now turn into some 5,000 + meals per week. But there’s the other end of the spectrum that gets far less attention: our community service organization (CSO) partners. Rethink’s unique approach to food distribution, it turns out, can make all the difference in the world to these outfits — and hopefully, the whole system of serving those in need.

On the surface at least, a lot of distribution services do things that are similar to us. They collect food from different vendors and they distribute it directly to organizations as quickly as they possibly can. But this is the old model. What Rethink does differently is actually cater towards these CSOs. We work with them hand-in-hand, day after day, to make sure they have the best products; the best food for what they need.

In doing all this, we made an important discovery. While it wasn’t in our original business plan, we realized we were saving our CSO partners tens of thousands of dollars every month. That’s because under the old model, each distributor drops off a wide range of foods that the organization then needs to pull together into meals. They need volunteers to organize all this, to cook the meals, to serve the food. Only, that isn’t point of a community service organization. This is not even their main goal. Their main goal is to help people get back on their feet, lift them up — the things that we at Rethink don't do. 

CSOs offer tons of services, including helping people find homes and convening policy events that actually help make sure that the halfway houses and the quarter way houses that are in New York City are treating their residents fairly. For them, their food operation is simply there to get people in the door so that they can talk to them about about these services that they're providing. Their goal is to teach financial literacy, help on drug rehabilitation, provide trainings and so on. It’s not about collecting food or managing a kitchen or spending resources on any of this.

So one organization alone that we work with spends around $50,000 - $60,000 a year on something Rethink can now reduce or entirely limit. And that’s true for our other seven partners, which comes to roughly a potential savings of more than $400,000 year to them. And in a larger sense, by consolidating all the preparation and managing to our one person, and eliminating all the trucking and man hour delivery costs of all their distributors, we believe the Rethink approach can completely rewrite the budget for serving food to the needy in New York and beyond. 

This essentially makes every dollar you donate supercharged because not only does it go directly towards helping the Rethink team produce meals, it also goes towards cutting costs for the nonprofit organizations receiving and distributing our meals. So what are you waiting for? Become a monthly donor today and help us help fix philanthropy — one systematic change at a time. 

Safety First: Kitchen & Food Safety at Rethink

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While slightly cooler temperatures come as a welcome change for city dwellers braving it out in the oppressive August heat, experienced New Yorkers know that there are at least a couple more heat waves in store before summer’s end. And in the business of food safety, which is a topic always at the top of Rethink’s mind, this means extra attention to a critical issue: the proper handling and storage of donated foods. 

Rethink works with some of the finest restaurants in the city, and these restaurants naturally follow all city health code laws and rely on staff specially trained in safe food preparation. But until Rethink’s trucks rolled in, food safety for the many ingredients the kitchen didn’t use didn’t really exist; they were just tossed to keep the next day’s menu fresh -- leaving it up to the Rethink team to not only safely store and handle but also process the donated food. 

On the transportation side of things, Rethink was faced with another unique challenge. While other food rescue organizations typically only accept raw or uncooked foods, Rethink was the first to start accepting foods categorized by the NYC Department of Health as Potentially Hazardous Foods (PHFs)  -- aka foods like raw meat, dairy, and cooked pasta that could potentially support the rapid growth of microorganisms. This means that having refrigerated trucks to transport food from point a (the restaurant) to point b (the Rethink kitchen) isn’t merely preferable but absolutely necessary for ensuring that all PHFs are kept at or below the critical limit of 41°F. 

Additionally, because these foods are going from point a (the restaurant) to point b (the Rethink kitchen) so that they can be cooked into meals by a team of chefs before being delivered to point c (the community service organization), Rethink’s kitchen staff is held to the same city health code laws as its food donor partners. That’s a whole other league of care typical food rescue organizations that simply transport food from point a (the restaurant) to point b (the community service organization) can skip but Rethink’s in-house preparers can’t. 

Because food and kitchen safety is at the core of what we do, best practices at Rethink means requiring Rethink kitchen and driving staff to become food safety certified, even though we are not legally required to do so. Moreover, when it comes down to the most important part of the Rethink process -- delivering meals to those in need -- we provide a guideline for our partners on how to safely serve Rethink meals:

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If it sounds pretty exhausting and detailed, the truth is it is. And it has to be, no matter what time of year. 

Cheers to a New Food Source!

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At Rethink, we pride ourselves in our ability to take virtually any high-end restaurant leftover and process it into a nutritious, ready-to-eat meal for someone in need. Recently, we've taken an even bolder step in that direction by expanding the concept of sustainability into a whole new food group: beer.

Back in April, we launched our first product, 'Rethink Beer,’ with Evil Twin Brewing and The NoMad Bar. Today, August 2nd, marks the highly anticipated release of our 2nd limited edition beer. This time around, Evil Twin Brewing and Rethink have teamed up with Soho House to develop a beer that not only tastes good but utilizes two excess food sources: spent grain from a batch of Evil Twin Brewing NYC DIPA and rinds from citrus juices made by Soho House. And no, we're not planning to add beer to the menu we offer our regular diners, but we have caught on to the idea of cultivating a new source of sustainability — in the form of a new revenue source.

Far from being off-base to our core mission, Rethink Beer follows the Rethink blueprint by manufacturing, branding, and distributing a product at virtually zero cost to us and with a very short lead time. Selling it to the public launches a newfound stream of revenue that will allow us to boost our income, while simultaneously enabling us to become less dependent on outside contributions. Too often we see well-intentioned nonprofits slow down or fail because they become too reliant on private donations and grants. Money which should be used to carry out an organization's primary mission ends up being spent on fundraising and other various overhead costs.

We aim to change this equation by focusing on the shortest way to a common goal. Our path towards self-sufficiency is not meant to deter donors, but resemble at least in part a determined startup that aims to stay in business. And like any good business, we see our product as free advertising to curious buyers who themselves may become donors. Indeed, the launch of the Rethink Beer marks the first of many products we plan to introduce over the next few years. Given all the access we have today to unused food, the options are limitless.

So please, give Rethink Beer a try when it hits Soho Houses nationwide later this month and be sure to let us know what product line ideas you’d like to see us tap into next!

Why Food Metrics Matter

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On paper, it sure can look impressive when you track the food you are serving in pounds. But it is Rethink's mission to rethink all areas of food production for the food insecure — and that includes our food tracking measurement.

It may not seem like a big deal, but try telling someone that being served a pound of watermelon is the same as a pound of chicken. Across the food donation business, this flaw often goes unnoticed because organizations focus more on the weight of the food than its nutritional value. In fact, 1.1 lb. = 1 meal appears to be the industry standard. So in our case, we decided to apply this formula only to food that’s already been processed (chicken + rice +  salad = 1.1 lb. = 1 meal) rather than the unprocessed donations (1.1 lb. watermelon = 1.1 lb. chicken = 1 meal).

In addition to weight, we also began recording volume (1 quart container = 2 meals. 1 hotel pan = 11 quarts). This method factors in density of food and in combination with the weight metric, provides us with an even more comprehensive meal tracking system. However, there are still two important variables this model does not take into account: portion size and nutritional density. Luckily, we have a talented group of people working to overcome such obstacles. 

Our head chef, Felix, for example, is in the process of developing a meal count formula based on portions. It’s not an exact science yet, but the working formula we use when delivering meals to our (Community Service Organization) CSO partners is as follows: 5.75 oz. protein + 5.75 oz. starch + 5.75 oz. veggies = 1 meal. Our sustainability associate, Kathleen is also hard at work trying to determine exactly how many people our CSO partners feed with Rethink food. She visits each CSO and records 1. What a plate (meal) looks like on site for each CSO and 2. How many meals are actually served on an average basis. This information allows us to be more reflective of our partners and ensure we are recording data that accurately captures the real on the ground ops.

Ultimately, we envision a meal tracking system that includes food-out-the-door (aka processed food) metrics to capture nutritional density, as well as portions and numbers of meals served. Moreover, we aim to transition our database from an excel sheet into something more centralized and better tailored to our needs — by creating a custom-made app. As our organization grows and we begin accepting a wider variety of food, accurate meal-tracking becomes increasingly difficult, but we remain confident in our ability to someday create a scalable model for communities everywhere to look to for inspiration. 

How We Got Here: Response to a Problem

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Our organization was born out of the desire to solve a problem. During his culinary career, Matt Jozwiak, had become all too familiar with how much perfectly good restaurant food was going to waste. He had also become aware and concerned about a major issue in food policy: the restaurant industry's surprising lack of understanding about what can and cannot be donated.

Each year, in New York City alone, over one million tons of food goes to waste because of everything from poor storage to a lack of access to donation services. In his case, as an experienced chef in the fine dining industry, he could see a particular issue with the higher end establishments, which buy and dispose of fresh ingredients every day. It didn’t take long for Matt to realize that he was not alone in his frustration. People across the entire food supply system — from farmers to restaurant owners to diners — were fed up with the way things were.

Out of this collective exasperation, we founded Rethink. It was a simple response to two simple, albeit difficult, problems: food excess and insecurity. Our approach has always been to rely on out-of-the-box, solution-oriented thinking. It's instilled in everything we do. And no matter how much we grow, we will continue to work reflexively. To listen to feedback from team members and partner organizations and take action accordingly, so that our model never stops self-correcting.

One of the core challenges we faced early on was dealing with misinformation about food safety and liability within the culinary world. Many restaurants were eager to donate but were hesitant because they were nervous about their foods becoming perishable and causing food-born illnesses. To curb these fears, we put together an extensive list of protocols, including visual, taste, weight and temperature logging of all ingredients to ensure no time-temperature abuse of food. Additionally, all Rethink employees are now required to get their health food handlers licenses and ServSafe certifications, and we have a food safety specialist on retainer who liaises between Rethink and food donors' kitchen to ensure they are able to maximize the amount of food they can donate, as well as improve upon our own sustainability initiatives. 

A year later and while the obstacles we face these days are less about making a name for ourselves and more about maximizing our impact, the fluidity with which we respond to them remains. Whether it’s creating new jobs based on our needs as an organization rather than just hiring someone for a role because said role exists at every other nonprofit, or surveying diners to better tailor our meals towards the varying taste preferences and dietary restrictions of different communities, we are always aiming to improve our operations — and problem-solving.

Building a Network: Breaking Bread = Building Trust

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As a food provider, Rethink will always be tied and linked to the thousands of people who enjoy our meals. But as we evolve, we know our true purpose is to serve a different group: the organizations that are serving our meals in cafes, community centers, and mobile soup kitchens across the city. The better we understand and help these Community Service Organizations (CSOs), the greater good we provide. After all, it is these organizations that have managed to foster meaningful connections with the people most underserved by our current food system: the food insecure of NYC.

Realigning our priorities this way, Rethink is going all in on our very specific part of the supply chain — creating delicious, nutritious food and transporting it to CSOs so that they can more easily serve their community members. It all comes down to the simple economic principle of specialization, where one link in the supply chain is no more important than another, and organizations reach their highest potential through collaboration. The community leaders who head these NY-based CSOs for example, bring years of experience to the table and offer a young startup like Rethink valuable insight into all the considerations — be it taste preferences, packaging, etc. — that must be taken in order to make the best informed decisions possible. 

In an effort to encourage more of this inter-organizational bonding, we recently began hosting community dinners. These gatherings are an opportunity to (quite literally) break bread and learn from CSO staff, who share our vision of a NYC where every resident goes to bed properly nourished. We've also deployed our staff to work on the front lines of serving meals, as a tool to better understand each other. Together, we have the collective infrastructure and expertise to create more long-lasting social impact than any one organization would be able to generate independently. So cheers to breaking bread; to broadening our horizons as individuals and organizations; and to knowing that there is strength in numbers. 

Accidents Happen: Troubles with Distribution and the Rethink Ethos

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No matter how much planning goes into something beforehand, it’s impossible to foresee — let alone prevent — every possible scenario that could go wrong. This concept holds especially true when operating a business. The best a company’s decision-makers can do in the aftermath of such an unanticipated dilemma is remain flexible, communicate effectively with all involved parties, and take action in a timely manner. Once the immediate fire has been extinguished, a more thorough investigation can be launched to help answer some of the bigger picture questions:

1. What kind of structural failings allowed such an occurrence to happen in the first place?

2. What procedural changes need to be put into place to prevent repeat occurrences?

The more prep-work that goes into setting guidelines with partner organizations early on, the easier tackling these types of questions will be down the line. For example, the two-page Distribution Partner On-Boarding document we currently share with new clients is a vastly improved version of the bare bones document we used at the onset of operations, back when we were a less knowledgeable organization with fewer resources. Today’s on-boarding document is comprehensive yet to-the-point, guided by our team’s collective experience and expertise. It clearly and concisely outlines the five key steps required for a successful Rethink food drop-off:

1. The Intro Conversation

2. The Food Safety Certification

3. Cooling & Storage

4. The Walk-Through

5. The Signed Liability Agreement

Each completed drop-off up to this point has provided valuable feedback, and whether negative or positive, such insights have enabled us to create and fine tune the on-boarding procedure we use today. But despite having this highly effective tool for the on-boarding process, mistakes still happen and new improvements can and should always be made.

Just last weekend, the Rethink team had an issue getting the right food to the right place on time. As you may or may not know, every meal created at Rethink is nutritionally complete, featuring a range of veggies, starches, proteins, etc.. Due to extenuating circumstances, the culinary team did not have a protein source available to them that particular Saturday and ended up creating a batch of incomplete meals, which were subsequently dropped off to one of our distribution partners. The partner in question does amazing work overseeing multiple soup kitchens, nonprofits, and community service organizations and doesn't have time to spare for such silly snafus. They teamed up with us because we guaranteed to make their lives easier, just like we do with all of our clients. Unfortunately, due to an oversight on our part, a mistake was made and the very people we intended to help ended up being inconvenienced.

In order to prevent situations like this from happening again, the Rethink team devised a series of simple yet effective solutions. For instance, we implemented a policy requiring an extra managerial staff member to be on-site during weekends. Additionally, the Rethink leadership team scheduled an in-person meeting with the partner distribution team to express gratitude for all their hard work, and to make a commitment to do better going forward. Moreover, we hope that keeping an open dialogue ultimately leads us to a more in-depth conversation on best practices between our two organizations. This is of vital importance because when our team is disorganized or miscommunicates directions, we are going against Rethink's entire Simplify the Process ethos. And when the end game is serving food to communities in need, there is simply no room for such errors. Every mistake made must be treated as a lesson; every step backwards as a chance to leap forward the next time around.

Why We're Writing a Blog

Whether it’s a five-minute intro call with a prospective volunteer or a formal business lunch with a corporate sponsor, every conversation at Rethink begins with the simple prompt: “the purpose of this meeting is to...” Only by outlining expectations clearly and concisely can we expect to reach our desired outcomes. The more we grow, the more complicated the challenges we face become. But as long as we are able to break down a given project or problem into something simple and actionable, no task is too big; no dilemma too daunting. Boil it down and you’ll find that virtually every email, event, and phone call taking place at Rethink is intended to help achieve one of two goals: creating meals and raising money to make meals. Take for example our Instagram page. We use this platform to provide updates about the latest happenings at Rethink so that we can raise awareness in a cost-effective manner and keep our existing donor base engaged.

Recently though, we’ve realized that something is missing. As an organization that prides itself on transparency, we feel the time has come to step up our progress sharing game. So, we’ve decided to launch this blog. Like any other topic of conversation at Rethink, we took a clear and simple approach to transform an idea from concept to reality. Just last week, the team hopped on a conference call that began with the words: “The purpose of this meeting is to hammer out the expectations and responsibilities of the Rethink blog.” Essentially, this blog will serve as a model for other organizations who want to do what we’re doing. We want to develop a toolkit full of free, open-source information on the lessons we’ve learned.

Having developed a streamlined technique for picking up excess food and processing it into ready-to-eat meals, Rethink has tapped into something that has the ability to change the world. But widespread change will only ensue once we begin sharing our ever growing artillery of knowledge with outsiders. By detailing our ups and downs in a blog format, we believe that we will be able to increase our reach and, ultimately, empower others to start enacting change within their own communities. Knowledge is power and in this case, the information we plan to share through this blog will give readers the power to reduce excess and create meals for those in need. So be sure to stay tuned for our bi-monthly posts so that you can to get the inside scoop on everything from food safety to fundraising. And remember, not all superheroes wear capes. Some of them read blogs and take action accordingly.