Hello, I’m here to pick up my magic bag,’ I say to the man behind the counter. ‘Oooh, here you go’, he replies and passes me a fairly weighty paper bag.
No, I am not a secret Harry Potter fanatic seeking out new magic tricks at 10am on a Thursday morning.
I’m at a small cafe in South London, and the magic bag in question is, in fact, packed with discounted food, including two pastries, two bumper sourdough sandwiches and half a loaf of seeded bread. The entire haul cost me just £3.59 — around £9 less than the usual price.
Cheap as chips: Amelia Murray picks up a food parcel from Simple Health Kitchen in London
So how did I bag this bargain? By simply downloading a mobile phone app that connects hungry customers with local businesses looking to sell leftovers.
The aim is to combat food waste — and The Espresso Cartel is just one of thousands of cafes, hotels, restaurants and supermarkets around the country signed up.
The average UK family throws away nearly a quarter of their weekly shop, according to smartphone app Olio.
As well as around a £730-a-year blow to your bank balance, this is also terrible for the environment. And as households face soaring food prices, there has never been a better time to save.
The first step is to download a free smartphone app called Too Good To Go. Then enter your name, email address and card details to reserve deals. It is funded by businesses who pay a small fee of around £1 per bag sold.
There are 15,257 businesses listed, including household names such as Pret, Greggs and Costa.
There is more choice in larger cities. London has 4,549 stores signed up, whereas there are 313 in Manchester and 57 in York.
There are 15,257 businesses listed in the Too Good To Go scheme, including household names such as Pret, Greggs and Costa
So-called magic bags of food are typically priced between £3 and £7 — around a third of the usual retail price.
Grocery stores, such as Londis and Nisa Local, also advertise cut-price bags of ingredients.
Morrisons Daily in Catford offers collections between 7pm and 10pm, which include fruit, vegetables, cooked meats, baked goods and ‘maybe even cheese’.
They cost £3.29 for £10 worth of goods. After clicking to reserve your magic bag, you will be given a collection window, which could be all day or as short as 30 minutes.
When you arrive to pick up your bag, tap the ‘collect’ button on the app and show the code provided.
You will not know the exact contents of the bag until you arrive so be wary if you are vegetarian — although a limited number of venues offer veggie bags.
Seven ways to cut waste
- Plan ahead. Check your cupboards and fridge before doing the food shop, make a list of what you need and stick to it.
- Reduce waste by making frequent trips to the supermarket or grocery store rather than bulk-buying once a week.
- Challenge yourself to use all the food from the previous trip before buying more. Designate days to eat leftovers — which should be stored in clear containers to stop you forgetting them in the fridge — or freeze them.
- Check the use-by dates of food while in the supermarket and buy products with the longest expiry dates to give you time to eat them.
- Use apps such as Nosh and NoWaste, which help you keep track of what food is in your fridge and cupboards so you can eat it before it goes off.
- Other apps, including Kitche and SuperCook, will help you make the most of your leftovers by suggesting recipes for meals based on the food you already have.
- Check your fridge temperature. It should be between 0c and 5c (32f-41f) to keep food fresh.
If you change your mind, you can cancel without charge within two hours of the collection time.
The idea is a win-win. Restaurants can make a little money selling leftovers that would otherwise be thrown away, while customers can make great savings.
But in practice, the food parcels can be hit and miss.
After skipping home to unpack my morning haul from The Espresso Cartel, I was very pleased with the results.
The bread was fresh and the vegetables still crunchy in the sandwiches. The croissant and pain au chocolat were a little dry, but they recovered well in the oven.
I was also impressed with Mirch Box, a new food stall near Shoreditch, East London. For £5, I received freshly cooked chicken biryani, dal and some curried potatoes straight from the pan which would usually sell for around £16.
The average UK family throws away nearly a quarter of their weekly shop, according to smartphone app Olio
The next cafe I tried cancelled my order because it had run out.
But another branch down the road promised freshly made vegan salad boxes — ‘think Dijon quinoa, Greek lentil salad, cauliflower rice and so much more’ — for £2.59. But all I received was a small box of broccoli and boiled potatoes.
And when I picked up a £3.99 bag from another cafe chain, the Mexican bean wrap was very soggy.
Another app, Karma, allows businesses to list exactly what items are leftover so you know what you are buying. It has 500 restaurants listed, but I couldn’t find any deals near me.
The app Olio has around 4.78 million global users who list food products they no longer want for others to collect for free.
Alongside groceries, there were some bizarre items such as Wild boar pate from Fortnum & Mason — but ‘a little bit only’ — and half a pack of Haribo Goldbears.
But anything that stops us wasting food — and our money — has to be a good thing.
Although it can be easy to get carried away. The apps offer a fun alternative to your usual takeaway, but if you do not typically buy meals out, even getting one at a discount is an extra expense.
And be sure not to pick up more than you can eat or it defeats the whole exercise.