Tales from a food waste restaurant

Meet Nikki Dravers. She runs a pop up restaurant in Durham, serving just waste food. Anyone is invited to the table to eat.

At twenty minutes before doors open, the kitchen fills with volunteers.

There’s Tabitha, Sylvie, Benjamin and Julia – smiling as she makes the desserts look delectable. There are the two little girls eager to be praised for carrying some plates to guests, and the two international students who look baffled at how fast I’m talking. There’re a couple of people who wandered in ten minutes ago to ask if we needed help serving and I’ve awkwardly already forgotten their names.

There’s Nick, poised and ready to drill the servers into action, only a slight hint of panic in his eyes. There’s Graham and Gareth, the stalwarts, bemusedly observing the chaos. There’s Mim, tired from the numerous life crises she’s already had to mediate, determinedly positive and ready to shine and charm our guests as they arrive in swathes.

As I start my rant, bossily laying out the plans and delegating dishes, tasks and roles to whoever warily volunteers themselves, I’m struck with amazement at this unlikely team. People from vastly different backgrounds, ages and life experiences, standing together in solidarity. All with different reasons to be in this kitchen, but all with a common task and a common spirit of positive – it’s infectious and unstoppable.

The orders stack up and the kitchen heats up, voices are raised, sauces are spilled and potatoes are undercooked. But there’s a moment amongst the heat where I come up for air, where I take a breath and recognise what a miracle this is.

None of us have ever had experience in a commercial kitchen, and just this morning the menu was put together, all from food that was labelled for the bins, boxed and crammed into my car with trepidation.

‘What the heck are we going to do with all those cabbages?’

We’re now plating up dishes that look, smell and taste amazing, and they are being served to members of the public, who are paying to be here, and enjoying themselves. It’s hard to believe, yet also somehow feels so natural, and makes so much sense. 

“The kingdom of heaven has come near….”

How it all begins

This day started with an early morning drive around all the local supermarkets, collecting crates and boxes of fresh fruit, vegetables, bread, cakes and tins – all that had been labelled unfit for human consumption.

Later, as I unpack the food from my car –  blushing red tomatoes, bright green cabbages, crunchy ripe apples, bread loaves, boxes of cereal, fresh prawns – I think of transformation. Instead of being labelled as ‘no good’ and becoming waste, this food is feeding people, and creating this vibrant community.

I pick up a colourful red pepper from a box of twenty of them, ‘This, this is the stone the builders rejected.’

And I have come to see that we are like that too – the volunteers and all the guests who come to our events. Each of us, at some point, might have been rejected, for being too young, too poor, too old, too clever, not clever enough, too deluded, too crazy, too difficult, too sick. Yet here we are, together, united and equal over a shared meal.

The night goes on, and soon the serving becomes a dance.

‘Two soups to table 4’

‘Chicken salad and a stuffed pepper please’

‘How is the bread doing in the oven?’

‘Vegan option for table 9, no cheese’

‘That’s the last of the casserole’

We settle in and enjoy the thrill of the dance.

Occasionally I have to be reminded that Jo has been faithfully drying up for over an hour and could do with a break, or that Julia has not sat down or eaten anything since midday, and I feel guilty. But there is always someone to step in. I just go outside and ask whether anyone would like to pay for their meal by giving their time. That’s Pay As You Feel.

This food is not free, or worthless – it has value way beyond its price tag. And so does every person here, way beyond the coins in their pockets or the label they’ve been given. Give this food value by giving your time, energy and talents.

Whenever I get a quick chance to peek outside the kitchen I’m overwhelmed at the number of people, the joyful atmosphere. The glimpse of crazy Donald the homeless guy dancing to the band with a couple of students, the middle aged hippies enjoying our vegan options, or the tattooed ex-offenders singing along to a funked-up rendition of Amazing Grace and helping themselves to the mountain of boxes of mince pies at the food shop.

This is church.

This is a place where those that are hungry are fed. Those that are thirsty, drink. Because Jesus ate with prostitutes, beggars and tax collectors, and welcomes everyone to the table. Freely we receive, freely we give. 

You too can make a difference by using your food to the full. Ask your supermarket to half their food waste and pledge to reduce yours. 


    What an inspiring initiative but how do you prevent food inspectors from shutting you down?

    Hi Tony! We only serve food past it’s best before date which is about quality not safety and is perfectly legal. We don’t serve anything past it’s Use By date, which is about safety, except for one clever thing we’ve been given permission to do- supermarkets like Marks & Spencers can freeze products on the day of their use by date and add a “+ 1 month” sticker, so that as long as we keep it frozen and defrost safely we can use it within that extra month.
    Often food we serve is well within it’s date, we get food for a variety of reasons which can also be to do with packaging errors, taking products off sale for some reason, mis-shapen fruit and veg, etc. It’s all good to eat and mad that it’s being thrown away!

    Amazing !!!!!!! More people should be doing this. God provides enough for all. It is our fault that food is wasted. I never throw anything away, not even the tiniest crust. We have a responsibility as Christians to set an example.
    When are supermarkets going to change their labelling and get rid of these ridiculous sell-by date policies.

    What an inspiring story! Eye much after my own heart as I abhor the amount of food waste both in the homes of friends and family (don’t worry I don’t say anything, just look disapproving!) and by supermarkets and food outlets.
    Keep pushing the message!

    Thanks Anne!

    How brilliant-my eyes are full of tears for amazing people. Well done. I am currently in the process of getting 25 people to sign the petition as well. Let’s keep going.

    Where is this in Durham?

    Hi Judy!
    At the moment we “pop-up” once a month in lots of different venues. Our next event is this Friday at North Road Methodist Church, 6-8pm, come along if you can!
    We’re working on opening a full-time cafe in Chester-le-Street, at the top of the high street.
    Follow us on facebook or send me you email address for our mailing list to find out about our upcoming events! facebook.com/refusecic

    I think this is brilliant! I waste as little as I can, my food waste bin has only peelings and egg shells in it and if I had a bigger garden and room for a compost bin or heap my bin would be empty!
    Best before dates need to be scrapped, they have almost single-handedly caused this mountain of discarded food. These schemes need to pop up in every town and city.

    This is great! Keep up the good work. I have a question – does anyone know what Sainsbury’s does with their leftover food? Some friends of mine run a food bank and a lot of the supermarkets are really supportive but not Sainsbury’s. Why?