Matt Jozwiak – Rethink Food – Ep 44
Matt Jozwiak, CEO at Rethink Food
In this episode of “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork,” we’re joined by Matt Jozwiak from Rethink Food, who we’ll talk to about how his New York-based, Nonprofit organisation has been a valuable tool in locally creating a sustainable and equitable food system while also combating food insecurity.
[00:00:00] Mitchell Denton: Hi there, and welcome to “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork,” the PostHarvest podcast that interviews people of interest across the food supply chain. Today on our show, I’m joined by Matt Joswiak from Rethink Food. Who I’ll be talking to about how his New York-based, nonprofit organisation has been a useful tool in locally creating a sustainable and equitable food system.
So with no further delays, let’s get started.
Well hello, Matt. How are you?
[00:00:26] Matt Jozwiak: Good. How are you?
[00:00:27] Mitchell Denton: I’m really good, thanks. Before we get into things, I just wanted to ask if you could tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do and maybe a fun fact about yourself.
[00:00:36] Matt Jozwiak: Sure. Sure. Sure. Um, my name is Matt Joswiak. I’m the founder and CEO of Rethink Food. Um, I run an organisation called Rethink Food based in New York. What we do is our mission is to create a more sustainable and equitable food system. So we do that two ways. One, we use excess food to make meals for local community centres.
And then two, we give out grants to small businesses owned by women and people of colour. To make meals for their local community centres and a fun fact is I have a St. Bernard named Root Beer.
[00:01:07] Mitchell Denton: Root beer, okay. What’s the origin of that name?
[00:01:12] Matt Jozwiak: You know, it’s, I was drinking a root beer and I was thinking about what I should name my dog and I was like, I should name it after something that I like some, you know, things that I like and I’m thinking like, I really like Root Beer and that’s, that’s that.
[00:01:27] Mitchell Denton: Wow. Okay. Well, I mean, I get it. I love myself some root beer as well. So, great name, great name. All right then. So you’ve been in the food industry for almost all your life. Would you mind giving the listeners a quick history lesson on your humble beginnings and the journey that led to Rethink Food?
[00:01:47] Matt Jozwiak: Yeah. So I, um. You know, I started in kitchens when I was like 18, 19, washing dishes, working the overnight shift at a coffee shop, doing like the, the baking for the, you know, like stuff in the window. And, uh, yeah, I did that for like a year and a half or so.
And then I moved to Chicago and just really fell in love with the people and, and the industry and the hospitality and like, the wide range of ingredients I’ve never seen before and passion, the technique, the craftsmanship, all of it. Like I was just completely enamoured. It really felt like, um, the community and the people that I was around, I really felt like I was kind of meant to be there. And then, uh, moved up to Chicago, worked at a couple of restaurants up there.
Doing pastry actually for a while. And then when the recession hit in 2008, um, you know, I really didn’t know what to do with all the fine dining was kind of, you know, done. So I moved up to where I grew up, which is, uh, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And I worked, uh, at a Capitol Grill. I learned a ton. I actually really enjoyed working at the Capitol grill, uh, saved my money and then moved to France with a little help from my dad and, um, worked in the South of France, worked in Léon, trained underneath some incredible chefs, and that’s really where my career kind of got serious.
[00:03:08] Mitchell Denton: Yeah.
[00:03:08] Matt Jozwiak: I really enjoyed it and, uh, learned incredible amounts from the people there. It was just, once again, totally immersed with the culture and the people. Um, and then, uh, was lucky enough to get to go to Noma in Denmark. Worked there for a couple of months till my visa ran out. Um, and then headed home to Milwaukee, and really, you know, this is kind of point in my career where I actually just like, I had no idea what to do.
You know, like, set out and you’re like, “I’m going to go do this thing and work at these great restaurants. And it’s like, now what?” And so I, you know, really kind of jumped into management and started managing people at, uh, a small restaurant downtown Chicago, uh, worked at another restaurant, um, two Michelin star restaurant.
And then finally my friend convinced me to move to New York City and we were doing some like nonprofit work. I worked as a bar back at the Nomad Hotel and Bar. And then when that kind of stopped, since Eleven Madison Park was a part of the restaurant group. Uh, I went over to Eleven Madison Park to be a chef de partie.
[00:04:08] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, wow. And so, from that to Rethink Food, what’s the leap there with going fully into this nonprofit?
[00:04:17] Matt Jozwiak: Yeah, it was, um, gradual, but fast. You know, I really wanted to do something. And I think, I think, you know, it goes back to like everybody kind of like follow your dream and go be a chef or an artist or a painter or whatever. And like, you really follow that thing in your heart. And, um, I realised that the thing that I loved about what I was doing was not the fancy food, which I did enjoy making, it was that being around a group of people that were excited about doing something for somebody else.
And that really got me fired up, so I started doing like a little nonprofit work here and there, and it really energised me. And I was like, “All right, well, I’m going to do this. And let’s talk to some other nonprofits and tried to get involved”, but really realised that there wasn’t anything that matched my skill set.
So while I was at Eleven Madison Park, I kind of started really thinking about it, and I really lived by this ethos every day, which is “Do the thing that needs to be done, not the thing that you want to do.” You get a deep sense of fulfilment from that. So I, I, the one thing that nobody wants to do in the nonprofit space was drive a truck around midtown two, two to four in the morning and bang on the back door of fine dining restaurants and collect their excess food and drive it back to Brooklyn and unpack it at 4 am.
So, uh, so we were doing that?
[00:05:39] Mitchell Denton: It’s funny cause we have, sort of similar backgrounds. I got my start in hospitality as well, I worked in a few different kitchens and I really enjoyed serving people and hospitality in general. But, I don’t have to tell you, you witness a lot of waste as well in that space.
I mean, much as being in the kitchen, you can take measures to try and reduce that waste, just even observing it on the consumer front as well. So, it’s really cool to see you take that leap and take some action, which kind of leads me to ask, would you mind talking about the current state of food insecurity in the US?
[00:06:18] Matt Jozwiak: Yeah. it’s pretty bad. Um, you know, in New York, it’s like one in six face food insecurity. And I think before I kind of dive a little deeper, it’s important to like, understand what that means. And I think there’s a lot of communication problems around how we talk about food insecurity and what it is, you know like one of the most biggest food insecure communities in the United States are college students and people don’t think they are, the homeless or this and that, but it’s really hardworking people and people who don’t have the resources to do that, which is like most people.
I included, I’m sure, you know, 99% of people find themselves at one point in their life really finding it challenging to pay for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. So with that being said, it’s a sizable amount of the population. And it really has to do more with wealth and equality than any other kind of external features.
[00:07:09] Mitchell Denton: So, you mentioned before, Rethink began in New York, but in a short amount of time it’s expanded into Washington DC, San Fran, Chicago, Nashville, Miami. As you continue to scale, what does Rethink’s mission look like going forward?
[00:07:26] Matt Jozwiak: We’re trying to build a community. And I think that in the last six months, we really like kind of got that down. That’s what Rethink is doing, which is like, just people who want to help people to work together. It’s not one size fits all. So, you know, we have restaurants in Miami that fundraise for other restaurants to make meals.
We have, Patchwork that we partner with in Nashville and they fundraise on their own and we help a little bit and Sean Brock helps a little bit, we all put it together. You know, so we’re really just trying to like build the spirit of hospitality entering into the nonprofit world.
Uh, we scale depending on where, uh, the opportunity is.
[00:08:07] Mitchell Denton: So what would you say separates Rethink from other nonprofit organisations?
[00:08:13] Matt Jozwiak: I don’t know. I think there’s a lot that we’ve learned from other nonprofit organisations, but I think the main thing is, you know, Rethink, you know, somebody said, ” We want you to open up in or scale up in Chicago.” We wouldn’t open, probably wouldn’t consider opening a commissary kitchen, but it’s that, you know, we really have this unlimited capacity through our restaurant network and partners, and I also think, I think we’re very, not to say other nonprofits aren’t, uh, but we’re very driven by the needs of the community leaders, and we’d spend a lot of time trying to understand their needs and their demand.
Yeah, so that.
[00:08:48] Mitchell Denton: Okay, okay. So then, what’s something that people seem to misunderstand about nonprofits when it comes to food rescue? Are there any mentalities or mindsets that are largely needing to be shaken?
[00:09:01] Matt Jozwiak: Oh, the whole thing, I mean, I’m…
[00:09:03] Mitchell Denton: Yeah.
[00:09:04] Matt Jozwiak: too, I mean, I think that most people imagine bags of potatoes, taken out of a restaurant and given to homeless people. You know what I mean? Like, I think it’s like the idea of like, what the soup kitchen lines are and what they were when we learned about like the great depression and like all that stuff, you know, like.
It’s not, it’s just not that like, it’s really just about sharing, you know, like it’s not like it’s that simple, you know, and it’s like if somebody who, uh, you know, a really close friend of mine went and volunteered for Rethink and she’s an incredible person and let’s tell a story to prove the point.
And, she kind of coaches me and helps me through challenges of Rethink, and I was talking to her about it, talking to her about it, always talking about it. And she goes and she’s like. In Harlem, she’s like handing out like meals from Manna’s Soul Food, which is incredible soul food restaurant.
And she comes back and she’s like, “Wait, so all you do is like buy thousands and thousands of people lunch every day?” And I’m like, “Yeah, isn’t it sick?” Like, you know, like, like it’s not, it’s just, it literally is about sharing and giving somebody a break. We’ve all been there where you’re like hungry and you’re running to an event or something like that.
Or somebody goes, “Hey, I got you a lunch. Or do you want half of my sandwich or blah, blah, blah,” Like that’s the vibe.
[00:10:29] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, no that’s awesome. So then, with that thought, at what point does attempting to rescue excess food lose its value or become more trouble than it’s worth?
[00:10:39] Matt Jozwiak: Let’s see. I mean, every, every donation is like a question around that, you know, like, and, and sometimes a donation. Anything that’s obviously been out for more than four hours between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, but a lot of its time and place, you know, like we had this, somebody from a Wimbledon watch party or something got cancelled.
And there were like hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of boxed lunches.
[00:11:04] Mitchell Denton: Yeah,
[00:11:05] Matt Jozwiak: Like, we took them because we really needed them then. But if it was like a holiday season or something like that, we just would, you know, there’s, there’s, it’s really kind of. Like the story about when somebody buys you half a sandwich, it’s like, well, if it’s, you know, you’re having that, he offered you that right now, you’d be like, no, I’m drinking my coffee.
So there are some, there are some instances where we don’t need it, but it’s always a discussion and it’s really up to this one incredible person on our team, Carlin, who’s, who’s been with us for a long time. But, uh, yeah, they basically are the decider.
[00:11:37] Mitchell Denton: Okay, okay, interesting. So then, from where you stand, what would you identify as being one of the biggest pain points or blind spots when it comes to food waste in retail and hospitality?
[00:11:49] Matt Jozwiak: The biggest challenges are entirely around communication. You can’t use that, you don’t want that, this nonprofit doesn’t need that, like this whole thing, like, it really is just, I mean, I don’t know if you, in your hospitality journey, if anybody told you like, well actually, um, it might actually be, you might actually have liability where you are, but in the states, there’s no liability, there’s no risk, you could donate a million pounds of chicken and whatever, like, a bunch of people get sick, and like, God forbid that ever happens, but you would never get sued, it would, it won’t happen.
We’re protected, but it’s really just about what you can donate. What does donating look like? You know, also like people have all this food left over at the end of the night in restaurants or events. Like they should really be encouraging their staff to take it home because a lot of hospitality staff, and they live with two or three people.
I used to do this all the time in Bushwick. I would take the food home and we, you know, Frankie bring one thing, Robbie bring the other, and then we’d all sit and kind of have like a little feast.
[00:12:47] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. I think there’s a lot of fog around what can be done here locally in Australia. I, I think there’s a lot of just kind of random myths that kind of float around, around the legality of giving food a second life. And I spent some time working in a kitchen in Canada and it was kind of the same.
I worked in a place where for the longest time we had excess food and we were told that we couldn’t do anything about it, and there was quite a population of homeless people within the area. And. We felt like our hands were tied and then we did some digging and some research. We found out over time that we were more than okay to kind of give them what we had.
So we, we had to do a bit of a tweak and adjustment to how we operated in the kitchen. And we had all this excess food that we could then hand off to the locals. But it just took a bit of digging and a bit of research to kind of demystify, I guess. And I think the same applies to Australia.
[00:13:42] Matt Jozwiak: Yeah, I think it’s a big part of it. I think it really is what, you know, Rethink’s done a lot of really incredible things, I’m really proud of what the team has done. But I think one of the best things our organisation kind of accidentally did was, you know, we take food from Eleven Madison Park, we take food from big institutions. Like, you know, Eleven Madison Park has been one of the best food donors we’ve had, they’ve been with us since day one.
[00:14:07] Mitchell Denton: Hmm. Mm-hmm.
[00:14:09] Matt Jozwiak: And that kind of changes, and so every cook that rolls through there, they understand it. They get it, they get that you can do it. It’s really a huge, it’s really just that mind chef thing.
And so if there’s one beacon that’s like, Oh yeah, well, Rethink figured it out in New York, well, maybe we can figure it out here. That’s the impact that we really hope to have unmeasurable, but we hope we can have.
[00:14:29] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, absolutely. So then are there any particular success stories that you’re particularly proud of?
[00:14:36] Matt Jozwiak: We recently partnered with the city of New York to actually engage in some contracting work that kind of, proved the model out. I have a fun excess food story if you want to hear it.
[00:14:45] Mitchell Denton: Oh, please.
[00:14:46] Matt Jozwiak: So during COVID, um, the first couple of months, you know, New York City’s famous for steakhouses, and this incredible steakhouse, Keens Steakhouse. The dry aging room was like running over because like, obviously they weren’t selling many steaks. So they donated like, I mean, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and thousands, thousands of pounds of porterhouse.
Additionally, the lobster shacks and stuff like that, like little lobster places had all this cryovac frozen lobster. Um, so we were serving surf and turf, steak and lobster, at like the shelters in New York at some of the hardest times, because that’s just what happened in the supply chain.
And that really, you know, it really, that story always makes me really think about value and time and place and like situational about how possible equity actually is in our system and sustainability is in our system and how just sharing and communication can lead to incredible meals, it’s really very possible.
[00:15:49] Mitchell Denton: Absolutely. That’s amazing. See that right there is like a mind shift for me. Cause when you think of food rescue and nonprofits, you think about there’s this like “Crumbs from the Table” type mentality. So to hear like serving surf and turf is absolutely amazing, that’s, that’s really cool.
So on that note, working in the nonprofit space, what’s been the biggest surprise for you?
[00:16:15] Matt Jozwiak: uh, I think the lack of collaboration between agencies and nonprofits, I, you know, and I just, yeah, over time or like when you’re, uh, if people think about like three Michelin star restaurants as being like ultra-competitive, but like, if you wanted to go spend a half day of Per Se or Jean-Georges or like whatever, like as a three Michelin star cook, you can go to these restaurants to go learn.
And when I started Rethink I really wanted to go to other nonprofits and learn and they were like, no, you can’t do, I’m like, I can’t go like work in the office for a day at the other nonprofit? There’s, there’s more of a competitive mindset in nonprofits, which I ultimately think to be honest is, is good because it forces the industry to innovate faster.
So that was shocking. And then, um, it’s also a lot more just like there’s KPIs and quarterly goals. It’s a lot more intense than I think people think it is.
[00:17:04] Mitchell Denton: Okay, well, continuing on this thread, what’s one thing you wish you had known when you began Rethink?
[00:17:11] Matt Jozwiak: You know, there’s a lot, it could fill many, many, many books.
[00:17:15] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, I bet.
[00:17:17] Matt Jozwiak: I think the hardest thing for me, honestly, was like, I didn’t really, you know, I’d only been a cook. I’d only been in service. And so, I really didn’t understand what office people did.
And so it was really hard for me to learn to manage folks that worked in offices and it’s just completely a hundred per cent different. And I don’t think I valued it as much as I should have in the early days.
And I learned about that and like communication and things like that are so important. And so I think that what I’ve learned as a leader is just, you know, giving people, finding really, really good people, setting really clear expectations, but giving them the space to like, just like. You know, you’re a cook, it’s like, you chop a hundred pounds of carrots like that’s what you do. But if you’re in marketing, it’s not like you just make a hundred Instagram posts. Like you have a strategy and you think about building a brand and it’s like, just different, it’s not better. It’s not worse. It’s just different.
[00:18:13] Mitchell Denton: So, as we come to a close, Matt, I just wanted to ask you, what is the major point you really want the listeners to take away from this episode?
[00:18:21] Matt Jozwiak: I’d like listeners to kind of take away that every little thing you do helps and like, you know, if you’re donating 10 bucks to something or thinking about donating your food or bringing it up or whatever, it’s just like, don’t lose sight of the fact that we live in a community. I know sometimes we hang out in our little apartments and think it’s not really a community, but it is.
And you’re, you’re much closer to the cab driver and to the person you see walking down the side of the street. You probably know somebody who knows that person. And so realising that you are actually in a tight-knit community and doing things for your community will not only bring you joy, it’ll create a better city.
[00:19:01] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, I think that’s a great place to leave it. Well, that’s all for today’s episode of Let’s Talk Farm to Fork. Thanks for listening, and thank you, Matt, for joining us.
[00:19:10] Matt Jozwiak: Thank you.
[00:19:11] Mitchell Denton: If you’d like to know more about Matt and Rethink Food, check out the link in the description of this episode. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast so that you never miss an episode, and don’t forget to write a review and share with your friends.
Until next time, you’ve been listening to Let’s Talk Farm to Fork, a PostHarvest podcast.