One evening six months ago, Josh Domingues was buried in paperwork at his wealth management company in downtown Toronto. His sister Paula, a chef who freelances for catering companies, suddenly called him in tears. She was upset and angry because she'd just been instructed to throw away $4,000 worth of clams, and shortly after was walking by homeless people who could have used those leftovers.
"Paula was so frustrated, she ended up leaving this company because she couldn't deal with throwing out perfectly good food on a regular basis," Domingues told me. "Her frustration inspired me to look into the issue of food waste."
Shortly after, he quit his job to work on a new app called Flashfood. The free app, slated for an August 1 launch, will connect consumers with food at restaurants and groceries that would otherwise end up in the dumpster. Grocery and restaurant staff can take a photo of food that's close to its best-before date, offering it at a steep discount (at least 50 percent off), and alerting app users of the food up that's for grabs via notifications.
If you turn on notifications for a grocery store or restaurant near where you live, or a specific type of food—say, pastries or meats—your phone will be pinged when that retailer has the item you're after for sale. You can then view the photo, a description of the food on sale, and what it's selling for. After paying with a credit card, you're given a confirmation code to show the retailer, and the goodies are yours.
So far, 15 restaurants have signed up with Flashfood, including King Slice, a pizza and pasta place. Domingues says he's close to signing a major grocery chain too, but could not disclose any details yet.
He plans to launch in Toronto first, and then scale it across Canada by 2017.
"Our goal is to end hunger, " Domingues said eagerly. "I know it sounds crazy, but by utilizing the sharing economy and creating a sustainable company, I believe we can expand our service to the point where we can help those less fortunate."
Domingues' goal is ambitious, when you look at the stats: the value of Canada's food waste is estimated at $31 billion, up from $27 billion in 2010, according to a 2014 report. The figure could actually be much higher, it continues, if these researchers had included institutions such as hospitals, schools and prisons in their calculations.
Looking at the global picture, if food waste were a country, it would be the world's third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind the US and China, reports National Geographic.
Domingues points out that "the biggest issue with food waste is logistics. If a food company wants to donate its food, there are costs of transportation and preservation issues." His app, he believes, goes a long way to solving those problems.
The business model works on a revenue split, with 75 percent of the consumer's payment going to the retailer and 25 percent to Flashfood. There's no cost for vendors to sign up, and Flashfood will provide participating grocery stores with iPads to take photos of the food available for "flashsale."
Joining the client list is Portuguese restaurant Alex Rei Dos Leitoes, which is known for its barbecue chicken. Manager Nuno Frank Bento told me that he was impressed by both the app's business model and the idea "that we can avoid throwing out food."
"We already pride ourselves on reducing food waste, but this will help our restaurant even more," he continued.
Flashfood's idea isn't entirely novel: PareUp is a New York City app allowing retailers to list discounted food items that day, but unlike Flashfood there is no way to purchase through the app and it works on a first-come-first-serve basis.
In Montreal, Ubifood connects retailers to consumers who want price-reduced food hovering close to best-before dates, and so far it's only available for Montreal cafés, bakeries and organic food stores.
To allay any anxiety about the app listing expired food, Domingues stressed that retailers can't sell anything past its expiry date. He says some retailers will offer sales on food items two to three days before the best-before date, and some stores may have sales hours prior to an item's best-before date.
Annette Synowiec, Toronto's manager of waste management planning, applauds the app's intention. "There's room for everyone to get better at waste reduction," she says, "and if there is a technological tool to help do that and it can save someone money, that's a step in the right direction."