McKinsey food system study helps drive over $65 million to small restaurants

Matt Jozwiak spent years as a chef at some of the most legendary restaurants in New York City and abroad, where he marveled at the efficiency of kitchens systematically producing perfect dishes night after night. But he was also troubled by the amount of good food that would go to waste. At one restaurant, Matt and fellow cooks threw out every romaine leaf to get to the last two baby leaves. And if those two weren’t facing each other, they couldn’t be plated and went in the trash.

“I’m really inspired by practicality and execution. As I saw how much food was thrown away, I wondered if this fine dining precision existed in the emergency food space,” says Matt. “I quickly discovered that it didn’t and became obsessed with building a system that delivered food equitably and sustainably. I thought it was the most basic thing I could do—help take this food and ensure I can get it to somebody.

Matt Jozwiak
Matt Jozwiak, founder and CEO, Rethink Food
Matt Jozwiak

Matt left the kitchen and founded Rethink Food in 2017 in New York City, a nonprofit working to bridge the gap between excess food and the communities that need it. It has since donated over 24 million meals and rescued over 2.4 million pounds of food from being wasted.

What began as primarily a food rescue operation evolved into also providing small grants to restaurants to make meals for places like community centers and shelters. Historically, food is trucked into these facilities from large industrial kitchens outside New York City. Keeping food delivery local not only cuts down on emissions but supports neighborhood businesses and offers immigrant and ethnic communities food they know and like.

“Instead of bringing in generic food from Pennsylvania to a senior center in Chinatown, we supported local restaurants to make the meals that match the needs and cultural preferences of the local community,” says Matt. “It just makes so much sense.”

To scale this, Rethink Food would have to secure food contracts from New York City to provide meals at even more sites, such as schools. Could their model work on a large scale? That’s where McKinsey’s study came in.

Tejas Shah
Tejas Shah, McKinsey partner
Tejas Shah

“We put the data behind Rethink Food’s thesis that this local-sourcing model has many benefits,” says Tejas Shah, a McKinsey partner in New York who led the pro bono team that conducted the study. The team developed a framework to compare and measure Rethink Food’s decentralized restaurant network to the centralized catering model by conducting a series of interviews and integrating insights from case studies and analyses to understand the impact of Rethink’s model and scaling potential.

Having partnered with Rethink Food in 2020 to help respond to the major disruptions COVID-19 brought to restaurants and food systems in New York City, McKinsey believed in the organization’s model.

“Rethink Food is pioneering a new way of addressing food insecurity that could potentially revolutionize how we solve this problem,” says Tejas.

containers of cooked good with garnish
containers of cooked good with garnish

The study’s positive findings were exciting, but not surprising to the McKinsey team: the same dollar of funding for buying meals creates 50 percent more jobs through the Rethink model than the large-caterer model, and 75 percent of those jobs are local to New York City.

“The city could be spending its food contract dollars on supporting local businesses and creating jobs,” says Tejas. “That’s quite significant.”

The study also found that Rethink Food’s model delivers a higher share of funding to minority- or women-owned businesses, and the proportion of minority-identifying staff is more than 95 percent at Rethink Food restaurant partners. This diversity allows Rethink Food to offer culturally appropriate food, with 13 different cuisines on offer currently—though Matt has found that across cultures, “everyone likes pizza.”

The study has been a major boon to Rethink Food, giving it a basis to talk to key stakeholders. It has helped secure contracts that have flowed $65 million to small business owners since the launch of the study.

“We have restaurants calling every day wanting to work with us. All we need are the contracts and the funds,” says Matt. “The study is getting us there by showing that our model can be successfully scaled. That impact is huge.”

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