While in Copenhagen at the World Food Summit in August, I took the time to accomplish a long-desired goal – paying a visit to WeFood.
WeFood is an innovative Danish supermarket that contributes to the food waste reduction challenge by capturing surplus food items from the system – food that would otherwise likely go to waste – and selling it at discounted prices (a 30-50% reduction) at three locations.
I recall the excitement generated when the first WeFood store was opened in early 2016, and the store still gets considerable international and local media attention. I was anxious to join a tour and learn about how it was performing nearly four years later. I was not disappointed.
WeFood’s Frank Peterson gave a tour of the store, which is surprisingly compact, and provided great insight into the store’s operating model, successes, and challenges.
WeFood recognizes that retailers will always have some level of waste. Thus, they seek to reduce food (and other) waste by providing a diversion outlet to producers for overruns and excess material, thereby providing the structure and process for this material to be put to the best possible use. And while food is the primary focus, the stores do sell non-food items as well – such as Christmas ornaments, board games, and magazines. In so doing, they provide additional options to consumers at low cost (enhancing store traffic), prevent material from going to landfill, and earn revenue to fund ongoing operations. There are no restrictions for consumers, the store is open to all, seven days a week.
Regarding food items, Frank noted that WeFood is still the only store in Denmark that can handle food after its “best before” date (while others could do it, he feels that it’s easier for them at this time to utilize WeFood). The stores usually get food items that are one to two months ahead of their best before date. Items that have moved beyond their best before date are tested weekly, with employees using their senses (ex. smell). WeFood even has a very visible tasting table, where customers can taste samples of such food items to enhance their comfort level in buying them. Items beyond the “use before” date cannot be sold which regulators monitor through an annual visit.
Pricing of items is a balancing act between maximizing revenue and moving goods. The stores must be able to free up space for new material to continue to attract customers, and they need to be able to continually take in material from vendor partners in order to keep relationships intact. At the same time, WeFood doesn’t wish to contribute to the waste problem by staging material that cannot sell. Overall prices are substantially discounted from normal retail rates, and when fresh food reaches its best before date, the price is lowered sharply every day to promote sale and consumption versus waste.
In terms of partners, WeFood has 40-50 core suppliers from whom they get material on a weekly basis, and the products vary. Again, due to space constraints, they must constantly consider how much of any one item that they can accept based on available space. They do have additional storage in the form of rented warehouse space, where they pay storage fees on a per-pallet basis for large quantities of dried goods, and they access a warehouse for frozen seafood on a weekly basis as well. They hope to be able to have their own warehouse storage space in the future.
By Danish law, WeFood cannot obtain their products for free, they must pay some amount (although it doesn’t matter how little, the payment is symbolic). Payment might even be just in the form of covering freight costs, or paying for one pallet out of several, or even just one Euro – but some element of payment must occur, and WeFood handles the accounting. Many producers aren’t looking to make excess money on what is diverted to WeFood, but simply seek to move inventory and may only ask for transportation costs (or less).
WeFood rewards partners with positive press in the form of social media posts for significant transfers of material. They also have some anonymous donors, as well as “special” receipts which could include production defects (ex. items that are in need of proper labels, which WeFood will affix) and even new product test items (such as sports drinks) which were produced but not released to market.
WeFood is a lean operation, they only employ two individuals to manage the three stores – all others are volunteers (as Frank noted, it’s the only way that they can currently operate the model). The stores pay normal market rent, for example, so there is a great need to minimize operating costs – and their large number of volunteers (up to 200) is critical to minimizing otherwise high labor costs and driving initial success. Essentially, the volunteer force is giving them time to learn how to run the stores and expand intelligently.
Frank recognizes that WeFood is not a prevention solution, but a waste reduction solution that focuses on getting excess products to their best use possible. They don’t focus solely on high nutrition items, as does Daily Table in Boston, but instead leave the choice about products to the consumer. That said, WeFood plays a strong education role on waste reduction by providing an alternative market for products, allowing consumers to taste and gain comfort with food that is beyond its best before date (gaining understanding that it doesn’t instantly go bad on hitting a specific date) and generally educating customers and their children (including schools) about the importance of not wasting food.
Further, beyond its overall framing of diverting products to optimal use versus landfill, WeFood provides additional lessons in circularity. Some portions of leftover food are used to feed hens on rooftops in the city (for egg production), while others are used for bioenergy.
And WeFood connects with consumers in different ways. Some customers come largely out of social and environmental interest, while others are mainly interested in price.
To sum, I was very impressed with WeFood’s operation – specifically the energy level, the level of commitment to doing good on multiple fronts, the strong volunteer base, the educational and circular aspects, and the sheer magnetism of the operation. It’s a small, but special place, and there is a clear vibe that those involved are part of something much larger – an innovative approach to reducing food waste and more. This is more than just food waste diversion, it is a creative way to advance circularity principles. The element of volunteerism is strong, and volunteers from other countries learn language and work skills to help them assimilate while also learning about the power of advancing social and environmental causes.
Ultimately, WeFood is reducing food waste, providing alternative uses for products, educating consumers (and school kids) on food quality with respect to date labels, educating (and providing valuable work experience for) a large number of volunteers, advancing a culture of responsible consumption, and promoting circularity through the sales of its products and through the handling of its own waste.
And finally, there’s a powerful added element of circularity, in that net earnings from WeFood’s operations go toward funding the charitable works of DanChurchAid in less developed countries.
And there’s a lot to like about that.