Meet Haifa People: Shai Rilov, founder of the first Israeli social restaurant

As Israel gets ready to celebrate Global Food Waste Day on March 12, I thought it would be a great idea to interview Shai Rilov, the co-founder and CEO of the first and only social restaurant – Robin Food that serves culinary wonders made of rescued food.

Robin Food takes food surpluses from farms, markets, shops — and with a chef and many volunteers, turns it into delicious meals for the public to help them be aware of the food waste issues and pursue the life of smart consumption.

I went to Robin Food restaurant located in Haifa Talpiot market area to interview Shai. We agreed to meet after work hours so we can have a conversation in a quiet atmosphere. During the work hours the restaurant, a small space with a dining area, food bar, and kitchen, is usually packed with visitors and volunteers. People come here not only for delicious food but, mainly, for the community sense – just to hang out with the other visitors, listen to live music, watch or engage in meaningful conversations.

The restaurant has regular social programs such as Thursday community buffet; Open microphone night, when everyone can bring his or her own musical instrument and perform; movie nights or lecturers with inspiring local community members, who share the same ideas of minimizing unnecessary waste of food and other natural resources.

When I arrived at the restaurant, it was only Shai and one volunteer, who were counting together the day’s numbers – an amount of food cooked, served and donations. Yes, this restaurant is unusual in many ways, people do not pay for the meal; they can give voluntary donations according to how tasty it was, how valuable they think the food is. You are free to donate as much as you can once you finish your meal. Do they manage to be even with such an approach, I wonder. I bet there is not a lack of people, who like to get a hot meal once a day. And the food here is delicious.

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Is Robin Food a charity to feed people in need?

We are not a charity organization. Our idea is not to only feed poor, or needy people.

Our purpose is to cook and serve a tasty meal made of waste food to attract and engage teach people in ideas of sustainable living. We invite all kinds of people to eat, enjoy and experience – from lawyers to students to those less fortunate.

Luckily, donations help us cover our daily expenses. Not all, but we manage. Especially, since last year, when we have a stable physical base – a restaurant that we managed to rent and equip with the money we got from crowdfunding (Robin Food raised 131, 000 NIS in 2018). From time to time we get “larger” donations, not much but we do. Plus, we earn by lecturers, workshops, catering, and cooking contests, you name it. We do it here and everywhere around Israel. We are looking into expanding our funding. Plus, we get a lot of help from volunteers, so it also helps us to save on human resources.

Who are your volunteers and how do you recruit them?

My secondary role in the organization is volunteer coordination. As a founder, I decided to focus on this important field of work since our success is mostly dependent on volunteer resources.

Volunteers come to our place for many reasons. Some are Israelis who care about our cause, love what we do and want to be part of our community of changemakers. There are people, who have heard of the project, how nice and meaningful it is and came from around the world especially to take part.

Such we have international volunteers, who choose to stay in Haifa to help us, they come 5 times a week. We have a unique volunteer hosting system in our organization to support the international volunteers to find lodging. It is usually one of our local volunteers or families hosting them. Also, there are people, who come to eat at our restaurant or attend our community events, and they get inspired by the atmosphere, by what we do here. For them, we have a registry book, where they can sign up to be contacted later when we need help. And we need help always. Plus, we outreach to people through social media, people sign by Facebook, call or write to me. Mostly I personally answer each message.

Where does the restaurant get its food supply?

You mean, where we rescue food?! We have contacts at farms, companies and wholesale markets – the market of the markets, where people sell things by boxes. We go to the downtown market here in Haifa, usually early in the morning, which is actually the end of the day, because they are open all night.

We go to stall owners and talk to them. We pick up things they left aside. Sometimes it is entire pallets full of boxes. All kinds of things that are left behind for aesthetic or logistical reasons, surplus, anything they get rid of.

We take all the food to our place – restaurant, sort and wash them, and put in the fridge. Sometimes we get calls from volunteers, who live outside of Haifa and help us. They contact farmers, who can give us their surplus crops, which is not economical enough to sell it at the markets. Sometimes it’s either vegetables and fruits that can’t be kept in the store because of no space, or stuff that will go off and it is better to use sooner not to send it to waste, or it is the ones who did not pass “beauty standard” of supermarkets.

Remember, waste food does not mean it is almost expiring food. You know, some supermarkets like to display good looking tomatoes and potatoes, or well-shaped carrots. The vegetables get sent to waste bin for such reasons like – oh, this cucumber is crooked, this carrot has three legs, this cauliflower is not perfectly wide, this banana is too straight …

They just happen not to fit into the sexy, shiny and uniform arrangements of the supermarkets. People are accustomed to buying appealing food according to their shape and color. Also, there are people from companies, who give us food. There is a guy, who gives us juice concentrates. There is a lady, who gives us lots of pasta. Sometimes we rescue from other non-profit organizations, who do not know what to do with the donated food. That happens as well. We save only not prepared food, raw things that we can cook ourselves. And if you wonder if we get food that is off the date, the answer is no. We get eatable and fresh stuff.

That is what makes people and companies think – how come such delicious food can be made from “neglected” vegetables and fruits. It is all about smart consumption. Why throw good products and spend extra money on buying what you do not manage to eat or store well?

How did it all start?

The idea of Robin Food came to my mind when I was in the Israeli army. During the military service, I had spare time, and I started to do graphic design and animation for Venus Project in Israel, dedicated to creating a resource-based economy, sustainable and just system. I watched documentaries about sustainability to get ideas for my illustrations etc. Then I started to research about agriculture, food waste and ways to create a more sustainable system of civilization, socio-economical, environmental system, about planet and humanity. These are the only things that seem to matter in the long run. I guess, being a son of marine ecologist and a psychologist, seemed to put me on the path to thinking of the social-environmental-ecological as part of one system.

Why does food waste worry you personally?

Food is the basis of human civilization. The way we get food is what differentiates us from animals. What brought us from the age of caves to modern society? Agriculture; growing food, cultivating it, shaping it, engineering it, cooking it, and creating a culture from the food. You can say that the agricultural revolution is where civilization started. Food is something that we still engage three times a day.

The way we get food is what differentiates us from animals. What brought us from the age of caves to modern society? Agriculture; growing food, cultivating it, shaping it, engineering it, cooking it, and creating a culture from the food. You can say that the agricultural revolution is where civilization started. Food is something that we still engage three times a day.

Moreover, being Israeli and living in a food-obsessed culture does influence my personal attitude to food consumption. You know, Israelis, Middle Easterners, generally like to indulge with food, to talk and be together. And the best way to be together is to sit down, put all your worries behind you, and talk to people in front of you while you are enjoying yourself. Israelis, they love to eat out, all sorts of foods. Food is the simplest of delights. The other one (authors comment – sex) you can’t talk about at dinner.

Any other projects like this in Israel?

We are the only ones who come as far as we are now. Other projects are not as advanced as Robin Food. We are the only ones who have the place like this, and doing things like workshops, lecturers, catering, countrywide.

We are the only ones who have the place like this, and doing things like workshops, lecturers, catering, countrywide.

We do catering like any other catering companies, except people do not know what they will get. The menu changes every day. Every day is like a reality show. The chef comes and sees what we have before he decides what to cook. Every day we have 15 minutes briefing before we start service.

Few tips to make a quick inventory in the home fridge?

Remember, the expiration date which is marked as midnight, let’s say, does not mean that the food will turn into a “biological weapon.” Usually, there is no regulation on the expiration date. Companies decide on whatever they want. It all depends on their corporate culture, policies. Sometimes they decide very generously early, sometimes it could be the food at the peak at its freshness. The funny thing about the expiry date with supermarkets is that it is illegal to sell expired food, but nobody regulates when it expires. But, what did we do before we had dates on the products? We used our senses.

We need to look at the food, smell it and taste it. Use our judgment as to the usefulness of it, if it is good to use. If it passes those tests, it should be good to go.

There are also specific tests you can do its food. For example, eggs. If you put them in the water and they float you should not eat them.

Plans for future?

We have lots of plans. One of the things we would like to do is to work closer with Haifa supermarkets. We would like to motivate them to open reduced sections like it is a common thing in Europe or USA. We want to encourage them to sell fruits and vegetables that are currently not “aesthetic enough” to sell.

In terms of our surplus – if we can’t manage to get all the food to our place and cook it, we can always suggest them to put a basket with a sign – please, take me home. Remember, the point is to feed everyone and create this experience that you can be smarter in food consumption and distribution.

We are very proud of what we do and want to engage more people to take part, in their own lives, and also to create a public movement with us – to influence the system, before it’s too late. But all of this – has to start with experience – a direct and delicious one.

Photos: Robin Food

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If you would like to become a volunteer or visit Robin Food, please, contact the organization here. 

The interview was first published in Times of Israel Blog.

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  1. April 6, 2019

    […] So what’s Robin Food? 😮 Read here. […]