Twice a week, Kayla Abe and David Murphy go to the farmers market to pick up produce. But while other shoppers are selecting photo-worthy peaches, Abe and Murphy are picking up special orders — entire cauliflower plants from stem to full leaves, wilted greens, ugly mushrooms, bruised fruit — and taking it back to their pizza place, the aptly named Shuggie’s Trash Pie.
That’s where they apply their haul to items like the Casino pizza: The dough is made using spent oat flour (ground from the parts of the grain that remain after oat milk processing), and leftover whey. On top are excess mussels from a local retailer who couldn’t sell them that week; pig trotters that’ve been sliced and cured; and cooked down greens that wilted in the field of a Northern California organic farm.
The “trash” in Shuggie’s name refers to waste from farmers and other food suppliers, which the owners repurpose in all sorts of ways: Bruised fruit gets blended into frosé slushies, fish bycatch crowns a salmon belly pizza, and buffalo-flavored chicken gizzards and hearts make the most of meat offcuts. With the exception of the pepperoni pizza, every item on the Shuggie’s menu has multiple ingredients that would otherwise go wasted. (Murphy does insist on canned Stanislaus 7/11 tomatoes and low-moisture mozzarella to maintain a consistent base of flavor for the pizzas.)
Shuggie’s Trash Pie is the first restaurant from Abe and Murphy, the pair behind Ugly Pickle Co., which sells pickles made from irregular cucumbers and other upcycled produce. Shuggie’s wants diners to think about food they may have considered trash. In the bottom corner of the menu, there’s a short paragraph about how food waste is a contributor to climate change and one area of the global crisis where individuals can make a big impact. “We’re definitely not the first to do this,” Abe says. “But to make some sort of change in individuals’ lives, I think you have to make it this blatant.”
Projects from chefs like Dan Barber and Nick Balla have integrated food waste into fine dining, but Shuggie’s brings the idea to a pizza place with broad appeal, where diners are encouraged to have fun. The front room is painted from floor to ceiling in school-bus yellow, interrupted only by a giant painted image of a leopard head straight out of a tattoo studio flash book. The bar shines with dense hand-poured glitter. The second dining room is painted a deep green with matching hand chairs that make it look like the Jolly Green Giant is holding you in his palm.
Food waste is a huge, complex problem, not easily boiled down to a blurb on a menu or fun pizza toppings. About a decade ago, the USDA estimated that 30-40 percent of the American food supply was being wasted. A 2021 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report estimated greenhouse gas emissions from food waste in America each year are the equivalent of running 42 coal-fired power plants (and that’s without considering methane emitted from food decomposing in landfills).
In one field study in California, researchers at Santa Clara University found one-third of marketed crop yields were left behind in hand-picked fields. Greg Baker, lead author of the study, says market prices can dip so low it’s not worth the labor cost to harvest or package, or farmers may not bother harvesting produce with cosmetic issues they know retailers will turn down. Sometimes what’s left in the field is tilled back in, but not always.
“I would say the most frustrating problem is when we spend an entire season growing a crop and have given it all the attention, inputs, time, care. And then when it comes to harvest time, the market price is too low to justify harvest and the crop is left in the field,” says Cannon Michael, president of Bowles Farming Company.
Right now, Baker says, one of the primary outlets for these food losses are food banks, but there’s not always a good match between what farms have and what food banks need. Ugly produce boxes, farmers markets, and CSAs make another dent, especially for produce that can’t travel far. But the amount of food lost is still much greater than what these alternatives can take.
Any good chef, Murphy says, will get creative to prevent throwing out food. But launching a restaurant that relies on other people’s waste requires close relationships with farmers and suppliers, and flexibility in menu design that goes way beyond seasonality. “What we’re finding is that every farmer, and every food producer, is struggling with this issue in some way,” Abe says. “It’s just figuring out where, and then what’s feasible to actually partner on.”
In its first few weeks open, Shuggie’s has already made some tweaks based on changing waste streams. The usual 20-30 pounds of excess mussels that the restaurant gets every week ballooned to 80-90 pounds in the week after Mother’s Day; Murphy agreed to accept them, preserving them to extend shelf life. But Shuggie’s has had to turn down other offers. Some just don’t fit, like whole wheat flour that doesn’t match their pizza dough recipe or short-coded feta (a cheese that doesn’t — yet — feature in any Shuggie’s pies). Shuggie’s also hasn’t avoided supply chain issues, prompting last-second runs to markets for crucial ingredients. When they ran out of edible flowers one week, Abe and Murphy went foraging for a few days.
Ultimately the restaurant has to design a menu that stays stable enough to keep diners coming back while remaining flexible enough to deal with whatever waste pops up; that may sound challenging, but it’s just “basic chef-ery,” Murphy says. “What are you going to be hits for a restaurant? What are the things that you’d have to have? We tried to do that, but just through the vehicle of food waste.”
Murphy clearly relishes the challenge, but is figuring out how to make it sustainable for the whole kitchen. A labor-intensive dish that featured sweet potatoes too large or gnarled for your average grocery store has been sidelined for now. “We’re still only [a few] weeks in, I don’t want to beat my guys up too much.” he says. “Let’s just right the ship before we start pulling in too much new stuff.”
And it’s not like the extra effort is a big money saver. While they can get a discount on things like offcuts, overall they want to pay suppliers fairly, so their food prices are comparable to a traditional restaurant. “I think the only way to create a market for other places, hopefully, that will take on this stuff, too, is to compensate people for it,” Abe says.
Market demand is growing. Miles Mountjoy, a sales specialist at Monterey Fish Market (where Abe and Murphy get salmon bellies, and also get fish frames to scrape down and make conserva) has seen fish offcuts go in and out of fashion in fine dining. Plus, “in a lot of other communities, [fish heads and collars] never [stopped] being popular,” he says; immigrant communities and restaurants in the area already bought a steady stream of fish heads. This isn’t news to Abe, who grew up in a Japanese household where fish bellies were considered prime cuts.
Mountjoy appreciates when these ingredients become more popular, because more people learn about something they might have considered trash, “but there’s also a cost,” he says. “All of a sudden fishing boats are selling fish heads for $5 a pound when it used to be $1.50. I don’t know how you can gentrify fish offcuts. But I think that might be the best way of putting it.”
Opening Shuggie’s is a risk for Abe and Murphy too. They have a small group of investors, so their savings are wrapped up in the restaurant. But they think it’s no more risky than any other restaurant opening right now. And they can rely on relationships with farmers that Murphy developed as a chef and that Abe made at the Bay Area food nonprofit Foodwise, which runs several farmers markets — the same relationships that made the food waste issue more concrete in their minds.
“There’s a million reasons why it wouldn’t be possible for chefs [to use more food waste],” Murphy says. “But I also think the conversations haven’t been there.”
There’s a distinction between food lost on farms and the food wasted after it leaves the field, the boat, or the pasture. It’s the second category — discarded during processing, thrown out by grocery stores or consumers — that makes up much of America’s wasted food. The day-to-day at Shuggie’s is focused on the former, but the hope is to impact the latter.
While the restaurant is committed to keeping their menu focused on “trash,” in some ways, the real product is easily digestible stories about food waste and the many ways to address it. “One restaurant upcycling stuff can have an impact in our very hyperlocal food shed,” Abe says, “but for people to take something home with them, and to change the way they eat — that’s where we actually can start to make a difference. ”
Taylor Kate Brown is an independent journalist and editor. She previously worked for the San Francisco Chronicle and BBC Newsand publishes a weekly newsletter on local climate action.