It’s Ready, Steady, Cook for Jo


Volunteer Hannah Stevens serves up my Real Junk Food Café lunch

Until a man in an electric van called Juan (that’s the van not the man) shows up Jo Hercberg has no idea what will be on her café menu. “It’s like the Ready Steady Cook Challenge: great fun and you get good at substituting ingredients,” she says.

All over Sheffield firms are dumping perfectly good food reaching use by or sell by dates. Now, instead of sending it to landfill, they can donate it to the city’s Real Junk Food Project, to be turned into meals for anyone who wants them.

So through Jo’s kitchen door that morning came consignments of beef from Ocado to be turned into beef stew and, courtesy of Marks & Spencer, roast carrot soup with cashew and chilli. And there were king prawns and scallops looking for a recipe.

Lunch is already bubbling on the stove when the man in the van is back again. He plonks down two trays full of plastic pots containing chicken tikka with a mint yoghurt dip and another of individually wrapped bagels.

They’re from East Midlands Trains, as are the eggs which provide the café’s breakfasts. “Every first class ticket holder gets a free breakfast but as they don’t know how many customers they have so order more than they’re going to need,” explains Jo, founder of the Real Junk Food Café in Club Garden Road, Sharrow.

We had called a couple of weeks before to find a small café with just four tables and a few others outside. It’s on the ground floor of Regather Works, a former horn handle factory which is now used for community projects, with yellow painted wood panelled walls and a short blackboard menu. It is open for breakfast and lunch on Thursday, Fridays and Sundays. The average number of diners is 50.

We order roast chicken and pasta with Mediterranean vegetables and contemplate the glass jar on the table in front of us. It’s Pay As You Feel here. You put a donation in the jar, although if you were really skint could offer your skills or services as payment. I ask volunteer waitress Hannah Stevens for guidelines.

“What I do when I come here when I’m not working is ask myself what would I pay at Wetherspoons?” says Hannah, who runs an online business shipping British chocolate around the world.


Jo Hercberg in her kitchen

The food is just fine. We follow the main courses with a decent fruit salad, although the melon could profitably have been junked without troubling the kitchen. Donations are cleared away smartly for obvious reasons.

You can eat this feeling smug: you’ve not only had a cheap meal but done your bit for the city’s war on waste. For baby boomers brought up on the mantra, Waste Not, Want Not, the Real Junk Food Project is a shining beacon.

It is also a stomach filler for the local needy as for those who have more than two brass farthings to run together. What food that doesn’t get cooked is left outside on a table for people to take. However, we notice that, with the odd exception, most of the diners are what you might call young professionals, who would be equally at home in All Bar One.

“It wasn’t a typical week. There were pieces about the project in the Independent and Guardian. We got a lot of media attention,” says Jo, who took up the idea after hearing about a similar project launched in Leeds three years ago by chef Adam Smith. Jo, who was in the online travel business, realised this could be a more rewarding project and “I always wanted to do something with food.”

It was launched with a series of pop up restaurant nights across Sheffield before settling into Club Garden Road last September.

We first came across Jo at the Sheffield Food Festival when she explained that Britain wastes some 15 million tonnes. What she does can only dent the surplus ever so slightly but when I met her the café was coming up to feeding its 7,000th customer. Who are they?

“We have a varied customer base, people who hear about us and regulars who are either local or have supported us from the start.”

Money raised keeps the Project, a not for profit social enterprise fun by volunteers, ticking over, buying equipment and running pop up restaurants across the city. It also provides food for a local school.

But Jo has dinner to cook so I leave her to get on with it. “It never ceases to amaze me, we get all this food,” she says. I depart with a pot of chicken tikka dips, having left a donation.

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The café at Regather Works