How a German MBA duo is chopping food waste till zero in San Diego

food waste
When the pandemic struck San Diego last year, Hartwig and Kuehn decided that it would be a suitable time to launch their app and support the hard hit F&B industry in their area. Source: Till Hartwig

Fate as you have it would bring two German students with the same first name and from the same university to San Diego State University for an exchange semester — and later, to launch a food waste app. 

Last year, encouraged by San Diego State University management lecturer Tanya Hertz during an elevator pitch contest staged by SDSU’s ZIP Launchpad, Till Hartwig and Till Kuehn brainstormed ideas to help one of the hardest-hit industries by the pandemic: restaurants. Till the App was born, a mobile platform that helps restaurants sell unserved food, marked down substantially, at closing time.

Hartwig and Kuehn had previously worked in the restaurant industry in Europe and Australia where they saw an “alarming amount” of food waste daily. In the US, up to 40% of food goes to waste. In San Diego County alone, an estimated 500,000 tonnes of food are thrown away each year.

San Diego State University

Every dish counts. Source: Till Hartwig

“We see the immense impact on income and want to do our part in this community and provide a tool that enables our community to eat well for a low cost while being sustainable and reducing food waste,” Hartwig says. We caught up with to learn more about his experience abroad, his business partner and his vision for a zero-waste San Diego:

What made you choose to pursue Management and Entrepreneurship at San Diego State University in the US?

Till and I both chose to study at the Berlin School of Economics and Law because we were both interested in entrepreneurship. This institution has great expertise in that field and a big worldwide network of partner unis. So we chose to study at San Diego State University for its excellence in entrepreneurship classes. 

Walk us through Till the App. Where did the inspiration for this come about?

Working in the restaurant industry in Europe and Australia, we saw an alarming amount of food being wasted daily. Basically, we are bridging the gap between restaurants (or other food creators) that have a surplus of it towards the end of the day or shift and people who like to get fresh food for good discounts. 

San Diego State University

Chatting to vendor “Soulmuch” on the Ocean Beach Farmers Market. Source: Till Hartwig

The app’s function is simple. The food creator uploads the dishes and sets a certain timeframe for the customer to pick them up. The customer checks the app when he or she is hungry, sees the deals available with the pickup times, pays through the app and picks up the food with a generated QR code within the time frame. 

Where do you envision your app in the future? Besides social impact, how do you hope to achieve less food waste?

We are working on many new features. We want to gamify the app and motivate users further, for instance, have them donate part of the money that’s been saved. There will also be a reward system and more fun stuff. 

San Diego State University

Their first pilot launch at Ambrogio15. Source: Till Hartwig

Also, the more transactions are made, the more knowledge we can gain about the causes of food waste. We will ultimately use that knowledge to help the food industry. 

Walk us through a challenge you face in getting restaurants to participate. How can you strive for a more global market?

One of our biggest challenges so far is showing them that we are a credible company. When you are small, it’s hard. However, we are growing fast and it’s slowly getting easier — articles like the one in the LA Times help immensely

What happens with the leftover food waste? How do you guys plan to lessen it on a larger scale?

Since we are a platform and marketplace, we actually never touch the food. We just bring the two parties together. Nevertheless, we want to help the food creators to the best with their surplus, so we’re partnering with non-profit companies to donate the excess. 

Do you think it would have made a difference if you studied at a local institution? 

Yes, because we have made so many friends, connections and experiences in San Diego that cannot be replaced. We also would have never met our amazing mentor Professor Tanya Hertz or joined the San Diego State University ZIP Launchpad. Ultimately, we also would have not started a company in the US!

What has been your most memorable class so far in the US?

Definitely the “Creativity and Innovation” class by Bernhard Schroeder. He helped to build Amazon’s and Yahoo’s marketing strategies and founded an agency with over US$1 billion in revenue. Schroeder taught us that creating the right environments for diverse teams to work together and discuss ideas is crucial for innovation and a successful company. 

Do you have any fond memories of teachers at San Diego State University? How have your lecturers supported you so far?

Professor Tanya Hertz was the one who made us attend this elevator pitch competition at the uni’s startup incubator ZIP Launchpad. We went and we won, which was the start of our journey of building an impact company.

What are your academic goals in this course?

We want to learn as much about building and managing companies as possible.

What do you plan to do with your degree after graduating?

We will eventually go on to get our MBAs but for now, we will be focusing on building Till the App.

What’s one thing from home you miss and how do you substitute it?

Our families and friends. Even though we made good friends in San Diego and both happy to be here, there is no substitute for family and old friends.