Discovering New York through Too Good to Go.
By Henry Astor
Scrolling through my purchase history on Too Good to Go—an app that lets restaurants offer their leftover food during off-peak hours at unbelievably low prices—I can tell a story about almost every entry. Safari Restaurant, a Somali joint on 116th: I secured a $5 plate of chicken and rice that I carried up the terraces of Morningside Park while listening to Hildegard von Bingen chants for Music Hum. Previti Pizza: I paid $5 for two pepperoni slices to warm my frozen fingers on the steps of the New York Public Library at the height of the pandemic. El Pipirin: I visited the South Bronx establishment in mid-July, weaving through traffic on a Citi Bike in search of $4 tacos only to discover that it was actually closed that day.
There’s admittedly little glamor in ordering a Too Good to Go meal. Pickup time slots are scheduled by the restaurant and are almost always after 9 p.m. Often, you’ll walk in and find someone mopping the floor or scrubbing a grill (or, at times, no one at all), to whom you must sheepishly flash your confirmation code. Your meal will likely be pre-packed in a paper bag, in which the presence of cutlery is highly unpredictable. And you may find yourself stricken with some residual guilt about contributing such a paltry amount to a local business that may be desperate for full-paying customers. Despite all this, I’ve received unequivocal kindness and cordiality in my every experience with the app. This quotidian compassion was not only indicative of the app’s charitable mission, but its capacity to nourish—physically and emotionally—while I was in a drought of companionship.
I installed Too Good to Go in December 2020, fresh out of a relationship and a dysfunctional roommate arrangement. In losing those people, what little social life I was able to cobble together that semester evaporated; fetching my Too Good to Go meals became virtually the only reason I left Morningside Heights. The admissions office’s refrain that “the city is our campus” deserves the mockery it tends to receive, but the cliché well describes the peculiarities of my freshman year. The New York I got to know was the New York of Too Good to Go, a network of green and yellow dots on its proprietary map that beckoned for my patronage. I fell into a rhythm, riding new subway lines and visiting new neighborhoods just about every week. Before too long, I was also happily paying full price at eateries across four boroughs. Washington Heights for mofongo and chicharrones from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, the South Bronx for oxtail, and Richmond Hill for roti from Guyanese and Jamaican spots. I rode to the Q train’s terminus in Brighton Beach for vareniki and khachapuri from the former Soviet Union. And in Jackson Heights, the undisputed food capital of the world, I indulged simultaneously in the joys of birria tacos, Bangladeshi fuchka, and Tibetan momo. I knew most of the streets and stalls where each of these foods could be found before ever setting foot in Butler.
The restaurants and grocers that participate in Too Good to Go are fixtures of what I deign to call “the New York that stayed”: blue-collar, multicultural New York that didn’t, or couldn’t, budge when the pandemic sent hundreds of thousands of the city’s more affluent residents fleeing upstate, out to the Hamptons, or across the Hudson, some never to return. Even as the city’s allure to its wayward elites has rebounded—as institutions like Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, and, yes, Columbia repopulate—Too Good to Go remains an emblem of another New York, instead serving the city’s working class, including the 1.5 million New Yorkers who are food insecure.
Through Too Good to Go, I was enculturated in a very different New York from the one I would discover when campus reopened. As early as my sophomore fall, I felt the pull: friend groups arranging excursions to chic spots selling $25 pastas and cocktails no further than Greenwich Village. In finally finding friendship and community on a revived campus, I inversely lost my connection to the city. With bourgeois New York back in full force, I also saw more clearly how the city I had come to know and love was under siege. An afternoon in Bushwick—the front line of New York’s gentrification invasion—gave me a glimpse at how dire things really are: bodegas and hardware stores bifurcated by 5-over-1 condos going for seven figures, on one of which was inscribed “Death to Yuppi” in black spray paint.
I do look back on my freshman year, which I was fortunate enough to spend in Columbia housing, with sadness at the college experience I might have had. What I developed instead was a profound appreciation for everything that lies outside our gates. Too Good to Go showed me the best of New York without the impositions of elite domination, if only for a short time. Now, I wander less frequently into those corners of the city with which I became so acquainted. What I hold onto, though, is the intentionality of my consumption the app facilitated—those small acts of civil participation, forged out of necessity.