Every night at 8:19, a race begins across Chicago to be the first to grab a coveted item — a $9.99 bag of Eataly pasta. The bag is a surprise: Inside could be wrapped skeins of squid ink or spinach pasta, tucked rounds of focaccia, fig jam ravioli, or something else — all “cartoonishly good,” according to a customer familiar with the frantic process.
The bag’s contents are perfectly edible and freshly made, but the clock’s just past Eataly’s desired sell-by time, so they list the bag on Too Good To Go. The app, which launched in 2015 in Denmark and arrived in 2021 in Chicago (it’s also in major cities like New York, Miami, and Seattle) allows supermarkets, bakeries, and restaurants to sell bags of food otherwise marked to be thrown out, like day-old pastries or misordered entrees. Chicagoans have to be quick with their fingers to reserve and pay for some of the app’s most popular offerings. Nearly every night, Eataly’s bags — which normally retail at the store for around $30 — sell out by 8:20 p.m.
App users need practice to achieve expert status. Some locals have reserved dozens of bags from Too Go To Go since it arrived in Chicago, picking up daily or weekly bags and earning them the title of superuser. The app describes users as “Food Waste Warriors,” though none of the superusers interviewed for this story used that phrase. They are Chicagoans across the city, in Tri-Taylor, Uptown, the Loop, and more. They are ducking into downtown post-lunch-rush restaurants to grab misorders or walking two miles in the dark to try a restaurant’s food as it closes. Collectively, they have saved hundreds of bags worth of food from potentially getting tossed, paying $4 to $15 for each bag.
According to Too Good To Go’s U.S. Managing Director Chris MacAulay, the contents of each surprise bag are supposed to be at least triple the value of the asking price; meaning a $5 bag should contain $15 or more worth of pastries. If users feel shortchanged, they can request a reimbursement. Users also log restaurant ratings in the app.
“If it’s typically below four, it’s not worth going to,” says Sanket, a superuser and pharmacist. Most superusers avoid places so new that they don’t have any ratings, unsure if the bags would be worth the investment of time and energy, or if the new business owners understand how the platform works best: “If a place is good, they should be able to maintain close to a five rating,” superuser Felipe says. He, like others, won’t go to a location under 4.5 stars.
While the app can feel like a gamble, hitting a jackpot is memorable. Superuser Sarah once picked up a pastry surprise bag from For Five Coffee in the Loop and received more than she expected. “They apparently got the order wrong and ended up with a hundred extra scones and a hundred extra muffins” She returned to her office with a hundred scones and muffins for coworkers. Felipe got a couple full deep-dish and thin-crust pizzas with a surprise bag for a few dollars from Nancy’s Pizza in West Loop. “Even with bakery ones, you could easily get like $50 or $60 worth of items,” he says.
Most locations on Too Good To Go list one to three bags, with some perishables staying unclaimed for hours (see: Just Salad locations and Pokiology). Others go fast. Bang Bang Pie, Bonci Pizza, Chicago Health Foods, or Hooked on Fish all consistently list fabulous bags worthy of setting an alarm. Persistence is key here says superuser Audrey, who kept resetting her phone alarms to score a La Boulangerie & Co. bag. “Every day I would try, and I couldn’t get it for a solid like two weeks. Finally, it went through, and then I didn’t even like the bag.”
Though the app provides only a few words about a bag’s contents (“groceries,” “sides,” “dairy”), superusers have found some vendors to be reliable. Uptown’s La Pâtisserie P surprise bag is always a dozen frozen mixed bao, while West Loop’s Crave Kabob is a mix of falafel, rice, and pita. Other locations like Lettuce Entertain You’s Beatrix Market or Provisions Uptown won’t list bags as vegetarian, but servers will frequently give you an option at pickup to get vegetarian items to the best of their ability.
Many Chicagoan superusers congregate on the r/toogoodtogo subreddit to share their experiences. The community is a great way for users to see what a new place feels like to visit or has served others, like this newly listed River North Circle K that gave one Redditor a beef stick that expired in February and a spicy crab roll. “Are you gonna eat gas station [convenience] store ‘sushi’ that’s THREE DAYS past best-by?” one user writes. “You’re a braver man than I.”
Audrey only discovered the power of Too Good To Go because of TikToks of Chicago bag hauls, where she could see what restaurants she could access were selling. Now, after using the app for years, she writes long, well-researched Reddit posts as /u/Sad_Wolverine_2954: “Let me try and help out other people in the same way,” she tells herself. Her influencing campaign is working on the subreddit, with generous compliments for each of her detailed bag reviews.
Although inflation and cost-of-living crises have made Too Good To Go seem appealing for its cost-cutting measures, the superusers interviewed didn’t point to their personal finances as being their driving motivation. Some of the randomness makes planning cheap meals difficult — you can’t have a balanced dinner if your surprise bag is a tub of rice — but the gamble and a chance to try different restaurants are strong pulls; “it’s kind of like a little quest every day,” Sarah says.
Sanket learned of new restaurants through the app, like Logan Square vegan restaurant Kitchen 17. “I’d never, in a million years, have discovered a restaurant out wherever it is.”
For Audrey, the app helped her discover acai bowls through Deep Purpl bags. Elodie, another user, asked for a job application for Dinkel’s Bakery when she picked up her order, and her surprise bag’s pastries and coffee were so good, she filled out the application and interviewed with Norm Dinkel himself. The bag directly led to her working at Dinkel’s front of house and as a cake decorator until the bakery closed in April 2022. She still uses the app to discover new restaurants. “I always say that if the leftover food is even decent, then the fresh food must be amazing.”
With new Chicago area businesses and bags being listed on the app all the time, the lessons of superusers can be applied to a constantly expanding list of surplus food options, or to the many other cities where Too Good To Go works. Ratings, refunds, alarms, Reddit checks, and experimentation are all helpful to optimize the app. Superusers weren’t protective of sharing their favorite tips or restaurants, even though it might mean more competition for them to grab bags. They all used the others’ lessons to hone their tastes, whether through word of mouth, TikTok reviews, or Reddit posts, and wanted to pay it forward. Maybe some of you reading might be the next generation of Chicago superusers.