Free Range Mooching: Would You Eat A Stranger’s Leftovers?
Call it opportunistic, but stealing food from others’ plates can do more good than harm.
The next time you dine out, turn down your server’s offer for a takeout box. Instead, let your unfinished meal — be it a bowl of spaghetti or a basket of fish and chips — languish on the table. After you leave, a fellow diner might just swipe it — sparing it from the trash, while, at the same time, dining for free.
It’s unofficially known as “free-range mooching,” and you’re doing it whether you steal a soybean from a stranger’s bowl of edamame or take someone else’s unfinished plate of food and place it in front of you. While some people might pocket the food and take it to-go, free-range mooching is generally a stealth sport, one that requires quick moves and fast chewing.
Best suited for people with big appetites and frugal mentalities, it’s also a practice that involves a bit of risk. You never know if you’ll catch a cold or get caught and kicked out of an establishment.
As an advice columnist for The Village Voice’s once wrote, “[You have to] ask yourself, ‘Could I stand the embarrassment of being observed?’”
For many people, the answer is a steadfast “no,” but for a select few, there are worse things in life than getting caught double-dipping in a bowl of guacamole that someone else — someone you don’t know — paid for. Alex, a San Francisco native who works in finance and is in his 40s, shares this mentality and spoke in depth about it with the website Deadspin. For at least a decade he’s practiced free-range mooching at restaurants, honing his skills as a quick plate grabber and fast eater to avoid detection.
Long lines and an empty stomach have, in the past, motivated his free range mooching tendencies, but hunger is not always the trigger for Alex. Saving money has a little bit to do with it, but not much. Alex always buys a meal for himself in addition to whatever food he’s pilfered. Sometimes the samples he sneaks enable him to try new menu items he’s always wondered about, and occasionally they influence his ordering decisions.
But mostly, he eats others’ leftover food to help the planet. The restaurant industry creates about 11.4 million tons of wasted food each year, recycling only 14.3 percent of it and donating a mere 1.4 percent. And that’s only in the U.S. By eating food that someone else left behind, Alex figures he’s doing his small part to help restaurants cut back on their waste and find better uses for things normally considered to be trash.
“Society says not to do it but there’s not an inherently logical reason why somebody should be upset,” Alex revealed to Deadspin. “I’m not picking food out of the garbage. I’m not dumpster diving. I’m not hanging out by the restaurant side door waiting for them to throw out bags of food. So I don’t know why it’s such a big deal. I think most people just don’t do it because it’s frowned upon in polite society.”
Free-range mooching, in his mind, is “a victimless crime,” and he’s pretty sure the kitchen staffs at restaurants would agree with him on this. “I think chefs don’t want to see food go to waste,” he explained.
Over the years, Alex has developed a set of rules for stealing leftover food. He doesn’t just grab neglected chicken wings or untouched slabs of steak willy-nilly, instead gauging his decision to do so on a restaurant-by-restaurant basis. Fancy eateries are a no-no for free-range mooching or any place where he feels too watched and under surveillance to grab from another’s plate.
Family-style entrees, like curry or orange chicken, where multiple people have scooped out portions for themselves are also something Alex avoids, along with dishes that involve dipping. If the plates are messy, strewn with swirled together food, or if they appear to have “been sitting out in the sun baking for a couple hours,” Alex also takes a hard pass.
Not everyone understands his penchant for eating leftovers. Friends he’s confided in have described what he does as basically eating garbage and he’s scared off at least one date by popping a stranger’s leftover sashimi into his mouth. So far, there’s only been one occasion at a restaurant when his actions have inspired someone else to mirror his own.
“I saw a kid who was 10 years old and he was there with his parents. Everyone is [sic] waiting in line. I could tell he was hungry. So he came up and he grabbed a handful of fries and looked over at me. I looked over at him and I smiled. He got scared and ran off thinking that I was like judging him for taking other people’s food, but really I was giving him the head nod. Game recognize game.”
The same can be said of Alex’s current girlfriend, a fellow free-range moocher with an unfussy palette and an aversion to waste. When they first started dating, she kept her pilfering a secret for the first six to eight months. It wasn’t until they took a trip to Las Vegas that she revealed her sticky fingers.
“We walked past these onion rings and she just grabbed two or three and started eating them,” Alex recalled. “Didn’t say anything. Didn’t ask if I wanted them. It was like very nonchalant. I was like, ‘Wow, you do that?’ She was like, ‘What’s the big deal?’ I said, ‘Absolutely nothing.’”
To be a successful free-range moocher, it helps to be cavalier and comfortable with cooties. Alex is completely upfront about being “probably dirtier than the average person.” He doesn’t generally wash his hands before meals and considers doing so “just being nervous for the sake of being nervous.” Of course, if he’s been playing basketball, he claims he will spare a moment to run his hands under some water with soap.
But generally speaking, he doesn’t have a problem with germs and thinks being around them can help your body function well. In fact, he’s pretty sure that’s why he’s never once gotten sick or felt ill from eating someone else’s leftovers.
Alex has also, surprisingly, never gotten lectured or in trouble for stealing food. There have been times when he’s checked beforehand with servers, asking them things like, “‘Oh, you mind if I just grab that?’” But more often than not he’ll use his stealth and cunning to pluck a pierogi from a basket.
“In my experience, [staffers] don’t want to say yes because I guess it’s a liability issue,” he said. “So it’s, like, better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”
On rare occasions, Alex’s free-range mooching has even elicited positive reactions from others. In a Yelp review from 2009 — the only one he’s ever written — Alex gave a French soul food restaurant a five star review for letting him steal “a perfectly good, untouched beignet” from the table next to him.
“Rather than be disgusted by this behavior, [the waitress] was genuinely happy that I didn’t let food go to waste,” he wrote, “and even came up to me as I was leaving to find out how I liked it.”