Many Houston-area food businesses have started using a mobile device app that has won honors for making a “cultural impact” on society by enabling customers to buy food — at a discount — that otherwise would go to waste.

Too Good To Go, named a winner in the “Cultural Impact” category at the global App Store Awards by Apple for 2023, is one of nearly 2 million apps in the App Store, but one of just a handful of winners in that category.

“For over a decade, we’ve taken a moment at the end of the year to celebrate the very best and most impactful apps and games on the App Store — and the developers behind them,” Apple said in announcing the awards.

For southwest Houston business owners like Belen Bailey, owner of Sweets by Belen, the app provides a way to entice current and new customers to come in and grab items that otherwise may go to waste.

Sweets by Belen, in the Gulfton Area Management District, is a regular on the app, where you can snag a $4.99 “surprise bag,” meaning — basically — you get what you get and you don’t get upset.

Not sure who would get upset, though, when walking out with a sampling of delicious sweets or empanadas from the popular pastry shop. Our bag on a recent weekday contained a large piece of cake and two delicious cookies. The store was busy with customers and Bailey was quick to fill the surprise bag order, welcoming me and thanking me for stopping by.

Next door to Gulfton is the Southwest Management District, where Subhlaxmi Grocers, 6606 Southwest Freeway, filled my order without my even having to step very far into the store.

“There is a customer for a surprise bag,” the cashier announced over the speaker.

In a couple of minutes, I was walking out with a massive bag of produce for just $4.99, including enough okra to necessitate my reading “34 Okra Recipes That Prove It’s Not Just For Gumbo,” an article in Southern Living, and sharing with neighbors.

Also in my bag: chili peppers, potatoes, limes, lemons, cilantro and what my neighbor informed me was “angled loofah,” or luffa acutangula. Another name for it is — did you guess right? — Chinese okra.

At Jusgo Supermarket, 9280 Bellaire Blvd., I rescued a surprise bag that contained a plethora of shelf-stable items with which I was familiar and some not at all … from ginger chews to Thai tea to preserved eggs in colorful packaging. The $9.99 bag contained enough items to share with a group of friends eager to try new things and also piqued their interest in picking up surprise bags of their own.

Too Good To Go makes money by charging set annual fees to the food purveyors.

After ordering food on your mobile device, you must go to the businesses to pick up your items. Sometimes, you might eye more food to purchase, which is another plus for the local businesses.

As of May, about 80 food establishments in central Houston joined the app system, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Here’s more on how it works.

Once you download the app, set your location and browse businesses within that area. A searchable map allows you to look for specific restaurants. You can mark your favorites and turn on notifications to get immediate alerts for when those businesses offer surprise bags.

Click on the offers you are interested in and check for information about the pick-up window, because you must collect your prepaid items during a defined time, usually just before closing (but not always).

Click “reserve” to snag your bag and, when you pick it up, someone at the business will ask you to show your app and swipe to indicate the items were picked up.

For people who can’t decide on what to order or want to try something new, the app takes away all of the decision-making. What is in the bag is strictly up to the business owner.

According to Too Good To Go, 280 million meals have been saved from going to waste by 85 million people who use the app.

Often, the bags are sold for about a third of the regular price of items inside, while the app helps reduce waste and helps food outlets stay in business.

The thrill of opening a bag and finding Sweets by Belen, though? Priceless.

Too Good To Go

— by Dorothy Puch Lillig