Hyperburgers Is a Radical Idea for a Supermarket

Called an 'inconvenience' store, it's more about connecting with local food producers than loading items in one's cart.

Hyperburgers app

Francesca Tambussi

A designer named Francesca Tambussi has come up with a clever alternative to the traditional supermarket. This prototype, which has the catchy name of Hyperburgers, is described as an "inconvenience" store that serves communities, rather than businesses. 

Hyperburgers is run entirely by "citizen-consumers" who stock the shelves with whatever items they wish to bring in. These could be surplus homegrown produce, homemade or leftover foods, or products brought home from a trip abroad. These goods can be offered for free (you probably wouldn't charge for leftovers) or listed with a sale price that reflects whatever the maker needs to cover ingredient and production costs. When someone buys an item, the transaction occurs using a digital peer-to-peer system on a smartphone that eliminates any middlemen. 

The store itself does not take a cut of the profits, but rather asks that customers give something back in return in non-monetary form. From the website: "The giving is not quantitative but qualitative: It can be as small as washing a jar or bringing in an empty plastic bag. And it can be as big as helping [with] cooking or organizing a new food."

Not a Farmers' Market

Treehugger spoke with Tambussi, suggesting that the concept sounds a lot like a farmers' market. Tambussi explained that her research focused more on why, with options like farmers' markets, zero waste shops, food co-ops, vegetable box deliveries, fair-trade shops, etc. at our disposal, we still have "massive socio-environmental problems around groceries," and why masses of people still champion the supermarket as their go-to source for staple foods.

She offered the following reasons: "At the farmers' market you don't necessarily buy oil, mayonnaise, coffee, tea, soap, vinegar, pasta, rice, oats. Today you will find a few of those goods there, but not all, and perhaps quite expensive types, too. These are all categories that people still source from their local supermarket, with all the issues that go with them—packaging waste, processed food, seed monopolies, monocultures, questionable labels, modern slavery."

Second, farmers' markets are limited to specific days in specific locations. "If you're too tired, [have] too much to do, or your kid is sick, well, you don't go." Markets can be a hectic and exhausting experience, "not everyone's cup of tea." Whereas in a shop, "you're free to roam in solitude, reflect, actively fetch your food. There's something that has a very mild taste of 'hunting-gathering' in the supermarket experience that taps into many people's preferences, I believe."

And so the idea for Hyperburgers was born, which she refers to playfully as "post-awareness groceries." She strives to create a setting that replicates the supermarket's lack of judgement—in other words, a non-bougie alternative grocer. "In a Hyperburgers there can be locally grown tomatoes, but if a real supermarket gives away average food that's about to expire and someone wants to bring it in for free, well, you'll find that, too."

Hyperburgers viewed from above

Femke Reijerman / Hyberburgers

Tambussi was inspired by her own experience living as an Italian expat in 20 different apartments across four different European cities. While in Berlin, she shopped at "uninspiring typical German discount chains supermarkets," as well as conventional open-air markets (too much plastic), posh organic markets, and zero waste shops that felt like expensive boutiques.

She got involved with collecting discarded foods from shops and cooking community dinners with neighbors, as well as maintaining a community garden plot. "Despite all these good but inconsistent opportunities, I would still go to my supermarket every week," she said. When she started studying at Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands, she began exploring the concept of communal groceries.

"There's something that has a very mild taste of 'hunting-gathering' in the supermarket experience that taps into many people's preferences, I believe."

What About the Name?

The catchy name, Hyperburgers, has numerous meanings. Tambussi elaborated:

"The word 'burgers' is the Dutch and German translation for 'citizen.' But it's also an old English term. It comes from 'borough' that would eventually become a city. It is a problematic term, as it draws from the bourgeoisie, the social class who owned most of society's wealth and means of production, opposite to the proletariat, the class of wage-earners. Eventually, in time, the lines blurred towards the formation of the middle class. Today, who are the citizens and who aren't? Which privileges they carry? Which disadvantages?
"Burgers means also minced meat. Hamburgers are some of the most problematic foods in the world (think factory farming, nutrition, animal oppression, CO2, brutal working conditions, imperialism). I do play with an analogy: When we enter the supermarket, it seems to me [that] we as citizens are minced meat in the clogs of capitalism."

Hyper is a play on contemporary philosopher Timothy Morton's description of "hyperobjects" as things that are too large for us to grasp or comprehend, as well as Russian anthropologist Alexei Yurchak's paradox of "hypernormalization," where the fakeness of a status quo is accepted as normal by everyone. Lastly, it references hyperlinks, the building blocks of the Internet, a reminder of our modern-day connectedness.

"So, what I want to say is, yes, we are part of the problem. We can accept to be part of the problem, keep that complication, without trying to solve it through greenwashed fairy tales. We might be minced meat in the clogs of capitalism, but we can be it together. We can be Hyperburgers, like hyperlinks of a hypertext, turning sustainability from a top-down non-solution to a peer-to-peer mesh, day by day, with less urgency and more necessity."

How Does It Operate?

Hyperburgers can really only operate out of a donated space that would otherwise be vacant, where it does not pay rent. Wages for a single administrator who facilitates operations and ensures that food handling procedures are followed properly could come from government grants. As Tambussi told Fast Company, this is a justified use of public funding, since "food should be a civic resource rather than a commercial enterprise."

Hyperburgers is different from a co-op because there's no membership fee that requires a longer-term commitment from shoppers. Anyone could drop in and buy whatever's on hand—as long as they have something to contribute. Of course, there would be less predictability in offerings than in a traditional supermarket—you're not guaranteed a head of lettuce or a pound of butter for your last-minute dinner plans—but it's made up for in terms of interest, curiosity, and depth. You're more likely to find unusual items, delicious homemade treats, and quirky combinations of ingredients.

When asked about safe food handling regulations, Tambussi said that, ideally, all food preparation would take place in a Hyperburgers kitchen that's certified by public health officials. But she also sees room for improvement:

"There are so many paradoxes and loopholes in our food systems ... Our grandmothers have been feeding us tomato sauce and jam for ages. We're all still here to tell those stories, and boy, what food stories! At the same time, jarring food carries very scary dangers if one does not work properly. I don't ever want to give up any of the good hygienic norms. But I see there's a interstitial space, between my grandma and the supermarket options."
kimchi making workshop at Hyperburgers

Francesca Tambussi / Hyperburgers

Tambussi has been operating a prototype in Eindhoven since November 2021. It was open every Friday until May 2022, at which point she relocated briefly to Milan for Design Week in June. "Right now I am part of the volunteers' group and am finally creating a collective that will care for it together. I will have a dedicated spot in the space. The new opening will be on January 29, 2023."

While there's been a great deal of enthusiasm for the concept at design fairs, Tambussi said no one has replicated Hyperburgers yet. "I have to package the project better, with a toolkit for this to happen. I am working on it as we speak." She said she is getting ready to bring it to Italy, Spain, and France—although, she added with a laugh, that "France has a lot of groceries innovation going so they might not need me!"

She acknowledged that conventional supermarkets aren't going away anytime soon, but that we need new models to challenge it. There are different ways of producing food and shopping, and this is just one way to break the mold. You can learn more about Hyperburgers here.

Note: Some quotes may have been edited for clarity.