Imperfect Produce Expands Ugly Fruit and Vegetable Box Subscriptions to the East Coast
“We grow enough food in this country to feed everyone, there’s no reason anyone should be going hungry,” Imperfect Produce co-founder and CEO Ben Simon said during a recent conversation at Food & Wine.
Among the variety of reasons our seeming surplus of food isn’t making it to people’s mouths that it simply goes to waste. According to the National Resources Defense Council and ReFED, about domestic farms lose about 20 billion pounds of produce per year, up to 40 percent of everything grown. With a mission of both fighting food waste and increasing accessibility to fresh fruits and vegetables, Simon co-founded his current venture, Imperfect Produce—a subscription box service of ugly and recovered produce—in 2015, steadily growing its operations to ten West Coast cities. This week, starting with Baltimore, the company will begin serving Baltimore and the D.C. suburbs with a new distribution center on the East Coast.
While Simon explained that the reason for the company’s location in San Francisco is its proximity to America’s produce basket in California’s Central Valley, the decision to hub its first operations on the opposite coast in Baltimore was as much an emotional as business-savvy move. “It’s home, it’s familiar. That’s a big part of it.” The Baltimore distribution center will source produce from 15 farms in neighboring states, which will be supplemented by its farm networks in Texas and California.
“The East Coast doesn’t have a full range of products during the winter and people expect to have that level of selection,” Simon explained. “We’re used to cooking a lot of meals that involve produce like avocados in the middle of winter. That means we need to be shipping the produce from out of town. We’re blending that with being close to the local farmers. Each of our market baskets look a little different in each of our regions.”
Simon also said the company has intentions to expand to Washington, D.C. proper by next year and “all major metropolitan centers on the East Coast by the end of 2020,” with a fully national footprint in major cities on the horizon in the next three to five years. That expansion coincides with recently announced funding from celebrity investor Kevin Durant’s Thirty Five Ventures.
Imperfect typically offers about 60 items at a time (usually half of those are organic options) with some seasonal variation and allows its customers to fully customize what they’ll receive. Because Imperfect operates the entire supply chain, it’s able to deliver its produce at an average of 30 percent less expensive than grocery store prices, with different tiers and prices of box sizes available each week.
However, as photogenic as ugly produce is, asymmetrical tomatoes don’t paint the whole picture. About 20 to 30 percent of the produce comes from ports and processing centers that have a surplus of stock, either due to market fluctuation or that will get overripe before its able to be transported and delivered. To that end, the recovered produce isn’t just solving a problem with domestic farms, but assisting in limiting the waste from the global food supply chain. In its first three years, Imperfect recovered 35 million pounds of food, but with the expansion Simon expects the company to recover 50 million pounds in the next year alone.
But sourcing lumpy potatoes and too-ripe mangoes from farms and ports isn’t the only way Imperfect plans to fight food waste. The company is also expanding its portfolio of co-branded products to include pickles, jams, fruit leather, olive oil, baked goods, and items like a bag of brown rice (with some “unacceptable” broken grains in there), and coffee that’s 60 percent off. as well as “short-coded” items, which are those that have a limited shelf-life in supermarkets. “We’re piloting them out now in San Francisco. We’re starting out with more shelf-stable products and we’re able to buy these up from manufacturers and distributors who may have a glut of supply and capture it from going to waste and selling it to our customers for 40 percent off.”
I asked Simon if he views Imperfect as essentially competing with local CSAs. While the potential for overlap is there, Imperfect is reaching a different market. “We love CSAs. But one drawback of CSAs is that they can be expensive. Not everyone can afford $30 per week and some make you pay up front. We’re making sure that produce is affordable and accessible for everybody. We’re able to keep the price down. That does mean that some people join us instead of a CSA, but most of our customers have never tried a CSA and just end up shopping less often at their grocery store.”
Additionally, Imperfect is reaching out to another type of consumer—SNAP (or food stamp) recipients. “If you qualify for SNAP you qualify for our reduced cost program and we have about 7,000 active subscribers to that program. We hope to have that grow exponentially as well. It makes a huge impact in those people lives.” Additionally, Imperfect has donated 1.2 million pounds of food to its food bank partners and says that amount will scale with its growing business, with the added benefit of giving urban charities access to a wider variety of produce.
While recovery start-ups like Imperfect are filling part of the food waste gap, Simon also admitted that, in a perfect world, all produce would be imperfect, and that it would be a wonderful thing if grocery stores would loosen their restrictions on what’s acceptable. But in the meantime, it’s possible for moneymaking ventures like Imperfect Produce to embody a more idealistic mission. “It’s absolutely a third category. People have been historically seeing in binary, either you’re this capitalist greedy business or you’re this nonprofit doing good in the world. With Imperfect, we’re championing doing well and doing good at the same time. We believe passionately that businesses have a role to play in making the world a better place.”