When San Francisco-based Imperfect Produce entered the Seattle market, it aimed to sign up 300 households by the end of the year. But instead more than 2,000 signed up within four weeks.
Crooked-neck parsnips with wickedly long whiskers. Double-jointed carrots and knobbly spuds. These fruits and veggies never make it onto the catwalk of the supermarkets.
Misshapen with skin blemishes, the ugly ducklings end up in landfills or go to food banks if they’re lucky.
Poor, poor ugly produce. There’s an underworld full of them, waiting to be gobbled or turned into pie fillings. But who will have them?
The California-based Imperfect Produce sells supermarket rejects at a discount to the public, “ugly” fruits and veggies that vendors reject because they had the wrong size, shape, color or other cosmetic reasons. You can customize orders based on size (small to extra-large boxes, $12-$20), conventional versus organic produce, and choose particular fruits and vegetables. Note: You might be put on a waitlist. Demand has been high. More info at imperfectproduce.com
Seattle, apparently, has its hand raised.
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San Francisco-based Imperfect Produce, which delivers boxes of rejected “ugly” fruits and veggies to doorsteps in California and in Portland, tested the Seattle market in late October.
The goal was to sign up at least 300 Seattle households by the end of 2017.
The company met that goal weeks before even delivering one pockmarked lime to a Seattle ZIP code. According to administrators at its delivery-dispatch facility near Sea-Tac and at its headquarters in California, more than 2,000 Seattle customers signed up in less than four weeks.
“We had to start a waiting list right away,” said Ben Simon CEO of Imperfect Produce. “We were super happy with that response, surprised in the best possible way.
“As soon as we saw the demand was that high, a week before the launch … we had to go on a hiring spree.”
Imperfect Produce declined to release data on its membership and geographic boundaries, but according to the route map posted at its warehouse and confirmed by several of its delivery drivers, the company is ahead of schedule and recently expanded delivery as far north as Mountlake Terrace, as far east as Bellevue and in recent weeks, the south-end delivery went beyond Kent into Tacoma and Pierce County.
The delivery service trucks in more than 30,000 pounds of surplus produce to Seattle each week, much of it undersized, bruised or contorted like a Cirque-du-Soleil figurine, imperfect in appearance but perfectly edible.
In 2010, the last count, the nation wasted 131 billion pounds of food, according to the USDA. That raised concerns about wasted water, fossil fuels, fertilizer, labor and farm land.
In targeting Seattle, Imperfect Produce believed the food-waste problem would resonate in a city with composting and recycling laws.
While the company claims its ugly fruits and veggies are 30 to 50 percent cheaper than supermarket prices, that’s not its main sales pitch. It preaches that buying rejected produce saves the environment, such as keeping wasted food from rotting in landfills, which creates greenhouse gas.
After you sign up for delivery, your online account tabulates how many pounds of food you have saved that might have gone in the dumpsters, along with how much carbon-dioxide gas and water you save the planet.
Clare Gordon, former pastry chef at General Porpoise Doughnuts on Capitol Hill, has become an avid fan. Her biweekly order (about $20) of organic veggies and fruit is cheaper than what she could buy on the organic aisles at the supermarket, she said.
“We are getting so far removed from our food source,” she said. “It’s good for people to see (produce) when they are not beautified or picked over by grocers or processed like a bag of chopped-up kale. You don’t know what kale looks like on the stem or how long ago it was chopped up.”
Following farmers markets
Imperfect Produce didn’t revolutionize the “ugly-food” concept. It has taken an old-school component of farmers markets to the mainstream.
For at least 10 years, Tonnemaker Family Orchard in Woodinville and Kittitas Valley Greenhouse in Ellensburg have operated popular discount bins for misshapen or bruised heirloom tomatoes and other crooked produce at farmers markets in Seattle and on the Eastside. Three years ago, the Columbia City Farmers Market even made a game of it, running a beauty pageant for ugly fruits and veggies.
Chris Curtis, who oversees seven neighborhood markets around Seattle, said these stands put a farmer’s face onto the movement and show people that produce comes from dirt in all shapes, “not pretty and piled high like you see in supermarkets.”
Maybe this is a novelty in other parts of the country, but in Seattle, “They don’t expect the fruits to be as perfect as in grocery stores. People shopping in farmers markets are looking more for the flavors than the appearance,” said Mary Young-Ness of Kittitas Valley Greenhouse.
Across the country, environmentalists and farm advocates have long pushed for grocery chains and the mainstream to embrace ugly produce, much like they do in Europe.
Five years ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council concluded that Americans waste up to 40 percent of their food, often because the rejected food had the wrong size, shape, color or other cosmetic reasons. Alarmed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set federal targets to cut food waste by 50 percent by 2030.
Four years ago, all QFC stores in Washington and Oregon started selling ugly fruit (a bag of three misshapen fruits for 99 cents and bruised banana for 39 cents per pound).
San Francisco has been the epicenter of the movement. The local supermarket chain Raley’s and even Whole Foods have hawked wonky produce at a discount at their stores around Northern California. One sustainable farming group in the Bay Area even launched a risqué campaign to make ugly food sexy. One bus billboard showed an eggplant shaped like a penis, under the heading “Eggplant envy.” The campaign brought new meaning to the term “food porn.”
How they do it
In 2015, Imperfect Produce launched in the Bay Area to take advantage of the large bounty and a demographic tailored for the ugly-food movement. The surplus comes from about 100 different farms across the West Coast, as far as Arizona, said Sara Custer, vice president of Operations.
Imperfect Produce expanded to serve households in Los Angeles, Portland and in late October, Seattle.
The company just launched in Chicago, and on the West Coast plans to continue expanding to San Diego and Sacramento this year.
In the Northwest, Seattle’s bounties get sorted at a facility in Portland, where handlers fill customized orders based on size (small to extra-large boxes, $12-$20), conventional versus organic produce and particular fruits and vegetables.
The boxes get transported to the warehouse near Sea-Tac. On a recent Wednesday, a crew of 17 were frantically stacking 700 boxes onto rental vans to be delivered to West Seattle, Kent, Des Moines and, for the first time, Tacoma.
The drivers delivered 950 boxes around the Ballard area the previous day, but Wednesday’s smaller orders in south Seattle posed more challenges because households are scattered over a larger geographic area, said the delivery crew.
A good portion of its clientele resides in downtown Seattle and around the University of Washington campus, they said.
The biggest challenge in expanding has been finding more moving vans to rent, said Brandon Merrick, a manager who oversees the delivery routes.
By mid-January, Imperfect Produce will start delivering in Lower Queen Anne, its last remaining Seattle neighborhood, and also to Edmonds, he said. The goal is to cover “west of the Pass, from Everett to Olympia” this year.