CEO and co-founder Ben Simon explains how his 100% sustainable grocery delivery platform benefits shoppers, local farmers and mother nature by repurposing unpretty fruits and veggies

Despite the success of direct-to-consumer models like Instacart or Amazon Go, and the impact they've had on the industry as a whole, the trillion dollar grocery retail market still has a huge problem: food waste. According to the EPA, approximately 31% (133 billion pounds) of the overall food supply is wasted every year in the United States. The problem has grown large enough that even the White House has had to intervene: In April of 2019, the Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, and Food and Drug Administration collaborated to launch the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiativean effort to educate consumers, engage key stakeholders, and develop and evaluate solutions to reduce food loss and waste.

Enter Imperfect Produce, a direct-to-consumer grocery retailer that sources perfectly good produce deemed ‘too ugly' for traditional shelves and delivers it right to the customer's doorstep. In ordering what would otherwise be thrown away, Imperfect is able to offer their produce at an incredibly competitive price, while simultaneously boosting farmers by turning waste into profit. PSFK caught up with Imperfect's CEO and co-founder Ben Simon to learn more about how his 100% sustainable delivery platform is leveraging consumer trends in eco-consciousness to provide cheap produce by reducing waste, as well as the importance of full transparency and consumer control in 2019:

PSFK: What are some of the broader trends you see impacting grocery retail today?

Ben Simon: The trend that we're focused on the most is food waste. This impacts grocery retail in a lot of different ways. One is that the farm level of food waste is a huge issue. There's 20 billion pounds of perfectly good product getting wasted.

It's a lost opportunity for retail because it's ultimately driving the prices up on other items. There's a tremendous amount of waste throughout the food supply chain. Some of it happens at the farm level. Some of it happens with distributors and manufacturers and a lot happens at grocery stores themselves.

I've heard that about 20% of produce gets wasted at the grocery store level, when the produce manager goes around and pulls out product that has wilted or doesn't meet standards anymore.

The model of traditional brick-and-mortar grocery has such perishable inventory spread around so many different locations as well as in warehouses. There's just more opportunity for product to be sitting around for longer, causing it to go to waste.

PSFK: What led you to found Imperfect? What gaps in the grocery retail market did you come to notice?

Ben: I've been passionate about the food waste issue ever since I was a college student. My friends and I saw a lot of good food going to waste in our campus dining halls.

I was a student at the University of Maryland. My friends and I created this model called Food Recovery Network to capture that extra prepared food from the cafeteria, package it up, and donate it to soup kitchens and homeless shelters. It grew to be this big student movement of 230 colleges now.

It's recovered several million pounds of food. That really gave me a food waste crash course. It's crazy that 40% of our food is getting wasted in this country. At the same time, 40 million Americans are struggling with hunger.

When we think about injustices within the food system, that's the one that resonates with me the most as the biggest opportunity for growth and as a solvable problem. As a young entrepreneur in this space trying to figure out how to build a scalable solution to food waste, I started looking at farm level waste.

That's when I heard the stats that 20 billion pounds of produce is getting wasted every year. I had to see it for myself, so I went and visited some farmers throughout California back in 2014 and talked to them to understand their problem.

Sure enough, anywhere between 15 and 35% of their crop would either get tilled under, go to compost, animal feed or landfill—just because of their looks. I thought that was the most bizarre phenomenon.

I talked to sustainability officers at grocery stores at the same time. They were completely unaware of the issue that their overly strict marketing standards had created. Connecting the dots, I came out to California in 2015 and started the company. We started in San Francisco. We've now grown to 18 markets across the country.

That's awesome. Can you tell me more about your customization process, and the strategies behind it?

Customization is a big part of our model. For our first six months, we actually didn't have customization. As we looked at our feedback from customers, we were seeing that this is a major pain point for them. We were losing a lot of great customers because of it. We basically reworked our model and started to allow customization.

Now, we also provide a good mix of about 60 or so produce items each week—about 30 conventional, about 30 organic. This gives customers the full ability to add in items that they want and take out items that they don't. We've heard resounding feedback from our customers about how critical that is to their experience.

When we were first launching, we were getting compared a lot to the Farmbox or CSA style services—of just pushing product onto people that we had available. Now, we've split the difference between that more traditional produce box and a more modern, crisp, online grocery shopping experience.

Imperfect is committed to transparent and local farming practices. Could you speak to that, and how important those values are to you?

These are really important to us. We work with 200 farmers across the country, and we're proud of all of them. About 80% of them are family farms and co-ops. Almost all the rest of them are small farms and brokers that help to aggregate a bunch of very small farms together.

Only three percent of our growers are corporate, so we're working hard to drive more economic opportunity to a lot of family farmers. A little over half of our farmers are organic growers as well. We source locally, whenever possible. We have a local supply chain in each of the regions that we're in.

Do you think there's a greater consumer concern in 2019 for conscious food practices?

There absolutely is. I entered the food waste space back in 2011, back at a time where there was sparse data available online. You'd talk to the average person, and they were completely unaware that we waste 40% of our food in this country. These days, it's almost common knowledge. People are getting it.

That consumer awareness has driven more media attention toward the issue and more openness to being part of the solution. I'd say the three main reasons people are drawn to Imperfect are the food waste story and the ability to make an impact, the value and the ability to save money. Plus, it's convenient and saves time.

That social value component of wanting to vote with your wallet and be a part of the change you want to see in the world is a huge driver of our success.

More specifically, could you speak to Imperfect's plans to create a more sustainable food system?

The centerpiece of that effort is our recovery of produce. To date, we've recovered about a little over 40 million pounds of produce. In 2019 alone, we'll recover an additional 40 to 50 million pounds. Those numbers are growing pretty quickly.

There's, again, a total of 20 billion pounds still getting wasted, so we're just at the tip of the iceberg. But with our market-driven triple bottom line approach of building with sustainable models, we think it can hit the scale.

At some point, our vision is that no food should be wasted because there should always be a home for it with one of our customers. We started with produce. As we're expanding to more grocery items as well, we want to be a vehicle for all food waste to be captured and to have a home.

Where do you see Imperfect in three to five years? Is there an opportunity for brick and mortar locations?

 Right now, we're launching a new lineup of grocery products, Imperfect Picks. It's a natural extension of our work, recovering ugly produce and expanding that into the world of grocery. We realize that food waste goes a lot deeper than just produce. There's all kinds of waste streams.

What we're working on with Imperfect is turning those waste streams into cool, unique products for people that help them to save money and also either fight waste, or help producers out by giving them economic value for a product that they would have taken a loss on. We've got a few cool products that we're launching already.

One of the products I'm most excited about is these lentils. A big buyer of lentils backed out on 250,000 pounds of them. There is a family farmer in Montana that got stuck footing the bill.
They didn't have anywhere to go with these lentils. They were trying to move them for a year, and they were coming up on an expiration date for needing to ship them out.

We were able to pay that grower a fair price for them and still get them for cheap enough to be able to pass on the savings to our customers and give them to folks for 30 to 40% cheaper than you'd normally expect organic lentils to be in the grocery store.

We also recently came across a bunch of granola that a producer had, and they were trying to clear out. It had just one month of shelf life on it, but we were able to recover it and sell it for just 99 cents per box of granola. Our customers went gangbusters and bought it within a day.

As for brick and mortar, it's funny, because I feel like every ecommerce company says, no way, we'll never do that, and then eventually they do. We're in that phase where it seems like a reality that we're less interested in right now. We just see so much potential in the direct to consumer model and home delivery.

If brick and mortar would help us out toward that goal, I think we'd consider it down the line, but our main focus is online right now.

Part of that is that with our model, we're trying to keep tight, dense delivery routes. That helps to keep the delivery cost low for our customers so that we can pass on those savings.

Our vision is to be the first national online grocery resource that's actually cheaper than driving to the grocery store. That's something we're already doing as the largest national produce home delivery service.

As we evolve our model to be more of a socially conscious and affordable grocery store over the course of the next year, and have a whole array of groceries, we plan to make that vision a reality.

Pictured: Ben Simon.

Imperfect Produce

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Despite the success of direct-to-consumer models like Instacart or Amazon Go, and the impact they've had on the industry as a whole, the trillion dollar grocery retail market still has a huge problem: food waste. According to the EPA, approximately 31% (133 billion pounds) of the overall food supply is wasted every year in the United States. The problem has grown large enough that even the White House has had to intervene: In April of 2019, the Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, and Food and Drug Administration collaborated to launch the Winning on Reducing Food Waste Initiative, an effort to educate consumers, engage key stakeholders, and develop and evaluate solutions to reduce food loss and waste.