Product, Service & Design Innovation
Can a Startup Saving 1 Ton of Food Waste Per Week Scale and Preserve Its Social Value?

In the three years since it first set up a modest stall in London’s Borough market, UK startup Rubies in the Rubble can be now found lining the shelves of Waitrose, Selfridge’s Food Hall and Harvey Nichols. In 2012, the concept won Ben and Jerry’s pan-European Join Our Core competition, bagging €10,000 in cash and six months’ mentoring from experts at Ashoka — a nonprofit supporting entrepreneurship.

Yes, Rubies truly is a gem of an idea. First of all, it’s great chutney.

“At the end of the day we’re a food product, and it’s incredibly competitive,” founder Jenny Dawson explains. “We’ll never get repeat buys unless we’re better than anyone else on the shelf.”

But while consumers might be more swayed by the taste, it’s the delicious story behind it that’s pushed Rubies into the limelight, covered by the likes of the Guardian, the Financial Times and CNN.

Every year in the UK, roughly 15m tons of food is wasted before it even reaches the plate, with author and activist Tristram Stuart referring to the whole issue as the “global food waste scandal.” And he wasn’t the only one unable to stomach it. In 2011, Dawson put her mathematics degree and lucrative career in finance aside to scour Covent Garden market for surplus fruit and vegetables that fall prey to fluctuating supply and demand. But surplus is by no means second rate — it’s the same quality as the produce you’d find on your local supermarket shelves. And what better way to preserve this food than to make it into preserves?

Making tasty chutney is just part of the story. Dawson and her business partner Alice Dawson are also helping women who are struggling to get back into the workplace into their kitchen, transforming them into connoisseurs in their own right. But this is where the road gets thorny, as the social impact and purpose behind the venture has to tie in with the success and scaling of the product.

“Even though our business model is a tricky one, we wouldn‘t be doing it if we weren’t sticking to our core beliefs,” Dawson asserts. “We don’t use fruit to make chutney; we make chutney to use fruit.”

But the venture has already outgrown its London-based kitchen and outsourced production to Somerset farms. This means its workforce’s role has been shifted out of the kitchen to labelling jars instead. But the motivation to help these women back into employment isn’t just going to fade away; it’s just going to need some redirecting. For the next year, Rubies is going to focus on making business sense, otherwise, Dawson says, “we’re never going to give anyone a job.” But the founder assures that “we’ll address those issues later on.”

As the company grows, it doesn’t want to jeopardize these fundamental parts, and aims to raise awareness of food waste and direct profits (which Dawson hopes to begin generating this year) into charities and not-for-profit organizations that help to prevent food poverty.

Along with social impact, the young entrepreneur has other long-term plans, including becoming an umbrella brand, and infiltrating the snack market by dehydrating fruit and vegetables to make healthy crisps. But this might have to wait till next year.

“We’re still tiny in the chutney market,” Dawson says. “For now, they’ll focus on just that.”

Things might be changing, but in the meantime, Dawson likes to get her hands in all parts of the business, from collecting the produce to shouting about it.

“Because we’re so small, the love of it is being involved in everything,” she says. “I love the networking and talking to people and raising awareness about what we’re doing and visiting farmers. It’s really nice and varied.”

But she admits that she doesn’t feel so confident with some aspects of the job.

“I’m not very good at selling on the market stall. It’s the shyness — it’s something personal and you’re attached to. It’s easier to sell somebody else’s products.”

This post first appeared on the 2degrees blog on July 8, 2014.

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