Show Notes

Download episode MP3

Notes and Links

Episode Transcript

Guy: [00:00:02] You’re listening to Good Foodies, and this is episode 13.

Guy: [00:00:07] In this bite sized episode we’re talking to Deepak and Emilie the co-founders of Oddbox, a wonky fruit and veg box scheme based in South London. We chatted to them about all sorts of things, particularly how they got started and how they’ve expanded over the last couple of years. We started by talking about the issue of food waste itself.

The Interview

Emilie: [00:00:31] On average 20 to 40 percent of all food grown is wasted because it doesn’t meet the criteria which have been set. Earlier this criteria was set by the EU, when it was EU regulations, these regulations have been relaxed, but a lot of these criteria are still in place – on size, colour, shape.

Some of the apples need to be at least 50% red, then they need to be between 50 and 70 millimetres, so it’s all sorts of specifications which are because that’s what people are expecting to see. There’s also a huge aspect which is linked to packaging and it’s easier to package apples if’s they’re all the same, or package any fruit and vegetable if they’re all the same size. So that’s the kind of produce that at Oddbox we rescue and we bring to our consumers.

Guy: [00:01:27] Yeah, it’s really interesting. I think the thing that hits the headlines quite a lot is the cosmetic standards and people are outraged because it’s a bit absurd that this apple is only 45% red and so it doesn’t make the grade. But I guess that bit about the packaging standards, in a way that seems like more of an understandable thing.

I’m not saying that it’s right, but for a business packing fruit and veg into various things for supermarket shelves, I guess the idea of everything needing to be around about the same weight, and around about the same shape, and fit in the box because it’s straight rather than curvy make sense. But over here in the UK, and some other countries as well, everything has so much packaging for the supermarkets, it’s a big issue isn’t it?

Emilie: [00:02:16] Yes, and I think people are realising and asking supermarkets to stop packaging up items like apples. One of the big supermarkets who introduced some cauliflower steaks and the consumers were outraged by the fact they were paying double the price for a quarter of a cauliflower compared to a whole cauliflower, so they removed that from their offering.

Emilie: [00:02:42] Yes, things like spinach and leaves will need to be packaged because it preserves the freshness and the quality of the produce. But there’s lots of things, like root vegetables, like apples and pears and lots of the fruits which don’t need to be packaged at all.

Guy: [00:02:59] And so Oddbox is rescuing this produce that would otherwise be thrown away, because it doesn’t meet the cosmetic standards or it’s not the right size to fit into the packaging. So Deepak can you tell me a little bit about how Oddbox fits into this whole thing and what it is exactly that you guys do?

Deepak: [00:03:16] Yeah, so what do you do at Oddbox is essentially we directly work with farms within 200 miles of London. We directly visit these farms and collect the produce that they can’t sell easily, and we bring them back to our hub. We operate out of the hub in West Dulwich and we quality check them and pack them into boxes, which we then deliver directly to homes in South London and offices across London, for 30% cheaper than other similar box services.

Now, because we are underpinned by a zero risk philosophy, we want to minimise all, and almost eradicate waste at our end. So we also partner with food charities like City Harvest, where we donate up to put 10% of our produce, which then gets redistributed to soup kitchens and the like. And in a way solving the food poverty side of things as well, which is again a big problem in the UK. Sometimes we think, oh no that’s just a third world country problem, but there it is in the UK as well. So I think it’s a great job that the likes of City Harvest are doing to combat that.

Guy: [00:04:36] Yeah absolutely. And it was interesting I heard you mention there that you do a quality control with the produce that comes in. I was thinking, oh well surely you can’t be also sorting it out and discarding some stuff, because that just wouldn’t fit with your values and your mission. So the stuff that doesn’t go through quality control is that what goes to the likes of City Harvest? And I believe you also support some of the community fridge projects as well don’t you?

Deepak: [00:05:00] Yeah, that’s correct, like the People’s Fridge in Brixton as well. But you’re exactly right Guy. So the quality check that we do, is just to make sure that there is a … we have very relaxed quality checks, but what we don’t want to do is to give substandard quality produce to our paying customers.

Emilie: [00:05:22] And in addition, we also always need to order a bit more to make sure that we put enough produce into the boxes. We have sometimes some change of orders at the last minute. So what goes to City Harvest is also a big portion of produce which would go in our boxes, but that we’ve ordered a bit too much.

Guy: [00:05:46] Ah okay, that makes a lot of sense. You promote this as a wonky fruit and veg box, so it’s very clear that people are doing something to support food waste or to support the stuff that would otherwise go to waste. Have you ever had any situations where people have complained that it’s not wonky enough or bashed enough because you’re doing this quality check?

Emilie: [00:06:10] Yes, that’s quite a regular, because we are saying it’s a wonky veg box people expect that it will be carrots with split ends with several legs. In most of the cases it’s just slightly bigger or smaller, it doesn’t necessarily come really wonky. So we get queries from our customers, saying I thought they looked all really normal.

Deepak: [00:06:35] So I think one of our biggest, shall we say, mission statements if you will, is to educate people around the fact that yes it’s called a wonky veg box, but it’s not just the shape. The bottom line is things get rejected at the farms not just because of the shape, but also because of size or colour or because they’re surplus to requirements.

So we really are continually trying to educate our consumers about the fact that, although we call it wonky – because people relate to a wonky veg box, I think supermarkets before us introduced a wonky veg box so people understand that as a concept – but the bottom line is we don’t limit our produce sourcing to just the shape, it’s also the size and the colour or if it’s surplus. And any surplus that could potentially become waste is also a part of what we do.

Guy: [00:07:34] You started almost talking about this being a challenge earlier, and I would like to dig into some of the challenges. I think that’s it’s interesting to hear those stories from people when they’re fairly new in their journey of starting a business. How long is it that you guys have been running?

Emilie: [00:07:48] It’s been almost two years, we started in May 2016.

Guy: [00:07:52] And you started in a very smart way, which was to just be very focused in one area of South London, which I believe is Southwest London. You don’t live too far away from me actually. And since then you’ve been slow and steady and gradually expanding. Can you take us back to some of those first few deliveries that you used to do and paint a picture of the early start-up life for us.

Emilie: [00:08:17] So basically when we started it was only us. So we started with only two suppliers. We would go and pick up the produce from them on a Friday night or Saturday early morning. Back then we had been able to obtain the usage of a local church for free on Saturday morning at 5:00 in the morning. So we would go there, pack the boxes and deliver with our own car. So that was our Saturday morning.

Guy: [00:08:49] It must have been exhausting?

Emilie: [00:08:51] Yes, but then it was also nice and exciting to start that and see it grow. But as it started to slowly grow we realised that slowly the boxes wouldn’t fit any more in the car. So that’s when we reached out to some independent drivers and started using some additional drivers. We also then started using some packers who helped us with the packing. And then once we reached 50 boxes we moved to a bigger warehouse. So we’ve now moved twice and we are going to move again in a month’s time to a much bigger warehouse now that we are at a stage where we can expand faster and raise investment.

Deepak: [00:09:38] I suppose in the early days, when it does get really tough going, what really pushes us is obviously the mission that we’ve signed up to reduce food waste, but also the feedback that we get from our customers.

Emilie: [00:09:57] Yes. And it’s quite difficult at some point because, I think that after maybe nine months we were still growing but then it was slower. So there’s a stage where you think, yes it seems to me plateauing, and it’s not growing as fast as what we want. And that’s when you have to push through, and then sometimes we get some reviews which are not necessarily good, of people who are not happy with some of the produce, or some of the service. So it’s a lot of ups and downs, that we have to ride and really push through to reach the stage we’re at now.

Guy: [00:10:41] Yeah I think it’s never a smooth sailing journey, and it’s hard to remember back to the beginning, and think about what you expected it to go like, how smoothly it was going to run or what timeline’s you expected it to take. Has it gone as you expected or has it been completely different?

Emilie: [00:11:01] Yes I think so. If I think back both really at the beginning, at some point we decided we would do some flyering in one of the areas. We had some statistics from the flyering agency who had told us that on average 1 to 5 percent of people receiving a flyer would sign up. We had distributed 5000 flyers, so we were thinking it might be 50 to 250 people joining. And I was freaking out, because at that time we have only 30 customers, so just adding an additional 50 customers was a lot. But then thinking that we might be adding 250 new customers, I don’t think we would have been able to manage that.

Fortunately, I don’t know if it was fortunate or not, but we ended up with only 20 new customers. So the statistics that they had given us were completely wrong, and highly over estimated. But it shows, and I think that’s something that we’ve learnt all along, that marketing is difficult and getting new customers is difficult. It takes a lot longer than what we thought, that was a big learning that we thought it would be easy to get new customers, and we did lots of sales, and we had some press in local newspapers and even with that it was a few customers for each of the events, each of the fairs, each of the press, that we add, and it wasn’t a massive influx of customers.

Guy: [00:12:48] And so it’s been this slow and steady growth. Has there been any one thing that had a big difference to your growth or has it just been a long hard steady, slow but sure approach.

Emilie: [00:13:00] I think some of the things which have really given us a push has been some of the press that we’ve had recently. In the month of December and January we’ve been evaluated so there were several articles rating the different veg box services in London and in the UK. We got some really good reviews from these veg box articles, that’s really pushed the awareness of Oddbox. Where we get a lot of our customers as well is through referrals. So we’ve got one in five of our new customers, or new signups, come from existing customers referred.

Guy: [00:13:41] That’s brilliant and I’m sure a big part of that is the fact that you have such a strong mission. And so many aspects to the service which are delightful. Shall we talk a little bit about the impact that you guys have had. There’s some brilliant stats on your website. I think you break it down into like three different areas in terms of the amount of produce that you’ve saved, the amount of CO2 that’s been saved, and the amount of produce that’s been donated as well. Can you can you talk us through, not necessarily the specific numbers, but some of the impact that you’ve had as a result, even in just these first couple of years?

Deepak: [00:14:14] Yeah I think in terms of the impact, we were quite clear that because of the fact that we were purpose driven business, or social enterprise, we wanted to be measuring what we were doing in a more scientific way rather than just saying, ah yes we’re fighting food waste. We decided that, in terms of metrics we would track, obviously the first one clearly was the number of kilograms or tonnes of produce or surplus that we would save from food waste or landfill. Our current tally is 150 tonnes of food surplus that we’ve rescued from becoming food waste.

Obviously another impact of food waste, there is greenhouse gas emissions, there’s methane emissions, and that is something that we wanted to make people aware of as well. Another stat is, if food waste were a country then it’s the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China. So our current tally is about 227 tonnes. And just to put that in perspective it’s equal in number of 145 return flights from London to New York.

Guy: [00:15:34] Wow, that’s crazy.

Deepak: [00:15:36] Something I was mentioning before as well, around the world poverty element, which is becoming more and more prevalent – the statistics around food poverty in the UK, and this is not any third world country – is that one in four parents had to skip meals, to make ends meet, and a lot of children are having their first meal at school because parents can’t afford to feed them breakfast essentially.

Guy: [00:16:02] Wow, that’s such a shocking stat isn’t it. And here in the UK, not in a developing country, like you say.

Deepak: [00:16:08] Exactly, and that’s quite shocking. I mean you don’t expect that, you think, ah but we live in London right, you don’t see all of that. But it’s there, it’s valid, in this country. So that’s why we’re partnering with City Harvest and as well as the People’s Fridge. We’ve managed to donate about twelve tonnes of food which is the equivalent of about 90,000 meals for a vulnerable person.

Guy: [00:16:32] It’s amazing and it’s so great to have those stats, so valuable from your perspective having something to track to, to say: all of the hard work, all of the driving around in your own car picking up fruit and veg, and unpacking it in the church, and delivering it straight to people’s doors all of that. Whilst it must have been very tiring and frustrating, and I’m sure there were many questions of, what what are we doing here, but when you can look at those numbers that you’ve been very smart to track, you can look at the impact on a daily basis and be like, yeah we’re really are making a difference. So good.

Deepak: [00:17:05] Sure exactly. And some of the ideas have come from our consumers, from our customers who said: what abut this, what about that, and why don’t you do this. And that propels us on in terms of thinking like a zero waste sustainable company as well. It’s not, all the ideas don’t just come from me and Emilie, or from our team, it comes from our customers as well.

So we’re continually thinking about how could we become more and more and more sustainable and almost doing it right now while we are small and making sure it’s ingrained in our culture. There is a big risk and we are quite aware of it, that as you grow bigger you sometimes seem to forget these values of why you started something, and we don’t want to make the same mistake that most big companies seem to be making, that they sometimes forget why this started.

Guy: [00:17:56] I love to hear you say that because it shows real awareness, awareness of how the industry tends to go, but also massive self-awareness. Being able to set in those good practices from the very beginning, I think is a great way to approach it. It’s much easier to do when you’re when you’re smaller because you can make a decision overnight almost and be like, we’re going to do this or we’re going to track that. And so yeah, really looking forward to seeing how it all comes together over the long term. And so that leads me onto my last question which is what does the future hold for Oddbox.

Emilie: [00:18:30] So in terms of the future, as you said, we are only right now in South London, so we’ve got lots of people who’ve reached out to us. We’ve got 2500 people on our waiting list, who want to signup to Oddbox but are not yet in our delivery area. So the plan is to extend to all of London over the next 6 to 12 months, so hopefully we will be able to deliver to everyone who wants to receive an Oddbox.

And that’s why we are currently raising some investments so that we can scale at a much faster pace. We also need to make sure that we work with a lot more growers. Gavin, who’s been with us almost from the start, who worked in a packhouse as a fruit packhouse manager in Kent for several years, and so has a lot of expertise and network in the industry and such.

So through the highs and lows, he’s stayed with us, and he’s grown a base of suppliers from 2 to 26. And is still now working and getting more growers, it’s been one of our biggest challenge when we were smaller, convincing growers that there was some interest for them to work with us even when we were taking only a few boxes. So that’s the next steps for Oddbox is to expand more into London. And also, ideally we want to later on expand nationality.

One of the pain points that we’ve identified while talking to our supplier is the fact that they don’t necessarily have an automated system to track their waste and also when to, so Gavin needs to call them on a weekly basis to know what they have in stock, and how much they have surplus, how much they have as wonky and in addition we’re received enquiries from suppliers in mainland Europe asking for help to shift their imperfect produce.

So we see that as a much larger opportunity to potentially build a marketplace which would connect the supply and demand of imperfect produce. That’s again something which is much longer term, but we’ve got quite a lot of opportunities that we are looking into.

Guy: [00:21:11] Amazing, and sorry just one last question that I’ll just sneak in here. We’ve learnt a lot from you guys from the amazing story, and all the lessons that you’ve learnt over the years. If there was one thing that you would like to leave our listeners with, in terms of some advice, or some tips, or some encouragement for them working on their business or the business that they perhaps want to start what would that be?

Emilie: [00:21:36] Getting really good people is really important, especially when you’re small and when you’re trying to grow, you need to be able to rely on people. And that’s something that we’ve been really lucky with the people that we’ve hired, because they are amazing. Deepak I don’t know if you’ve got other advice that you would give?

Deepak: [00:21:59] The most important point in my opinion is the network. And this goes back to what I was saying earlier, starting something is a lonely journey, so the bigger your network, the more people you talk to about your idea, the more perspectives you’ll get. The more people you talk to, we’ve always seen that that always always helps because it just refreshes your mind and gives you a new perspective.

And the last thing I’d say is, despite the mission and what you’re doing and the purpose and all that, that is great, but your product or your service should be top notch because that is what people are paying you for. Because initially you might be able to sell a product just on the back of a mission, or your mission statement, but if your product is not good then people at some point in time just get tired of it. So continually working on your customer service and your product, and refining that product, will always stand you in the worst of times.

Guy: [00:23:08] That was Deepak Ravindran and Emilie Vanpoperinghe from Oddbox and you can find out more about them at oddbox.co.uk. If you want any of the notes or links or to read the transcript for this episode, just head over to our website which is goodfoodies.co.uk. You’ll find all of that good stuff over there.

Guy: [00:23:30] If you’re enjoying the show we would really appreciate it if you’d leave us a review on iTunes. It’s a great way for people to find the show and to spread the word about all the fantastic work that people like Oddbox are doing. Join us in the next episode where Kylie and I will be getting together, just the two of us, to talk about the idea of food entrepreneurs thinking like tech entrepreneurs, so that would be with you next week. And that pretty much wraps it up for today. So thank you so much for joining us. Thanks for tuning in and we’ll see you next time. Cheers.