LOS ANGELES — How would you feel if you were a heart-shaped potato?
It’s an odd question. But for Ben Chesler, it is a familiar one, inscribed on every box of his company’s products. As co-founder and COO of Imperfect Produce, a mission-driven start-up, the more irregular, blemished or unusual a piece of fruit or vegetable looks, the better. Chesler finds beauty in the less than beautiful — however it’s described.
“It arrives ugly,” Chesler says. “Some gets left in the field, some in landfill, a lot goes to animal feed and some to juicers.”
True to its name, Imperfect Produce reclaims fruits and vegetables that otherwise go to waste or less profitable markets among farmers. The company packages and sells the produce on a subscription basis known as Community Supported Agriculture or CSA. Residents of San Francisco and, of late, Los Angeles, purchase a weekly “share” of ugly produce. By sourcing product that usually goes to waste on farms, the Imperfect Produce concept reflects the Jewish precept of baal taschit, loosely translated as reducing environmental waste. Deuteronomy 20:19–20 forbids the felling of fruit trees in order to assist in a siege.
“I like when Judaism intersects with other parts of my life,” Chesler told The Times of Israel at his temporary headquarters in LA’s produce district.
Ugly fruits and vegetables are available at lower cost than first grade, pretty, premium, or “perfect” produce. In addition to building a scalable solution to fight food waste, the business model generates extra revenue to California farmers. As the company site explains, “Imperfect is on a mission to find a home for these misshapen fruits and veggies in people’s fridges by selling them for a 30 to 50 percent discount with a lovable, hip brand.” The concept is rapidly proving profitable.
“We ship about 10,000 boxes each week in Northern California,” Chesler says. “We go through about 125,000 pounds per week.”
And their numbers are climbing. “We just passed our 3 million total recovered since August 2015,” Chesler says.
‘We just passed our 3 million total recovered since August 2015’
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Americans dispose of $165 billion worth of uneaten food annually. Experts also estimate these wasted fruits and vegetables contribute a some $172 billion lost on water, nearly a quarter of the annual water supply. Sent to landfills, these foods rot, contributing significant methane emissions. In California alone, the estimated 20 percent of US produce that turns to waste every year translates to 3 billion pounds. Offsetting that, Imperfect Produce relies on mostly in-state growers with some additions from Mexico to satisfy demand.
Occasional imperfections are akin to the company logo. That wonky red potato has an additional bulge to resemble a heart, however, most goods in their LA packing house look surprisingly normal — and taste great. A sample organic tangerine is delicious.
“It could be juiced,” Chesler says. “A farmer takes a loss on juicing so we pay a little bit more.”
The hipster management is accepting of diversity not only of product, but also workforce. A third Imperfect co-founding partner is Chief Supply Officer Ron Clark, in his 60s. The company’s 50-odd employees range in age from 18 to 65 and work at a brisk pace. Part-time hourly packers prepare as many as 300 boxes an hour.
At his desk in a 1925 mercantile building with exposed brick, Chesler occupies a temporary office in the headquarters of LA-based California Specialty Farms, which collobarates with packing. Although Chesler lives in Oakland, an hour’s flight north, he is in LA, where Imperfect Produce is rolling out to new neighborhoods.
In the Bay Area, they also offer pick up at their Emeryville warehouse and at the UC Berkeley campus.
Bearded and bespectacled, Chesler, 24, is dressed in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. His Chuck Taylor All Star sneakers are dusty from walking in the dirt parking lot outside. His baseball cap is another standard part of his gear.
“I usually wear that to hid the fact that I haven’t showered,” he says as he tucks a Bic ballpoint behind his ear. “It’s also easy to have a pen handy.”
In the adjacent packing house, Chesler’s hoodie is a necessity. The building is a chilly 35 degrees Fahrenheit to preserve what appear rather typical organic peppers, daikon radish, mangoes, organic Fuji apples, conventional mangoes and more.
“It’s the same as a fridge but on a larger scale,” he says.
Imperfect Produce relies on these and other “retail rejects” that don’t fit widespread expectations for store shelves. These fruits and vegetables are typically too small or have an unusual color, scar or shape. They might have some other oddity that keeps a conventional supplier from delivering them to a retailer. Sometimes, processed products are available, such as small packages of broken organic pasta.
“It’s a little brittle but it tastes the same,” Chesler says.
Other staple offerings include raisins, crystallized honey and frost-damaged olive oil that can’t be called extra-virgin but is still good oil. Whatever is unsuitable for a box lands in the compost or is donated to shelters and soup kitchens.
Because of their quirks, Imperfect Produce typically delivers a better value than “pretty produce” services. Boxes start at $11 for a small amount of conventional produce, such as a bunch each of celery and carrots, three peppers, six tubers and 15 pieces of fruit. They continue at various price points, both conventional and organic, fruit, veggies or mixed, up to $43. An extra large order of organics might include up to twice as much of everything in the small box mentioned above plus an additional watermelon and several bunches of broccoli.
Some items are chosen by weight and others by the piece. The online ordering system allows customers freedom to add and subtract items to their liking before each week’s deadline.
“We give you a CSA default box you can fully customize,” Chesler says. “We use a local courier company overnight.”
Delivery fees range from about $3 to $5 depending on zip code with deliveries clustered on specific days to reduce carbon footprint. Qualifying low-income clients receive boxes at 1/3 the typical cost. There are no contracts or commitments. The company also assists charities with donations.
“We get customers to stay because our product is awesome, not because we force you to stay on with us — there are no contracts and no commitments,” the site boasts.
Chesler grew into the business after pursuing food conservation in college. Prior to enrolling at university, in 2010 he took a gap year in Washington, DC, working and interning for non-profits. There he met Ben Simon, who was then a student at the University of Maryland at College Park. Simon noticed a lot of food in the dining halls going to waste. He partnered with student groups to deliver trays of unserved food to shelters and food kitchens that otherwise would have gotten tossed. The Food Recovery Network took off at College Park. Chesler extended it to Brown while enrolled in 2011. Ultimately, FRN reached 200 campuses.
Chester and Simon conceived of the ugly produce concept as a business in the fall of 2014. He and Simon, as co-founder and CEO, launched the company after his graduation. They met their older co-founder Clark at a food waste conference at University of California Berkeley; he officially came on board in 2015.
After a year into the business, the team leveraged their growing success to secure an undisclosed amount of venture capital funding. The company has put together a team of leading food waste entrepreneurs and advisors, including Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe’s.
Among recipients of its largess, Imperfect Produce contributes to Urban Adamah, a Jewish educational working farm in Berkeley. Chesler did not strongly identify with any particular denomination during his childhood.
“Reform is probably being generous,” he says. “High holidays? More as celebratory than more religious significance.”
Imperfect Produce plans to extend the service with weekly delivery of a subscription box made of recyclable cardboard to additional cities. Meanwhile, Chesler relishes his company’s success.
“I am so lucky to be able to see this company grow every day, and along with that growth comes the knowledge that we are saving more food from going to landfill,” Chesler says.
As for terminology? Chesler prefers a certain nomenclature.
“‘Cosmetically challenged’ is my favorite,” Chelser says. “I always think it’s funny.”