Have you wondered about the people behind the boxes of funny fruits and veggies you’re getting? We’re starting a new series called Meet the Misfits to introduce you to our team.
First up is our CEO and founder, Abhi Ramesh. This 20-something Atlanta native sat down (briefly, he’s always on the go!) to answer some of your questions. Here, he explains more about the Misfits mission, why we put down roots in Philadelphia, and the one veggie that absolutely blows his mind.
Q: What inspired you to start Misfits?
A:The original inspiration came from a funny apple picking experience with some friends at a farm in Pennsylvania that Misfits actually works with now. When I was apple picking, I got really bored and saw that a bunch of the apples that had fallen from the tree, were a little misshapen, or had some spots on them. That’s when I noticed someone actually coming along, grabbing those apples, and putting them in this separate giant bin, to be stored in a cooler.
A little later on, I asked the farmer about what happens to the apples that he stored in the cooler—there were thousands of them! He said that they didn’t really know what to do with them. They stored some of them for a little bit, tried to sell what they could to famers markets, and then the rest got composted, tossed, or fed to the pigs.
This was my first grower experience and it was just crazy to me that all this waste happens at a single small farm. It made me think, What could be happening at larger farms across the country?
Q: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about ugly produce?
A: A lot of the time we think of ugly produce as something weird or misshapen. But what surprised me is that, for each piece of produce you’ve ever seen, eaten, or bought, there are very stringent size and even color constraints.
Grocery store buyers work off of pieces of paper passed down from grocery chains that say, “When you’re buying gala apples, here’s the diameter and coloring we’re looking for.” They send these sheets to farms, and the farmers look at a set of two to three rules on size, color, and shape. If their crop doesn’t meet those constraints at the farm level, they’ll basically just toss it in a separate bin and won’t even bother sending it to the grocery store.
It’s crazy because these rules have existed for the past 70-90 years, ever since the modern grocery store popped up. Why do we look at apples based on their size as opposed to whether they’re fresh or taste good? No one is really thinking through why these outdated rules exist. So I wanted to do something about it.
Q: What’s the most shocking fact about food waste you’ve come across?
A:For me, the per-person static is most alarming: On average, each individual American wastes $3000-5000 annually by buying food that goes uneaten. Which is ridiculous, because that waste could feed multiple people over the course of a year.
If you take the low end of the range and break it down further, that’s $60-70 week—equivalent to about two Madness boxes. Even if you went to a grocery store, you could feed a small family for a week on that amount of money.
You hear about these numbers at a global scale, which are shocking because the numbers are so big, but it’s a little hard to wrap your head around them. It’s more meaningful when you break it down to a single household or customer.
Q: What would have happened to all this misfit food if you didn’t rescue it? Would it have gone to food banks?
A:No. I think this is the most common misconception that people have about our business. I am glad that people think about it this way, though, because it shows that we have customers that care.
The reality is that the vast majority of farms don’t have the infrastructure to constantly donate their produce to food banks. Produce is inexpensive to start with, yet it’s very expensive to transport. So if a farmer were to take a bunch of bell peppers and ship them multiple hours or hundreds of miles to the nearest food bank, most farms would end up losing a lot of money shipping it. They just don’t do it. They usually leave it in their fields, try to sell what they can, and dump the rest. This happens at farm level, distributor level—every level—because the infrastructure doesn’t exist.
If anything, I see us building the infrastructure between growers and food banks. We’re aggregating all of the supply between hundreds of different farms so we can provide that pipeline and donate a portion to food banks.
Q: What makes Misfits different from other ugly food companies?
A: The first big thing is that we’re not an ugly food company. We deliberately named ourselves Misfits Market; we don’t use the words ugly or imperfect.
We consider ourselves to be an affordable online grocery store, starting with produce. For us, ugly food is a portion of it but it’s all about ending waste and inefficiency. We’re going into the food supply chain, finding all of these massive issues that are resulting in waste across different parts of the food system, and turning them into opportunities for affordability and accessibility for any household across the country.
The way we think about how we source our produce and deliver to households is different from the way any other food company thinks about it today. We work with a variety of farms and try to focus on small- and medium-sized farms, not massive commercial farms and growers. We aggregate their wasted produce across the country and bring it to our fulfillment center and ship directly to you.
The way we ship is also dramatically different. We don’t focus on wealthier urban areas, which is the strategy for some other companies out there. We want to service the entire country in every single zip code in every single state and get food to people who don’t have access today.
Q: How do you want to make an impact by building a socially conscious business?
A:By building Misfits, we can create a win-win situation for everyone involved. Everyone that touches this company or the business in any way, shape, or form benefits from it. First, our growers are benefiting because we’re getting things off of their hands that they usually wouldn’t be able to get rid of at a fair price. It’s really important that farmers are paid for the hard work they do.
Next, our customers are happy because there’s an amazing value proposition. They’re taking part in this big operation that’s saving the world and helping the environment, and they’re getting access to healthy food at a more affordable price.
Finally, our employees win because they get paid a fair wage, but they also are a part of this huge mission-driven vision. They’re learning about how to eat healthy, they’re getting access to affordable produce, and they’re getting a job out of it.
Q: Why did you found Misfits in Philly?
A:I’ve spent the better part of my life studying, living, and working in Philadelphia. I love the fact that it’s so close to a ton of metropolitan areas; within a couple hours drive, you can reach 50 million people.
There’s also a lot of opportunity for expanding food access here. Philadelphia is one of the largest cities in the U.S., yet it’s the poorest of the country’s 10 major cities, with a poverty rate double the national average. Within a 50-mile radius of Center City Philadelphia, there are several food deserts. That means residents don’t have access to fresh food and healthy eating optionsso it’s a meaningful place of us to start this.
Another reason is that we have the opportunity here to employ a lot of people in the North Philadelphia area. There are few jobs in the area with decent pay, so we have individuals who are happy to work for us in the warehouse, pulling through produce, packing, and building our boxes.
Q: When you’re not out rescuing veggies, what are you usually doing?
A:I’m actually cooking my own veggies. A lot of people don’t know this, but I get my own Misfits Market box every single week. When I do have time, which is usually for weekday dinners, I’ll cook my own meals with our Misfits produce. I am a pretty terrible cook, but I try my best! I do like cooking healthy meals, and I am a fitness nut. That’s another reason why I cared so much about starting something in the food world that was also health-related.
Side note: Aside from veggies, I loveice cream.
Q: Has Misfits helped you learn to appreciate any veggies you thought you didn’t like before?
A: Romanesco is one that I didn’t even know itexistedas a real vegetable. It’s so crazy to look at the fact that its real is mind boggling to me. It’s a favorite of mine now. Last week we had this huge influx and I’ve been taking it home every night.
Q: If you were a Misfit veggie, what would you be?
A: One of the gigantic six-pound misfit sweet potatoes. I like lazing around and that’s what it reminds me of! But it’s actually a very healthy source of complex carbohydrates with enough protein. Sometimes when I’m lazy, I’ll just bake a sweet potato and take some avocado and stir it into a mash. I promise you, it’s so good!
What else would you like to know about Misfits or our founder? Share it in a comment below and your question could be featured in a future blog post!