I had the pleasure of interviewing Courtney Bell, founder and President of Ungraded Produce. Based in Durham, NC, Ungraded Produce is a produce delivery service working to fight food waste and improve food access by delivering boxes of recovered, “ugly” produce to customers’ homes, dorms and offices for a 30% — 50% discount. Ungraded Produce won the prestigious 2017 Duke University Startup Challenge , and recently secured its first major investment.
Jean: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory” of how you become a founder?
Ungraded Produce started out as a passion project for me and a close friend when we were at Duke University. I was studying environmental science with the hopes of entering the sustainable food space post-grad and wanted to develop ways for people to easily reduce their carbon footprint through responsible consumption practices. What I couldn’t wrap my mind around was how I was going to get there. The summer after my sophomore year, I was discouraged and bored out of my mind at a corporate internship in Detroit when a sorority sister texted me about a business idea she had. While she was working for the office of the Mayor of Durham on a poverty reduction initiative, and learned a lot about food insecurity and the high demand for, but scarcity of, fresh, affordable produce in Durham’s low income neighborhoods. She was familiar with “ugly” produce,produce that is atypically sized, shaped, or colored but has no quality issues,and reached out to me to propose that we find a way to divert and infuse discounted, ugly produce into Durham’s food insecure communities.
Ugly produce was a completely new concept to me. I did some research and began to learn that most ugly produce in this country goes unpicked or rejected from supermarkets in the US due to its appearance. Most ugly produce ends up in landfills where it rots and generates significant greenhouse gases that pollute our atmosphere. So what were we going to do? Sell ugly produce to food insecure folks. We had two perspectives that led us down this path. My friend saw this as an opportunity to buy and sell produce at a reduced cost… because ugly produce normally goes unsold, we’d be able to buy it at a steep discount. I saw this as an opportunity to reduce the environmental impacts of food waste. Without any prior business experience, we set off to create a business from the desks of our internships in Durham and Detroit. We spent that summer and the next year learning about the industry and eventually securing the resources to launch a trial period on Duke’s campus our senior year. Our first semester, we delivered to 15 customers, worked with three suppliers, and offered just one 10 lb veggie box option. That following spring, we increased our presence on and off campus and began to introduce new options.
After graduating in 2017, my business partner relocated and I have since been running the company on my own. It’s been a tough but rewarding journey. Through word of mouth, Ungraded Produce has grown to reach a broader customer base of 300 throughout the Durham-Chapel Hill-Raleigh area, and I recently received an investment to support my scaling initiatives. Logistics is a complicated component of my operation, so I purposefully kept growth manageable up until now. The recent investment received has allowed me to hire my first full time employee, an operations manager, together we are looking to take the company to new heights and I’m thrilled.
Jean: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
This is a North Carolina company run by a young female entrepreneur, and that in itself makes Ungraded Produce stand out from the crowd. People in the Raleigh-Durham area really love to support local companies, which is awesome. By delivering “recovered” (i.e. ugly produce that has been rescued from going to waste) produce to people’s homes, we’re also providing people with an easy way to participate in the fight against food waste! As for the service itself, we offer a wide range of products that cater to the diverse set of lifestyles within the Triangle. We make an effort to offer products that work for the busy dorm-dwelling college student with just a mini fridge, young professionals who don’t have a lot of time to shop and cook, families that cook several days each week, office kitchens and retirees looking to get more for their money. Regardless of one’s time, budget, or storage-constraints, we have a box that works for everyone.
Jean: Are you working on any exciting projects now?
I just completed my biggest projects for the first part of 2018the spring…hiring my first full time employee and developing an e-commerce site. The new site launched at the end of May. We’ve got a few kinks to work out and we’re scheduling a photoshoot to update images of the product offerings. Now, I’m turning my attention more to marketing and operations. I just hired a marketing intern and brand ambassador, and we’re working on ways to build brand awareness and increase our presence both on and offline. I’m really excited to see how these initial marketing strategies drive growth so that we can continue to work on our attracting and engaging new customers this summer. Additionally, I’m working with my Operations Manager to re-evaluate our operational procedures; we’re going to be making a lot of adjustments and also will start to identify when we have to make key hires and invest in necessary capital to support our operations at each stage of growth.
Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan for the first time in high school, and they definitely helped to shape my trajectory. In high school I developed a strong interest in environmental science and biology as well as in health and nutrition, but until I read books like those by Pollan, they remained separate interests. As I started to learn more about food systems, I was able to connect the dots and realized that healthy eating and sustainability were deeply interconnected. After reading Pollan’s books, I went on to read as many food systems books as I could, and decided that I wanted to study environmental science, with a focus on food systems, in college. I became very passionate about food sustainability, which led to the creation of Ungraded Produce.
Jean: What are your “5 Lessons I Learned as a Twentysomething Founder” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
1 - Be honest and open minded, but still keep your guard up.
Similar to college, I’ve found my local food community to be welcoming and collaborative. However, all stakeholders in the food industry are still business people who have to do what’s best for their business. In the past I was overly trusting, and sometimes disclosed sensitive information about my business or was too optimistic about potential collaborations. If and when things didn’t work out, I was left feeling overly paranoid and frustrated. Now I know to always keep my guard up so that I never accidentally put myself in a vulnerable place.
2 - Don’t lock in your message too soon.
I didn’t have a marketing background when I started this business, so I didn’t understand the importance of defining your value and having clear, concise messaging until I had to answer to customers that had different expectations about our service. It’s important to be able to tell the world what your company does, but make sure that you are able to deliver all of your promises first!
3 - Ageism is a thing.
I was very lucky to start my business in a university environment. I was part of a program for student entrepreneurs at Duke, and when we were connected with potential mentors or even investors, being young was not a disadvantage…it was the norm.! But once I graduated, I found that occasionally my age seemed to be a conscious, or perhaps unconscious, issue for some people. Due to one experience at a grower-buyer meetup where I was completed dismissed, I have come to realize that it could be an issue on occasion, and since then I have made a concerted effort to highlight the volume of product Ungraded Produce purchases each week and to make a strong initial impression on anyone who might make a snap judgment about the company because the owner is a 23 year old female. I looked at it as a learning experience.
4 - Slow down and think big picture.
I ran Ungraded Produce during my senior year of college and it definitely kept me busy, but I wasn’t expecting how much this was going to take out of me once I started running the company full time post grad. In fact, I completely hit a wall a few months after graduation. I personally couldn’t keep up with our growth, and I had no idea how to overcome our scaling challenges. I decided to focus less on marketing the company and developing new partnerships, and more on keeping our current customers happy. Three months later, I got word that an investor was interested in providing funding, and a light bulb suddenly went off. I finally knew what needed to happen in order to scale the company, and what tangible steps I needed to take to get there. This experience taught me to slow down. Beforehand, I was spread so thin handling every aspect of the company that I barely had time to reflect on our challenges. During my three month “maintenance mode” period, I was able to be more present and managed to passively learn a ton about the industry, supply chain, and what resources I needed to tap into. You need to move fast if you’re developing a startup, but it’s important to not get so caught up with minor issues that you lose sight of the bigger picture.
5 - You can’t make everyone happy.
The fact that people put their faith in me to source their food is incredibly humbling, and I’ll do whatever I can to make my customers happy. Individuals have their own unique preferences and it can be tough to please everyone but we do our best to keep the business running and keep everyone satisfied and stay true to our core mission.
Jean: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
I would love to have lunch with Oprah! She was a pioneer in a male-dominated industry, similar to my current experience in the produce field, and it would be so interesting to learn about how she was able to break barriers when she was first starting out. She has also been a big supporter of the World Food Program, which is an organization that promotes global food security, so I would love her guidance in my company’s efforts to reach the local food insecure community and improve access to fresh food. I recently read that she has a 45 acre veggie garden in one of her homes, plus she has an honorary degree from Duke, so we’d have a lot to talk about! I would value her opinion on what Ungraded Produce is doing now and what we hope to do in the future.