Set up in 2011, Rubies in the Rubble saves surplus fruit and vegetable produce from the rubbish heap by turning it into delicious jams, relishes, chutneys, ketchups and other condiments. It’s a smart, commercial solution to a growing food waste problem that big industry players are struggling to fix. No wonder that its products, including a newly launched vegan mayonnaise, now grace the shelves of Waitrose, Ocado, Cook and Whole Foods, as well as many independent stockists.
Purpose spoke to Jenny Costa, founder of Rubies in the Rubble, to learn more about how the company has carved out competitive advantage from its social mission, and the challenges she’s met along the way.
Q. What inspired you to start a mission-led food business?
I started my career in finance, but quickly realised that I wanted to do something that I feel passionate about. I remember first seeing an article about “dumpster diving” in the paper. Reading more about the sheer size of the food waste problem in the UK, it was eye-opening to see the scale of the environmental impact it is having in terms of emissions.
Q. Why start with chutney?
I grew up on the remote west coast of Scotland, and my mother kept a vegetable garden. When you grow your own food, you really treasure it and make sure nothing is wasted. So my mother always made chutneys, jams, preserves and cordials with anything left over from the garden. With her recipes, it was an easy way to get going.
Q. Rubies in the Rubble has grown rapidly from its market stall origins. How much further can the business scale?
In terms of getting our hands on surplus produce, we are barely scratching the surface. The challenge is how to scale in a lean, clean and efficient way. We’re very far off hitting any growth boundaries: the short-term barriers come more from which raw materials we can process given the manufacturing labour and facilities available.
Of course there’s also a lot of competition for shelf space, but that’s what makes it so exciting when working in a social business: you have both angles to work with.
Q. So being a socially-oriented business gives you an advantage when you approach retailers?
Yes, the social angle has really helped us. Like most small brands, it’s harder for us to compete on price, especially as we’re working with fresh produce. But a lot of supermarkets understand our story and like the angle. Ultimately, supermarket buyers just need to know that people will recognise the brand and buy it: if you can show that the social mission is a purchase driver, then they become interested.
That said, all of our messaging is first and foremost about great taste. We emphasise the fresh, handmade and traditional aspects first, and then tell the backstory of our purpose, slowly raising awareness of the food waste issue.
Q. Do you have a sense of why your customers buy your products?
We get a lot of feedback on our website, and it’s clear that most people buy because of the taste. The most common feedback we get is “I bought it, I loved it, and then I read the backstory and now I love what you guys do”.
We make absolutely sure that our products taste as good or better than anyone else’s. I think sometimes charities and social enterprises can sit too heavily on their social cause. My purpose might be social, but the customer’s purpose when buying a jam or ketchup is to eat something that tastes great.
Q. How are you trying to influence customer behaviour and attitudes?
Ideally, we want to get to the point where wasting food is seen as an unenlightened, morally wrong thing to do — a social taboo, like littering or using plastic bags.
When we first started our stall on Borough Market in 2011, food waste was still very much a hippy notion. There was hardly any awareness around the environmental impact. Today, it’s slowly starting to be seen as both a moral and environmental issue. There’s a better understanding of what saving food really does.
It’s been a really fun journey. It’s so exciting to see how people are becoming more interested in food. Food is something that people cherish and, historically, it’s always been something that brings people together. As a society we became removed from that, and still are to some extent, but there is now a big interest in local food, and in putting food back at the centre of communities.
Q. That renewed interest in food’s local and ethical dimensions is really positive, but it also raises the bar for socially-led food businesses. As a company, how do you balance commercial imperatives with emerging ethical demands?
We’ve certainly had a lot of discussion as a team about the best way to grow rapidly. There are so many considerations: do we go sugar-free? Vegan? Should we include recipe suggestions with meat? Do all of the tomatoes in our ketchup have to come from the UK? Our packaging is all glass at the moment, should we introduce a plastic squeezy bottle? There are so many different views that keep the debate going. But for me as a founder, it’s so important to keep looking back to your core purpose, and make sure that it doesn’t change and is still driving everything.
Q. How have you found the experience of managing a team in a mission-led business?
That’s been my biggest challenge, as I’ve never had to build a culture before. I’ve found that you need a lot of people who are very different from you, but all tied together by the social mission. I’m very conscious when hiring that people are passionate about the cause. We have a close team, everyone brings something different to the table, and we all push a little bit harder for the sake of the social mission.
Q. Changing customer perception and behaviour is one thing. Has it also been challenging to convince industry players to change their habits?
It can be hard for big industries to move quickly, given the number of stakeholders they have, including shareholders. It means that you need a really strong business model for your product, as well as an environmental case.
From the start, we wanted to work with the large-scale farmers who supply supermarkets, as we knew that they are often forced to discard vegetables that are the “wrong” shape, colour or size, etc. I was amazed that Tesco was one of the first to get in touch and share a list of all of their farmers for us to approach. Partly, it’s because food waste affects their P&L, as they are being charged more and more to dispose of surplus produce. But of course, their brand promise is “every little helps” — it’s all about doing more with less. So we were able to offer a clear business case.
Q. Once you’ve sourced the produce, how easy is it to manufacture at scale?
We source direct from farmers and send it to our manufacturing facilities, which are outsourced.
There have been challenges. Conventional food manufacturing and processing facilities are not necessarily set up to support what we want to do. The initial producers we approached were not used to having fresh veg and fruit supplied to them, they always used tinned or frozen. They didn’t necessarily have chopping boards or chopping machines. In fact I remember getting very excited about seeing a British jam made from British strawberries, and then finding out that the strawberries were being shipped to Eastern Europe and back just to have the stems removed.
You have to be kidding me.
No! It’s because the food industry is constantly battling on price. I mean, in a way that’s good. We used to spend 40% of our income on food, and now it’s more like 9%. We’ve become more efficient, but at the same time less self-sufficient, as there is not enough hand labour in the UK.
Q. How do you get around these problems? Do you have to adapt the supply chain yourself?
Yes, in some cases we’ve had to set up additional processes before it reaches the manufacturer. We now have a site in Devon, working with a farmer who wanted to diversify: he peels things like onions and bananas and sends them on to the manufacturers.
When we’re developing new products we always have to think about these limitations — how will we get a wonky cucumber through that machine, and so on. As we grow, it will continue to be a challenge to manage the supply chain flexibly and plan well to support our model.
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