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How can restaurants connect with an 'ugly produce' distributor?

ugly apples
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Question:

I’ve been seeing lots of ugly produce CSAs. Is there a similar thing for restaurants and foodservice buyers?

– Chef

Answer:

There has been increased attention lately on the global problem of food waste. An estimated 40% of food goes to waste in the U.S. While there are many causes of wasted food, some unavoidable (for example, a hurricane causing a ship carrying bananas to be unable to get to port until they are overripe) and others for good reason (for example, a refrigerated truck with a faulty compressor resulting in food that is time and temperature abused), there is a lot of food that goes to waste for silly reasons. One of the most egregious of these silly reasons is cosmetic imperfection: fruit or vegetables that don’t meet buyer specifications for color, size, shape, ripeness or blemishes.

At the retail level, a number of “ugly produce” companies, such as Imperfect Produce, Misfits Market and Hungry Harvest, have sprouted, buying these out-of-spec items (called seconds in produce) at a discount and passing the savings on to their customers. Of course, savvy chefs, purchasers and managers have been doing this at the foodservice level for years. On a small scale, operators let farmers and farmers market staff know that they’re willing to take things off their hands at a discount; on a broader level, programs such as National Food Group’s Opportunity Buys identify overruns, closeouts or imperfect products and offer them to foodservice buyers at deep discounts.

Sometimes so-called seconds are actually much better when used in application than the premium alternative. For example, in peak season, many tomatoes don’t make it to market because they overripen, literally bursting with juice. That’s exactly the kind of tomato a savvy chef wants for sauces. Buying ugly produce can be a win all the way around—potentially better flavor, better for the environment and cheaper for the operation. Brandon Ramos, head chef at Smiles to Go in Brooklyn, says, “When sourcing for my restaurant, I get excited when I see options like ‘slightly imperfect’ or ‘irregular.’ Most of the time they are half the price, if not less, and when making a soup or chopped salad, no one is going to see the S-shaped squash that went into it.”

My advice is to absolutely explore options for buying seconds wherever possible. Some ideas:

  • Some of the retail ugly produce companies also have wholesale and foodservice divisions.
  • Some of your existing vendors may offer seconds or other products, sometimes unadvertised or upon special request. For example, Baldor in the Bronx, N.Y., will sell its scraps from fresh-cut produce—items such as celery tops and bottoms left over from fresh-cut celery sticks—to chefs who want them.
  • Let farmers and farmers markets know what you’re looking for. As frustrating as it may be for you to find a great deal on high-quality product, farmers experience similar frustration trying to sell seconds. Reach out to farmers, aggregators and farmers markets to let them know that if the flavor is there and the price is right, you are willing to do business.

 

One challenge when it comes to buying seconds is that there are broad seasonal fluctuations. In environments where menus are extensively planned weeks in advance, it may be tough to benefit from these opportunities. If you have menu flexibility in the form of specials, bar snacks, buffets or other outlets, you can do wonders for your culinary creativity as well as your food costs.

More on buying seconds here.

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