“We’re addressing two problems at once: food waste and the rising cost of food”: A Q&A with the founder of Odd Bunch, a new subscription service for imperfect produce

“We’re addressing two problems at once: food waste and the rising cost of food”: A Q&A with the founder of Odd Bunch, a new subscription service for imperfect produce

The online grocer offers misshapen produce at a discount

For Divy Ojha, the mission to eliminate food waste and alleviate hunger is personal. He was born in India, and his family moved around—first to Saudi Arabia when he was six, then to Australia a couple of years later. They struggled financially, so food wasn’t something to be squandered. “Even if you had one grain of rice left on your plate at the end of dinner, that’s waste, right?” says Ojha, who moved to London, Ontario, with his parents in 2014, when he was 16. Three years later, between his first and second year of studying business at Western University, he founded Food Fund with his cousin. The online grocery service lets customers order imperfect or surplus food items—discoloured clementines, overflow potatoes, mislabelled rice and misshapen mangoes—at a discount.

Last year, Ojha launched Odd Bunch, an offshoot service that delivers subscription boxes of “ugly” produce at an even higher markdown. (The trade-off is that the boxes aren’t customizable, though the service does accommodate for allergies.) Odd Bunch recently expanded from London to Montreal and the GTA. But that’s small potatoes—Ojha has his sights set on the rest of the country. Here, he spills the beans on the Odd Bunch model, what he’s learned as the business has mushroomed and the arbitrary aesthetic standards to which we hold our produce.

When you think about it, this is actually more carrot for your money

How did you first get the idea for Odd Bunch?
Just by looking at the prices in grocery stores. I was thinking back to when I was in school and living with four or five other students; we’d buy a 10-pound bag of potatoes for $2. Last year, the same bag cost around $6—the price has literally tripled in just a few years. The Food Fund team and I started thinking about how we could use the network of farms, greenhouses and distributors we were already working with to flip the script on the way the grocery store model operates. Normally, customers choose which items they want. But what if we worked with growers to bundle up what they already have—and can’t sell to grocery stores—and offered that to people at a steep discount? We could address two problems at once: food waste and the rising cost of food.

Related: This economist blames supermarkets for astronomical food prices

What kind of markdown are we talking?
Our small box features 10 items and costs $20 plus delivery, so about $24 to get it to your door. Retail, the same items would cost around $37 and $48 dollars. Every week, we shoot for at least a 30 to 50 per cent discount. You can also manage your deliveries eight weeks in advance, so if you’re going to be away, for instance, you’re not committed to getting a box when you won’t be around to receive it. That would sort of defeat the purpose of fighting food waste, right?

If Peter Piper picked this pepper, it would end up in an Odd Bunch box

What has the reception been like?
The first day we launched in London, 150 people signed up. We tested that area out for a few months and then expanded west—Kitchener–Waterloo, Guelph, Hamilton. But, when it comes to grocery prices, some of the hardest-hit areas are in the GTA, so last fall, we started a beta test in neighbourhoods close to the downtown core. We now cover most if not all of Toronto’s postal codes. In February, we launched in Montreal. Trying to do everything in English and French has been tricky, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what language you speak—everyone knows that $20 is less than $45.

What have you learned through this rapid growth?
We underestimated how big the GTA is. I mean, it’s a really big chunk of land. To logistically manage drivers, routes, traffic, gas, vehicle maintenance—and winter weather—that was something we had to take a good hard look at in terms of determining our delivery fee. (It’s $3.99.) We can’t be losing money if we want to be a self-sustaining business. And managing a supply chain is tricky.

So I’ve heard.
We definitely got burned a couple of times when we ran out of certain items. But we’ve been learning as we’ve expanded, and I think we’re getting the hang of it. We have a number of partners in southwestern Ontario—40 to 45 in peak season—and we’re keen to work with growers east and north of Toronto. We’re working with more hydroponic growers and greenhouses, which is great for getting a variety of locally grown produce even in February and March.

Who says celery stalks need to be straight?

Have you come across any particularly unreasonable cosmetic standards for produce?
I’ve only come across unreasonable ones—I don’t think reasonable ones exist. A case of Grade 1 cucumbers sells for $15. A case of Grade 2 is just $4. The issue? The Grade 2 cucumbers have more than 2.5 degrees of curvature over nine inches in length. Like, really?

But is the public ready for a slightly bent cucumber?
My cousin Aditya and I have been in the food waste space for about six years, and in that time, we’ve seen perspectives change. People in Canada understand the importance of prioritizing sustainable habits, and we’re on the right path. However, we’re trailing behind some European countries—France and Italy, for instance, have far stricter provisions for food waste, particularly at the retail level. We’ve got to figure out how to convince customers to change the way they shop for groceries, which is a model that hasn’t really changed in 70 years. Online groceries make up only six per cent of the market. Isn’t that mind-boggling? We’re totally happy to buy clothes, shoes—you name it—on the internet, but not food. Even Amazon hasn’t been able to get people on board. Getting customers to buy groceries without seeing them first is still a huge challenge.

That 30 to 50 per cent discount should help.
Exactly. We use our prices to get people to pay attention. If we can convince people to try a box, then maybe we can get them to change their habits. We’re giving it our best shot.