In today’s podcast episode, we dive deep into these topics about you know, rescuing produce, and what that looks like at Imperfect foods. As well as just like what it takes on an individual level to start like changing our broken food systems with Olivia Harries, who is currently the Director of Product Development and Private Brand at Imperfect Foods. She tells us about her journey into the food and beverage space in the grocery space. She beat 6,000 applicants to get her first job out of college at Trader Joe’s…
She’s a rock star. Oh my gosh, you guys are gonna love this episode. She’s super cool and has a lot of really important messages to share.
Olivia, thank you again for joining us today on Reimagined. We’re really excited, like I’ve mentioned before, just to hear about, you know, your career, the work that you’re doing at Imperfect Foods. And so we’re also like, myself and the co-hosts are very interested in like the food and beverage space as well. So we would love to just hear how you, you know decided to pursue a path in this space, particularly with product innovation.
Yeah, this is always one of my favorite questions that I think I have like the worst answer to; like I never set out to be like, “Oh, I want to develop food, I want to work with product.” Like food was all— like I grew up in a very foodie family like the kind of family that talks about dinner at breakfast. So that’s kind of the discourse I grew up in. And then in college, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was a media studies and anthropology major. And I focused a lot on food as a medium, because I love how it sort of brings people together, regardless of cultural background. It’s just sort of like the one thing that brings us all together. And my senior year, like, I remember, it was spring break, and I was like, I don’t know what I’m gonna do, like, I’ll just travel. And then I saw this job for Trader Joe’s. And it was like, do you like food? Do you like to travel? And do you like Trader Joe’s? And I was like, “heck, yes!” Like, oh my gosh.
That’s such an incredible checklist of things.
Like it was the entire job description. I was like, like, I guess I’ll try and of course, but no, that’s, I mean, again, like, it’s not a great story. They had like, 6,000 applicants for that job, so I felt incredibly lucky. Um, but yeah, like, not like I had a background that was gonna, you know, propel me into product development anyway.
Wow. Yeah, I was going to, like ask I feel like any job at Trader Joe’s just because they are so well known, and especially among foodies as well. I mean, I think Epsa and I go to Trader Joe’s, like, monthly just to check out like the new trends and everything. It’s fun. It’s like quite the shopping experience. But that’s crazy. 6,000 applicants?
Yeah, no, it was definitely wild. And I think too, like I always grew up like I grew up in the South, like we would always visit family in New England. And we would always stop at Trader Joe’s, [it] would be the first stop. So it was always like it had a halo around it for me, and I think it does for everyone. So it was definitely a good first step out of school.
An incredible first step. And I’m also really curious to like, after you took that first step in that role. Were there any like factors there that kind of led you to shifting over to Imperfect? Like, what about Imperfect drew you to it originally?
That’s a great question. And I think it’s, that’s, that’s a lot of different answers.
I think like, the biggest one for me is that like, Trader Joe’s is an incredible company. And it’s been around for 50 years. And they know how they do things like they’ve figured out the formula. And for me being new to the workforce and being like, “I want to change this, I want to do this, why can’t we do it this way?” Like, I learned very quickly, that there wasn’t alone, a lot of room for growth for me. So that I think was, that was one of the things that I realized fairly quickly. It’s like I could love this job. But I could do it for 30 years. And you know, like little pieces would change. But I’m definitely someone who like thrives in a learning environment. I love being challenged, I love pushing. So it definitely drew me to a startup where there are basically no processes or guidelines. And I think also to like seeing one side of the food industry that’s super industrial, super high powered, super turnkey, and then an Imperfect, that’s so firmly rooted in the mission, working with smaller producers, where it makes such a huge difference to make or break a company. Like it just feels so much more personal in that that’s been a lot more fulfilling for me as well.
Yeah, yeah. And the mission itself. And just to know that, like your work is bringing that to life just sounds really impactful and fulfilling, too.
Yeah, it’s definitely another layer to the food industry.
I think there’s a lot more layers than people— when like companies and like brand imaging puts out, you know, [inaudible]. And we also noticed that you worked at an emergency food pantry in New York. So kind of touching on like, the different layers of the food industry. Is food sustainability, something you’ve just like been passionate about since like growing up in like a foodie family? Where did that passion kind of spawn from?
That’s a good, that’s a good question. I feel like I’m starting to say that just so I can buy myself some time to think…
Take your time. Sometimes I ask something, I’m like, dang, I have no idea how I would answer that. So whatever feels right.
You’ve dug deep on that LinkedIn page.
It was actually Sydney, we love a good LinkedIn research.
Well, I think for me, I’m going to school in Poughkeepsie, sort of like semi-upstate New York, it’s a very food insecure community. And it’s a food desert, like there really aren’t a lot of options for people who live there. There really aren’t a lot of options for students either. So that was sort of something I had the opportunity to work at this food pantry and through like a relationship the school had with the service center. And it was really sort of like in the heart of Poughkeepsie. You’d see people come in sort of day after day you get to know people but it was really sort of coming from such a space of immense. privilege and then being able to sort of, you know, like it was packing bags, taking inventory, saying hi to people, doing intakes and things like that. So again, like humanizing, what is like such a global crisis.
Yeah. And I feel like that’s something to just like day to day that you like, Epsa was mentioning that people don’t see, you know, like a lot of things going on, like behind the scenes, and we did also do our research on, you know, Imperfect, and also just learning that, you know, how much supermarkets like are responsible for food waste in the United States, the fact that like half of produce, I think it was, is thrown out, because it’s just not visually appealing. So could you describe and maybe, like, walk us through the process and like the operations of how Imperfect Food is kind of working to change that.
So it’s something I think that’s changed. And I think depending on like the year, you ask this, the month even, I think it’s constantly evolving. I think for Imperfect, COVID was such a huge test of that system. And that was really where we had to sort of weigh the mission, and what people actually need, which is food. So I think in general, I would say the the mission is so firmly rooted in that recovery process, like it started as an offshoot, I think of like a nonprofit that both of the founders started while they were in college, focused on rescuing produce, and then they sort of figured they could scale that up. So it really started as partnering with small farmers, California is really the best place to be for that, I think, yeah. And really, I think it’s just giving a home to produce that would otherwise go to waste, like a lot of it really just sits in the field and rots. So it’s really, I think, capturing that opportunity. And in situations where, you know, buyers back out happens more often than you think, I think Imperfect has sort of really grown into being a resource and someone you sort of call up when you’re like, “Hey, I’ve got you know, seven truckloads of peppers. I don’t know, what to do with them.” So it’s become a bit of it’s like, I don’t want to say it’s a reputation, but it’s become an industry solution that hasn’t really existed.
Wow, that’s so cool to hear about that. Now, it’s just like a, I guess, like Imperfect Foods has become like a first name that comes to mind for like these small producers and these small farmers. And so you joined the company in 2019. Is that right? And then I know that it was at the time when Imperfect Produce, because that was originally what the company was called, right, was that when they did their rebrand into Imperfect Foods, because they were expanding, you know, their offerings?
So I actually came on when it was still Imperfect Produce, I think their rebrand happened, I think six months later, so sort of october of 2019, they started getting into groceries, December of 2018. And then I joined a couple of months after that to do the private label.
You’ve grown and like created that portfolio of private label products is like really exciting to us. We read that bullet on the LinkedIn and was like, wow, we really want to dive, dive into this. So could you talk a little bit about like, how, how does Imperfect Foods mission, because it was originally focused primarily on produce and rescuing produce, so how does that mission directly impact your work with growing, you know, the more private label portfolio of products? I’ve tried the dark chocolate covered pretzels. By the way, those are quite tasty.
Those are a winner, those I think are a fan favorite. Yeah. But it’s something it’s again, it’s like it’s changed. When I first started, we were so sort of in the core mission that was really sort of defined, it was very much like what’s going to waste, what’s off spec. And we came up with great products like dried mango that sunburned that’s like, you know, like not the right shape. Not a beautiful slab, but it still tastes great. So there were some more natural stories for us to tell sort of in the produce space almost. But sort of as we evolved, it was more like, this is actually sticking, but we don’t have enough product to satisfy customers. Wow. So I think sort of with that, it’s like how do we keep this mission alive, but also be able to scale in a way that, you know, keeps customers excited, keeps them satisfied and keeps them coming back? I think the mission has sort of expanded. And I think it’s incredible, like now, you know, like we get to work with women-owned businesses, which is great. And that still is like core to who we are. So I think that you know, with that growth, other things have had to give and I think that’s just been awesome for the business as a whole.
It’s super cool. And I’m curious, just like with anything, any company like before COVID that you’re evolving, you’re adopting or scaling, but during COVID as you know, we’re still going through it. I’m sure you had to find like new industries and just like new strategies to prevent food waste, and like your opinion and just like in your role, what has been like your favorite food waste recovery story or like, favorite thing you’ve been able to do or be a part of?
Well, that’s a really good question. I love the preparedness. I think my favorite story: I used to work with this vendor at Trader Joe’s. She’s like, I don’t know how many generations but she comes from a family of corn farmers. And we got back in touch and she was like, “Olivia, like, we supply movie theaters popcorn. And they’re all closing because of COVID. We don’t know when they’ll reopen. Like, can you help us?” So working with her, we sell these bags of popcorn kernels, we call them movie theater popcorn. And it’s just like, it’s a really fun way I think to bring like you know, that experience home but also just tell a really great story.
Now I’m getting my mind turning like other places that we don’t want to go to any more that could have like, food, but like potential was there anything else aside from the popcorn, that like stuck out to you?
Um, we did a pretty big splash last summer partnering with JetBlue. We moved a lot of their sort of like in-flight snack trays that they had for sale. Last week, we did a really fun push of like fancy French pastries that were sort of leftovers from food service. And we did like a big blast of them. But I mean, it’s like stuff like this is kind of always coming up, like a vendor emailed me yesterday. And they were like, “We need to buy this peanut brittle. We can’t buy enough of this peanut brittle. Like the vendors not making it for anyone else. Like, can you help us?” And it’s like, it’s it’s, you know, it happens all the time. It’s an up and down industry.
Yeah, and I guess I do, I never would have expected like vendors like reaching out to you because I was going to ask like what I mean, product innovation from like research, and like sourcing, and then figuring out like production, all the way to like packaging and marketing seems like it just involves so many different steps just to like take a concept from like an idea to actually launching it and like selling it or putting it on shelves. So what I mean, if you could distill that process, and you know a bit also of just like what your day to day looks like I would love to hear just like what that looks like.
Yeah, so with the way things have changed, like, again, it was very much like we buy, you know, 10s of 1000s of pounds of something, we’ll run through it very sort of cut and dry. And so there wasn’t honestly like a lot of creative development that went in at that stage. But then as we’ve grown like COVID for us was a blessing and a curse in so many ways. But it really proved out that the Imperfect concept really works and really resonates with customers. So now it’s like the mission has evolved to wanting to be first and favorite. Like we want customers to come to us. Like there are some items we’re never going to sell like, we’re not going to sell cornstarch, probably. But for everything else, we want them to come for us— come to us, rather. So it’s things like you know, now it’s like we do chips and crackers, we try and incorporate upcycled flour. But um, sometimes like there are ways in which we need to like put the customer’s needs first again. So it’s like, what do they have to get here? What do we want to supply to them, so they don’t have to go anywhere else? And so sort of within that, like the ideation process, which we’re getting to dig into more now, just as we’re expanding, it’s very much like, I mean, you could have an idea for let’s say, like, buckwheat upcycled, like flour, banana nut muffins, or something. So you like take that idea, you’d reach out to a couple of vendors just sort of based on their capabilities or find new vendors. They’ve worked through through some recipes and some pricing and sort of narrow it down working with them. And then we have like an internal approvals process we have to work through. And then it’s sort of gathering a lot of supporting documentation and then working with design and then buying and then ultimately just getting it to shelf. So yeah, a lot of steps that we don’t need to dive more deeply into.
So within all those steps, like where does your role fall in? Like, who are you actively collaborating with? Because I know actually one of my, I think how we got in contact with you was one of my good friends from college, Jesse Evaristo, I reached out to. And you know, she’s on the same team as you. So it’s really cool that that worked out. But yeah, where do you fall into that? And then like, who do you collaborate with? Like, who are you really pulling from?
Yeah, that’s a great question. Like it’s definitely I think a really cross functional role, which is a lot of fun. You Yeah, no, I do too. It’s definitely and it’s like, again, like Jessie and I, technically we’re like the same umbrella team. But since I’ve been messing around with flowers, we’ve gotten to work together a lot, which has been really fun. So it’s really, my role starts from like, basically idea to shelf. So it’s super all encompassing like it really, you’re basically the product owner from the time you have the idea till the time buying places the PO. And then it goes on to somebody else to manage. So it’s basically the whole, like my not so glamorous analog for it, it’s like, you know, we carry the baby, and then somebody else raises it for us. So when it comes to term, we’re like, it’s not our problem anymore. Like, go deal with it.
Yeah, I love how cross-functional like the role sounds. So like you’re just getting to dip your toes into so many different like steps of the process, but also, like collaborate with both internal and external stakeholders. It just seems like and especially like you were saying earlier, a startup like Imperfect Food that every day probably brings, like, just something exciting and like a new challenge to tackle.
Yeah, it’s definitely it’s good, I think, to always have a sounding board. And in like some department, I think there’s always someone else who has a different perspective. And I think that just makes the experience so much richer.
What would you say though, since like, working in this job, and then like, kind of like growing with the company, I know, it’s grown immensely. Like, I just kind of got to know a bit [about Imperfect] through Sydney and Anjana, our other co-host, and I’ve been like, looking at Instagram, really like getting more familiar with it. But as it’s growing, and as you’re trying to scale, like, what has been like the most difficult part of like, adjusting to this growth. Like, I feel like I’m in a similar kind of situation. Now we’re going like really cross-functional teams you and like, we’re growing faster than we thought we were like internally. So I’m just curious, like, how are you tackling it? How are you feeling?
It’s interesting, because I think especially at a mission-driven company, like you’ve seen waves and people, like the first wave of people are like diehard super granola, I don’t want to say crunchy granola, but you know, like, sort of more like, they’re there for the mission, because they bring it and that’s why they’re here. And I think as we’ve grown, and as we’ve scaled, like we’ve needed people with more specific skill sets. And I think just to sort of sustain the growth of the business, like, you know, you need to bring in people who are business analysts and things like that, they’ll love the mission, but also, you know, like, are accountable to other things. So I think it’s definitely like on a personal level, it’s been great to see it grow. Like there are some pieces of the culture especially remotely, that you know, like, would have been great to have scaled, but I’m pretty confident that they’ll catch up.
I know, we’re chatting about challenges, and you kind of touched on it a little but if you could like, nail one thing that’s just like a favorite part about like, Imperfect or your job and like your day to day, what do you think that would be?
Um, it’s probably cheesy, but I mean, like, really, the people, I think, like the relationships, especially the ones that have been strengthened during COVID are super valuable. And I think it’s really like, nobody’s excited to come like, stare at a screen for another day, like in your bedroom. Like, that’s not gonna get me out of bed. It was really it’s like the people I think, really make Imperfect and I think that’s, that’s definitely what sets it apart.
Are you able to share any like, I guess, like, hints of like exciting things coming up or Imperfect or even just like trends in this general industry that you’re excited about, and that you plan to leverage in the future?
Yeah, I think, um, yeah, there’s nobody who told me I can’t. Um, I think for us, like, in general, upcycling is huge. And I think it’s something that’s gaining a lot of traction, like the Upcycled Food Association, I think, is starting their badging process, which is exciting and great to get more visibility. What else like that’s, I think that’s sort of like the biggest one that really kind of speaks to our mission and is honestly like, easiest to incorporate. Like, we’ll launch in a couple of months. We’re gonna do a pancake mix, sort of like a basic buttermilk, but we’re using okara flour. So like, there’s ways I think there’s ways to integrate it into like, everyday products. And I think my goal is to it’s sort of like I think about when like, like vegan products and gluten-free products especially first came out and you were like, “I can’t eat this…” And now we’re at a place where you’re like, “Wow, I can’t believe it’s gluten-free!” And I think that’s that’s my goal.
That’s my poll now like “Oh my god that’s gluten-free?!” I have to try I just have to see like, compare it and then I spend more money because I’ll buy the regular item, and then the gluten-free or vegan one just to see what’s better. And if the latter option is better, I could just continue to buy that.
It’s like you can’t tell. And that’s I think, yeah, that’s for me too. It’s like if we can do better for the planet and you’re not like, wow, this is like really gummy or something like I think it’s absolutely worth it. So otherwise, we have, we have a spring version of our chocolate-covered pretzel coming out. So it’s gonna be yogurt covered with some surplus sprinkles.
I know what I was already just thinking about, like the dark chocolate covered ones that are so [good]. And also just like the story behind you know, I feel like that’s one thing that always stands out with like Trader Joe’s products. You know, there’s always some like really fun, like great copywriting on the packaging to like, tell the story. But like Imperfect Foods also leverages that. And I feel like it’s just such an interesting way to present like the food that you’re consuming, like it really humanizes it.
It makes the food friendly. Like it’s not like because I don’t know, it makes it approachable, and it makes it something that like, it’s way more enjoyable than just like the taste. It’s like the experience that’s being offered to you. Olivia, I have a question to just about, like, I’m a very, like futuristic person, like, like to just see what’s up ahead. And like a perfect world, where would you see Imperfect, and like five years just in terms of like growth, more brand recognition? Like where do you ideally see it?
That’s, that’s challenging. I think, like the food retail space is changing so quickly. And it’s changing all the time. For me, it’s like, I can see a couple of angles. It’s like, are we Imperfect? Like our own huge powerhouse grocer? Do we have brick-and-mortar stores? Do we need brick-and-mortar stores? Do people go to them anymore? So I feel like they’re sort of some nebulousness there. My hope is we’ve got some aggressive goals for growth in terms of SKU count, and assortment. So my hope is, you know, in sort of like three to five years, we’ve got like a pretty solid assortment, we’ve got all the bases covered. And it’s really I think, hopefully that like first and favorite goal has come to fruition.
Given your experience, especially like in just working in the food, like sustainability space, and working to fix like our broken food systems. In what ways can we just as like individuals, reimagine our daily purchasing decisions when it comes to food to be more sustainable and just be more mindful of the environment?
Like if we’d have had this conversation a year ago, it would be totally different. Like, it’s like the obvious answer, which I don’t know, how long it’ll take us to sort of recover across the board from COVID. Like mentally, emotionally. I would say like, you know, like, if you go grocery shopping in a store, like don’t get an extra bag to put your produce in, just wash it extra well when you get home. But now I think people are so germ-sensitive, as they should be, that it’s like I don’t know, like, [if] our disposable culture, I think is going to come back with a vengeance for like a number of years. So I think it is like sort of what can you do? Like my job, is one of my biggest pet peeves is like I have to get a lot of samples. So it’s a lot of cardboard, a lot of styrofoam, a lot of plastic, a lot of gel packs. So it’s sort of I think it’s like, what can you do to eliminate shipping, I think is a big thing. Like where, like shopping locally I’m a huge advocate for when that’s the thing again. But I think it’s just like easy to reduce your carbon footprint just by I think, I’m hoping this year is in some ways, like a good sort of re-centering time. So it’s all like you, you’re so much more present. You’re so much more in your community that I’m hoping that sort of translates to people’s shopping habits.
I’m hoping so too. I mean, I’m hoping, I don’t know, there’s a lot of a lot of obviously, like change that could have happened. Like if we had this conversation a year ago, like we’d be in a different, but that kind of just goes to show like, this is like an important thing like reimagining food consumption and daily purchasing decisions. It’s like how can we make this thought process and this mindset, like stagnant– not stagnant? But how can we ingrain it in everyone’s mind that like, world shifts don’t have to change what we continuously do? I don’t have an answer to that. But it would be great if there was like an all-knowing solution. But like, what do you think like small steps that like, I don’t know, it’s like college students, new grads, people that are really, really hoping to kind of make a change in their sustainability movements, like what are small things that we can do right now? And as the world opens up a little bit more like how can we kind of shift those like sustainability and food consumption habits?
I think one theme of the last year has definitely been, I think the power of collectivism and people getting together or not, you know, like it’s in the face of like a big cultural shock or shift, I think like, just like the power of uniting has been huge. So I think it’s like using these new virtual spaces that we’ve all created to get together, I think like, everyone’s voice is so much more powerful than when they’re amplified. So I think that’s a really great way to start just like keeping those connections alive, keeping the dialogue going. Because then obviously, there’s going to become a point where people can’t ignore it. And that’s, you know, I think that’s kind of the point when real change happens. But I think beyond that, like, I think like, I’m a big advocate for mindfulness. Like I think it’s really important just like moving through the day, just the more sort of kind and appreciative way. And I think too like, I don’t know where you two are, but like, in the Bay Area, for example, like it’s been like the effects of COVID have been unbelievable, in terms of, you know, food insecurity has gone up, joblessness has gone up. So, it’s like, we’ve got like a community fridge that I’ll bring, like, leftovers to, and all my extra samples and things like that. So it’s again, I think being an activist at home is like, really the most powerful thing, but then again, like finding other people as well.
Yeah, I love that just like practicing intentionality. And being mindful, as you go, you know, just like about your daily life. And I do think, you know, while COVID was, and is, like a very challenging, crazy, unexpected time, like I do think in those moments of just like having to take a step back from like, the normal routine that it almost kind of forced us in a way to be, to practice that intentionality more too.
I completely agree. I think, being intentional being present, being mindful again, with anything we do has been like a really huge theme. But with that, Olivia, do you have any, like, anything you want to add regarding your journey, regarding Imperfect or like just getting into the food and beverage industry? I think, I mean, Sydney, and I both went to Cal Poly grew up around close to the Bay Area where we are, but we’re both in the bay. I think a huge mindset is like “tech tech tech”, you have any advice for people wanting to get into the food and beverage industry? Or just kind of be like, hey, there’s more to the world than just tech…
Like, yeah, especially in the in the Bay Area, that’s like a very, very revolutionary thought. Um, I think for me, what I noticed very quickly, is that the grocery and food space is very white male-dominated. So I think, especially for women, like, you know, if, if you would ask me, you know, like, 10 years ago, if I see myself in the grocery industry, I’d be like, like ew, that’s so boring. I’ve gotten copies of Progressive Grocer magazine like that. It’s like, it’s like that. And there’s, I think that side of the business that is like, very, I don’t want to say old and crusty, but old and crusty. Then I think that there are like companies like Imperfect are breathing new life in. And I think for me, it is like getting more women in this business space, I think would be huge, and getting fresh perspectives that aren’t just sort of geared towards doing things the same way.
I love that. I think that’s how we can continue to move forward is like, kind of like capture all those minds that are going into spaces that they’re not like fully interested in. They’re just like, they’re because that’s like, that’s what they know. But then like bringing those different mindsets into the space that impacts everyone, like everyone goes grocery shopping, everyone needs food. Everyone needs to live a sustainable, healthy life. Let’s bring those turning minds here. Versus, wherever, I mean we have a lot of people in tech, that’s not a bad thing.
Yeah, I think too there are companies doing like things at the intersection of food and tech, like vertical ag companies. I think like, I know, people from Tesla who are going to work at Plenty. Like I think there are people who are realizing, you know, they want to do something more than just, you know, just talk to a machine and I think that attracting people with those talents. Like I’m not a huge numbers person. But I think like there’s a need for people of that brainwave to sort of come in and I think it’s like it’s a fun industry. It’s a super human industry. Like, I’m too afraid to look decades into the future when we don’t have water or something horrible, but like now is sort of the time.