Falling Head Over Peels for Recycled Food

When Alex Wong, MCAS ’20, received a call from his childhood friend Parker Hughes, he had no idea that in a few short months, they would be teaming up to defend the environment—with ugly fruit as their weapon.

Wong was taking a pilot class called “Can Creativity Save the World?,” in which he was tasked with writing a business model and pitching it to the class. Wong, who was interested in green alternatives for recycled produce, suggested the idea of reusing food waste for another practical application to his team.

At the same time, Hughes, a junior at Emerson College, was in a venture competition club called InnovateEDU that competed against other universities in Boston, and his project also revolved around converting food waste into processed goods. When Hughes reached out to Wong to catch up on the past semester, the two friends realized that they were both working on similar projects. Wong sent Hughes research to use for his venture competition, and then the two linked back up a couple of weeks later. After the competition ended, Hughes enlisted Wong’s help to bring his project to the consumer market.

The two had known each other since second grade, so it felt natural for them to work together and eventually co-found a company. They were both interested in entrepreneurship and thought the best way to gain experience was to jump right into it.

“It was kind of a ‘Why not?’ moment,” Wong said. “None of us really knew what we were getting into, but it’s been a lot of fun so far.”

Wong and Hughes’ fundamental goal is to reduce food waste. BRÜZD Foods fights food waste by rescuing “ugly” or imperfect produce from farms that typically goes to waste and delivering it straight to homes throughout Boston in a weekly subscription package. While the two are starting with what they know—agriculture and produce—the company can be taken in a myriad of directions, since food waste is an multifaceted problem.

“The issue of food waste has roots deep in the logistics of the whole system, so there’s definitely room for another pivot,” Wong said.

Through the deliveries of its recycled produce, BRÜZD Foods is helping to create a community of people who understand the impact and difference they’re making in buying secondhand produce.

“We want to make this way of life more than just a thing to subscribe to,” Wong said.

The first step to starting BRÜZD Foods was understanding the problem, which took much longer than Wong and Hughes expected. While their prior research had given them a handle on the basics, it took going out to farms themselves, as well as talking to farmers and consumers, to really have a firm grasp on the issue.

Farmers will put extensive amounts of time and money into growing fruits and vegetables until they harvest them at the end of the season. The best fruits of their labor become the apples that line the shelves of supermarkets. There is also the produce, however, that’s either too small, too big, misshapen, or blemished. Farmers have a hard time selling anything that’s less than perfect to supermarkets and suppliers. They compost this produce if they can, but often times they’re forced to send it to the landfills.

“Food waste is as foolish as it seems,” Wong said.

Once they realized the grim reality of food waste, Wong and Hughes saw the chance to rescue the produce before it even leaves the farm and give it to people who don’t mind the imperfect. When consumers go to the store, they’re going to pick the prettiest or ripest produce—the supermarket experience makes it hard to do what’s best for the environment. By providing produce that’s just as good, but a little uglier, Wong and Hughes divert people away from having to make that choice on the spot at the supermarket.

Wong and Hughes’ original idea was to take the ugly produce that was going to waste and turn it into fruit and vegetable juice. They bought a juicer off Craigslist, started making recipes by testing out different combinations of ingredients, and came up with three flavors: Hopes and Dreams, Turn up the Beet, and Head over Peels.

The pair went to pitch its idea to Soaring Startup Circle, a venture partner accelerator and mentorship network for BC students and alumni who want to start and grow their own businesses. After looking at the samples and bottled prototypes, the venture partners loved the concept and team dynamic. They offered them mentorship to help them think more deeply through their business model and all of the facets it entailed. They also set up meetings with executives and entrepreneurs throughout Boston and gave them other resources, such as office space.

“They’ve been great mentors and are really helpful to us,” Wong said.

Duncan Walker, Soaring Startup Circle’s managing director, operates all of the business and personal development that the program teaches alongside its venture partners. Walker first met Hughes in his venture business competition and now has been working with BRÜZD for a year and a half.

“It’s been amazing to see him and Wong grow their idea into the business that it is today,” Walker said.

Hughes and Wong went through the accelerator program for 11 weeks this past summer. The program not only taught strategies for business development, including product management, marketing, sales, and partnerships, but also focused on topics related to personal development, such as happiness, mental health, time management, stress, and communication—things that accelerator programs usually don’t discuss.

“It’s a team of well-rounded entrepreneurs who have learned the hard way as we’ve been building our own companies,” Walker said.

Three months later, Wong and Hughes were ready to go to the next level and were trying to produce 100 bottles of juice a week to sell at farmers markets, in order to see if people would like the product. In the process, however, they realized the fundamental problem of ugly produce is that suppliers are not willing to pick it up from the farm itself—in many cases it goes to waste at the very first stage. The pair tried to get ugly produce delivered to their kitchen, but most of the local farms didn’t have a food recycling and delivery program that was sizeable enough to complete the orders. That’s when Wong and Hughes decided to rewrite their entire business plan to solve the fundamental problem of the agricultural produce system.

“The industry is not developed enough logistically to pull off something as fun and sheek as a juice company,” Wong said. “That’s how we came up with the idea of going to farms, picking up the produce, and processing it. It was natural for us to go directly to the consumer and deliver the food as is, unprocessed, to homes throughout Boston.”

Although it wasn’t easy to give up eight months of hard work that was no longer applicable for their new project, for the sake of the company’s survival, the two decided to start from scratch.

“We weren’t sure if it was the right decision,” Wong said. “We were in a tough spot, and although a juice company seems more glamorous than the logistics we’re doing now, looking back at it now it was the only logical choice.”

BRÜZD Foods wasn’t always the name of the duo’s company. Wong and Hughes started out with Ugly Apple—a name neither were keen on, as it didn’t quite fit with their ethos or who they are as people. When looking for a new name, their adviser at the time, Jake Bailey, suggested “Bruised Foods” spelled normally. They ran the idea by their graphics designer, Austin Alphonse, and he told them he wanted to try a different spelling to make it more unique. Austin then came back to them with BRÜZD.

“We thought it was strange—definitely offbeat,” Wong said. “It was cool and fit perfectly.”

The company started out with just Wong and Hughes—relying on their close friendship to make decisions and face challenges, and benefitting from their mutual understanding of one another and their goals for the company. Having known each other their whole lives, every decision and conversation they have with one another is real, and neither presumes to know all the answers.

Wong is majoring in economics and minoring in math at BC, while Hughes is majoring in consumer psychology and digital media at Emerson. Wong considers himself focused more on the analytical scale of the business and Hughes more so on marketing and developing the company’s brand. Together, they make decisions and have joint conversations on what will work best for the company.

Recently, Wong and Hughes brought on new team members—including Mckenna Polich, head of brand and MCAS ’19 and Saloni Shah, head of operations and BU ’19. They also brought on three sophomores at BC, Harvard, and Emerson as interns, who will be helping them with content creation, market research, and business development. They’ll also be looking into logistics about how to optimize routes, including the best options for delivery service.

“Doing deliveries every week is no small job,” Wong said.

While at the moment BRÜZD Foods has closed their round of internship hirings, they should be very active during the summer and could potentially take on more interns.

When founding BRÜZD Foods, Wong hoped to counter the notion that the ability to be an entrepreneur and a student at the same time is a myth. Wong—who is now studying abroad in London for a semester—feels that he has found a healthy balance between schoolwork and BRÜZD responsibilities, and that more students could become entrepreneurs at a young age by utilizing the many resources that BC offers.

“I think BC has the talent, intelligence, and skill to be a strong school in terms of startups and innovation,” Wong said. “If BC recognized that more, we could foster so much creativity on campus.”

Photo Courtesy of Alex Wong

November 18, 2018

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