Fruit (and Second Chances) Never Tasted So Good

An interview with Fruitcycle founder Elizabeth Bennett.

We caught up with Elizabeth Bennett, an entrepreneur on a dual mission improve the lives of women, and reduce food waste. Bennett founded Fruitcycle and is currently in her second year of running the company. Fruitcycle offers truly delicious products made with hand-picked local produce.  We asked Bennett to share her struggles, inspiration, and general insights to help us navigate this promising young category she calls “second chances.”

How long have you been involved with Fruitcycle?
I sold our first product in November 2014. Before that,  I had been planning the idea for over a year.

What types of products do you offer?
We started out with just apple chips, and in May 2015 we introduced kale chips. Last summer we introduced apple butter and six jarred products (including strawberry jam) to preserve the bounty of summer produce. We also recently introduced trail mix.

How do you describe the mission?
Our products provide second chances in two ways. One would be employing and training women who need a second chance because they are homeless, formerly incarcerated, or otherwise disadvantaged. The second would be the fruit we pick was originally not the right size/shape to be sold commercially. The model address is the paradox that in this country we waste 40% of food while 1/6 americans are currently living in hunger.

What were you doing before Fruitcycle, and how did you get started?
Before Fruitcycle, I was the director of outreach and communications for the US Healthful Food Council. Launching a business is scary. I was at USHFC and entered a business plan competition by a local kitchen incubator to help food entrepreneurs, the Launchpad Messhall competition. That competition gave me a hard, fast deadline to get the business plan in place. When I found out I was one of the four finalists, that gave me the courage to quit my job. Before that, I felt like Fruitcycle was my calling and I had been growing frustrated that I haven’t been able to fully start it. At the time of the competition, I didn’t even have a logo, and I was competing against already established companies. Becoming a finalist gave me the courage to get all my ducks in order, so to speak. I quickly figured out the packaging and website and created over 200 samples. Because of that competition I accomplished an awful lot in a short period of time.

How has Fruitcyle grown?
This January (2016) we announced a merger with Together We Bake,  a non-profit program for women who have been homeless or otherwise disadvantaged. Together We Bake offers an eight-week training program that empowers women who have been incarcerated or homeless. The program discusses coping with overwhelming problems and issues they face. They learn the ins and outs of running a food brand. From making and packaging the food products, including chocolate chip cookies and granola, to learning about production and the business side of things. The women are even trained in inventory management at Whole Foods, and handle the social media for the company. In the end, they graduate the class with a food handler’s license.

Why did you decided to combine forces with Together We Bake?
My first employee was one of their graduates. Overall, small food business can be difficult and you need all the support you can get. Together We Bake and Fruitcycle’s missions were very similar in helping women. I thought that if we could join forces, we’d be force to be reckoned with. They work out of a church kitchen in Alexandria which is now where we develop the product.

Where can consumers find your product?
Select Whole Foods, including the P Street location in Washington DC, and 20 other retailers in DC area. We also sell product on their Website and amazon.

Why are people recently paying more attention to products like Fruitcycle that address food waste and social issues?  
Food waste expansion is really positive and it’s gotten media attention, which has helped raise awareness. Europe and England have been the leaders in food responsibility and now the US is catching on. A couple of other key moments have helped with momentum, including the United Nations declaring 2014 was the year of food waste in Europe, as well as  Intermarche launching its “inglorious fruits and vegetables”  campaign in 2014. 

How did you decide to use fruit ingredients?
I was an amateur canner before. I even exhibited at the state fair, but growing up in Florida, my mom would dehydrate mango and tropical fruits. I was bound to find something to use for Fruitcycle, but if it weren’t for my mom dehydrating those fruits, it may not have occurred to me to start dehydrating local apples.

Are your products more expensive than similar store-bought items?
The price will always be higher if you’re buying from a small producer. When you’re making a small batch product by hand, that’s labor intensive. We’re not going to compete with large food corporations because of scale, but also subsidies.

Why are they willing to pay a premium price?
Despite the fact that the apple is from “seconds,” we’re cutting off any of the bad parts. It’s better than non-local apples because I know the person who grows them. It’s a quality apple picked at the peak of freshness. We put a lot care and love into it and create a really good product. People love our apple chips because of the mission, quality and what goes into it. We only choose ingredients from within 100 miles of where it’s sold. We start with really good ingredients.  It’s a higher price point than a non-local bag of apple chips. I would love to bring the price down – right now, a larger bag with four apples retails for $6.49. That’s not too different than buying three non-local apples.

What are some other food brands you admire?
There are many interesting innovative brands out there including: Hungry Harvest, which has a food delivery model that incorporates Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Also, Imperfect Produce, which is a food delivery service that brings imperfect food to your door. FreshPaper is another company that is preventing waste by providing papers you stick in your refrigerator to extend life fruit and veggies. Toast is another one that creates beer out of unused bread. And Regrained is a granola bar brand that re-purposes beer.

How do you find the growing competition?
It’s nice to see the competition. The community is friendly and supportive. There’s so much food waste out there that there is room for everyone to make a difference and a lot of room for innovation. That being said it’s easy to say you’re doing something even if you’re not. There are companies out there that exaggerate their impact. We try to be transparent and supply partners as specifically as possible.

In what ways do people use the product that are unconventional?
A lot of people told me they put the apple chips in oatmeal. I use them for stuffing. Someone on instagram made a beautiful cheeseboard with the dried apples. Someone I saw actually rehydrates apples and bakes with them.

Where do you see Fruitcycle in five years?
I’d like to branch out to more Whole Foods locations and expand the model to other cities.

Who has been your biggest supporter throughout the process of starting your own business?
My fiancée has been very supportive. I was with him when I was formulating the idea at a pick-your own peach orchard. To test out the idea I mapped out a bunch of farms in Maryland and VA and we went to each one together. He was hugely supportive throughout the chaos of the competition, and he’s done everything from getting apples from the farmers market to working markets and events.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received about starting your business in food products?
Be prepared to be all consumed. And importantly, find yourself a network of other food entrepreneurs who can support and commiserate. Things always go wrong and you have to laugh about it sometimes. I wouldn’t change anything.

 

Contact Elizabeth:

To shop delicious Fruitcycle products, visit www.fruitcycle.com
If you’d like to get in touch with Elizabeth, you can contact her through the website.
Elizabeth Bennett’s list of people to watch and further reading in this arena:
Dana Gunder, of the NRDC, who wrote a paper in 2012/2013 with the 40% statistic (above).
WASTED. Jonathan Bloom
AMERICAN WASTELAND which shared that we waste enough food to fill the rose-bowl each day.
Tristam Stewart. Runs an organization in the UK and has some great ted talks.  He wrote WASTE uncovering the global food scandal.
Michael Kravit