The produce aisle of local grocers often offers a rainbow vision of plump grapes, Red Delicious apples with crisp, juicy skin glinting in the fluorescent lining, and bright oranges in perfectly round form. It’s essentially a beauty competition among the fruits and veggies, with only the most attractive produce being plucked from the shelves and tucked into the shopping carts of hungry customers.
But, have you ever wondered what happens to the not-so-pretty produce? Duke University grad Courtney Bell decided to launch Durham-based Ungraded Produce, a subscription-based produce delivery service on a mission to fight food waste and improve food access. The company works closely with farmers and other distributors to rescue high quality, “ugly” and excess produce, box it up, and deliver it to customers at a discount. In addition, Ungraded donates two to five pounds of produce for every box sold.
Bell discussed the business in a recent interview.
What motivated you to found Ungraded? How much money have you raised so far?
While studying environmental science at Duke, I starting learning a lot about the severity of food waste and food insecurity, and I wanted to do something to mitigate these issues.
At the time, the ugly produce concept was just starting to gain traction, but there wasn’t much awareness in North Carolina. However, I began doing some research and met with many farmers, and discovered there was a business opportunity to divert ugly and excess produce to consumers at a discount.
This discovery motivated me to start Ungraded Produce my junior year at Duke. I launched a trial period on Duke’s campus in September 2016, and delivered produce to 15 student customers out of the trunk of my car. We grew through word of mouth both on and off campus, and I started running Ungraded full time after graduating in May 2017. I’ve raised $200,000 from investors so far.
How much does Ungraded’s delivery service cost?
We offer eight different fruit and veggie combination boxes, ranging from five to 15 pounds, and prices ranging from $10.49 to $23.49 per box. We deliver the produce to customers’ homes on the weekends, and there is a weekly and biweekly delivery option, although customers can skip any delivery they want.
How many customers? Where are they from? How many growers do you work with?
We have about 650 customers, and they live in the Triangle. We have a strong network of 15-20 suppliers.
What is Ungraded’s primary goal?
At Ungraded Produce, we are working to improve the sustainability and equity of the North Carolina food system one ugly fruit and veggie at a time. First, we are incentivizing farmers to pick and sell us their ugly produce rather than leaving it in the fields, thereby putting more money back into our agricultural industry and preventing food waste right at the source.
Because we are buying a product that would normally go unsold, we can in turn sell it at a discount — our produce boxes are priced 30-50% cheaper than supermarket alternatives. After aggregating produce and packing it in boxes, we deliver it directly to customers’ homes. Our affordable prices and convenient home delivery model help consumers to overcome any time, transportation, or budget constraints to accessing fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables. We also donate 2-5 pounds of fresh produce for every box sold to local food banks.
What makes it different compared with typical grocery stores or food delivery companies?
This is a North Carolina company run by a young female entrepreneur, and that in itself makes Ungraded Produce stand out from the crowd. People in the Raleigh-Durham area really love to support local companies, which is awesome.
By delivering “recovered” (i.e. ugly produce that has been rescued from going to waste) produce to people’s homes, we’re also providing people with an easy way to participate in the fight against food waste. As for the service itself, we offer a wide range of products that cater to the diverse set of lifestyles within the Triangle. We make an effort to offer products that work for the busy dorm-dwelling college student with just a mini-fridge, young professionals who don’t have a lot of time to shop and cook, families that cook several days each week, and retirees looking to get more for their money. Regardless of one’s time, budget, or storage constraints, we have a box that works for everyone.
Plans for the future?
I’m working on raising my next round so that we can pursue more aggressive marketing, hiring, supply chain development strategies. Additionally, we’re working on developing a distribution model that will enable us to be able to accept [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] payment — something we currently can’t do as an online retailer — and make our products more accessible to the food-insecure community. We are still focused on building density in the Triangle, but plan to expand to other markets in North Carolina over the next few years.