Posted by: Jamie Kutchman | Founder
Every day in this country, startup companies emerge with new ideas on how to make a profit. But it’s not every day that a startup company emerges with a solid plan for profit AND a blueprint for how to better society. Today, I am absolutely ecstatic to introduce to you Elizabeth Bennett, founder of the DC-based food startup Fruitcycle. The company mission? To produce healthy and locally-sourced snacks using produce that would otherwise go to waste, all while providing jobs for homeless, formerly incarcerated or otherwise disadvantaged women. This lady boss has a fierce work ethic, a brilliant mind, and a heart of gold all wrapped into one up and coming entrepreneur. You may have gotten your first glimpse at Fruitcycle snacks earlier this year in my post about wedding welcome gifts that give back.
After working with Elizabeth late last year to include her DC-based snacks in the Marigold & Grey collection, I’m so glad I was finally able to catch up with her and learn even more about the compelling story behind her business. Truthfully, some of her answers actually made me tear up. She is THAT inspirational. I guess it’s no wonder she took 1st place this past fall by beating out approximately 50 other DC-area food-related startups in the “Shark Tank” style Launch Pad competition. Without further adieu…
What were you doing prior to starting Fruitcycle?
Before starting Fruitcycle, I had worked in politics for about five years and then for a small nonprofit that worked with restaurants on nutrition. I have a Master’s degree in Food Anthropology, so helping address sustainable food issues had always been my goal.
What made you decide to start Fruitcycle?
The idea came to me after visiting a pick-your-own peach orchard. Despite already knowing that food waste is a problem in this country (every day we waste about 263 million pounds of food, enough to fill the Rose Bowl), I was completely astounded by the thousands of pounds of nutritious, local fruit going to waste on the ground in front of me. I thought there had to be a way to recover that food before it went to waste and turn it into a delicious shelf-stable product that would also create jobs for disadvantaged women.
What are you most proud of since starting Fruitcycle?
Launching and making a difference faster than I ever thought possible. In August of last year, Fruitcycle was just an idea I’d had for a year; I finally sat down to write my business plan for a local business plan competition. In early September, I was named one of four finalists in the competition and I was the only one who had yet to launch. By the finale three weeks later, I had a logo, a website, press mentions, samples for 200 people, a pitch, and stores ready to carry our apple chips when they were ready.
Fruitcycle was voted the audience favorite at the competition and I kept up the momentum to launch in mid-November. To date, we’ve rescued more than 5,000 pounds of apples that would have otherwise gone to waste and hired two women who were both formerly incarcerated and homeless.
What are your biggest challenges in starting and running a small business?
Addressing economies of scale and bureaucracy. Having a small business is hard; having a small food business is even harder because of all the extra regulations and costs. (Commercially-licensed kitchen space does not come cheap. And my workers’ compensation insurance rate is higher than a fast food restaurant’s – presumably because underwriters associate “dried fruit manufacturing” with a pretty intense operation and machinery rather than my small artisanal process.)
What are your goals for 2015 for the business and personal?
I’d love to see Fruitcycle continue to grow at a fast pace in terms of bringing on new stores and increasing sales at our current stores. I have a meeting with a well-known natural foods store; getting onto their shelves at the local level would be huge and my fingers are crossed for that. We’re also working on introducing a few new products. All of the above will help us fulfill our mission of providing jobs for disadvantaged women, supporting small farmers, and reducing food waste.
What inspires you?
The women who work with me are absolutely amazing; they have overcome significant obstacles only to have trouble finding jobs. They’re smart and hard-working, but they haven’t necessarily been told that or had the support and life experiences that most of us probably take for granted. For example, I brought in a cake and gathered up other people in our kitchen to sing “Happy Birthday” to my first hire, Elaine. She hugged me about six times and told me that no one had ever done that for her. It was her 43rd birthday.
On the tough days when the difficulties of running a small food business seem overwhelming and I have even the slightest thought about giving up, I know I have to continue to fight for them and the positive change we’re making together.
Fruitcycle apple chips are currently available at eight stores in the DC area and through their website and, of course, can be included in wedding welcome gifts via the Marigold & Grey website. Elizabeth and Fruitcycle are clearly destinated for great things! Follow along on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. All handles are @thefruitcycle.