The Beautiful Upside of Ugly Produce

How Canadian project the Misfits has expanded to 300 U.S. stores, making ugly produce successful for shoppers and retailers alike.

At a time when over half of all the nation’s produce is going to waste due to cosmetic reasons, so-called ugly produce has captured the world’s attention. Since 2012, 16 countries around the world have embraced the call to save less-than-perfect foods from landfill. In the U.S., the market for ugly produce is really picking up speed as a number of grocers have begun ugly-food program in the past year.

The Misfits brand of ugly produce, which Meijer Supermarkets just began selling in 35 of its U.S. stores, is the most expansive ugly-produce program in the country, carried in more than 300 stores across three supermarket chains in the U.S. alone.

misfits brandingCraig Arneson, General Manager of Sourcing for Robinson Fresh, says the product line’s whimsical branding (shown at right) has been a big part of the program’s success. “The [Misfits] brand helps make the cosmetically challenged acceptable,” he said.

While the Misfits are becoming increasingly well-known in the States, their success has been a product of a lot of hard work. Mike Meinhardt, Sales and Marketing Manager at Alberta-based produce distributor Red Hat Growers, launched the product in Canada in 2015, and he and the other stakeholders involved in the process have learned what it takes to successfully develop and sell an ugly-produce program to both retailers and consumers.

In 2014, Meinhardt took some of his chef-customers on a tour of one of a greenhouse.

“One chef asked about the orange bins”—which were full of imperfect produce that had to be thrown out,” he recalled. “The chefs all stopped and went through it and all agreed that it was perfect for them and should not be thrown out.”

From there—with some help from Meinhardt’s family, who echoed the idea that ugly produce should not be wasted—Red Hat partnered with Minnesota-based Robinson Fresh, one of the largest produce companies in the world. This led to the September 2015 launch of a small pilot Misfits program at Associated Foods stores in Utah. The short-lived program helped Robinson Fresh fine-tune its marketing and logistics.

Other Similar Efforts

The Misfits are not alone in their effort to bring ugly fruits and vegetables, with all of their unique imperfections and anthropomorphic shapes, to the masses. In fact several major grocery stores have embarked on their own similar projects in recent years. Walmart has marketing a limited selection and done promotions around single item as limited campaigns. Raley’s supermarkets’ also created a Real Good partnership with Imperfect Produce, but that program was short-lived. Ben Simon, Imperfect’s CEO, said that the “Raley’s staff person spearheading the program [moved] on, which caused the momentum on the pilot to halt.”

Whole Foods also launched a partnership with Imperfect in 2016 with a handful of stores. Now, a year into operation, it has expanded to 20 stores in Northern California.

And Giant Eagle launched it’s Produce with Personality program in Pennsylvania in 2016 and has since expanded to Ohio.

How the Misfits Program Works

Unlike other stores’ efforts, the Misfits is a committed, year-round program that offers four to eight produce types at a time, depending on what’s in season—they include curled-up cucumbers, misshapen mandarins, and bent bell peppers. The produce sells for 20 to 40 percent less than conventionally attractive fruits and vegetables.

Red Hat Growers works with farmers to source the misfit produce and get it to stores. With 20 billion pounds of produce wasted before it reaches grocery stores, in the U.S. alone, there is no shortage of cosmetically challenged produce to choose from.

Meinhardt says produce becomes less desirable to stores for many reasons. Too much sun—or not enough—extremely high or low temperatures on farms, rainfall, wind, and many more factors can make produce less-than-perfect. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) grading standards classify fruits and vegetables from a number 1 for perfect, or numbers 2 and 3 for the “ugly” stuff. But these standards are only guides, and they’re only part of the problem. Purchasers for supermarkets and their buyers or suppliers often go above and beyond the USDA’s ranking system, and enforce even higher standards for “number ones” in order to fill their shelves with picture-perfect produce.

Although supermarkets have traditionally ignored the potential of ugly-produce programs, that is quickly changing with the flurry of new programs in the U.S.

“One thing we’ve learned from trialing this program is that it truly needs to be holistic. It’s paramount to the success of the program to have collaboration at all levels of the organization” said Robinson Fresh’s Arneson. He also described some key planning steps: “Before launching the Misfits program with any retailer, we make sure they are supportive of the price, the sustainability component, the branding, and the cadence of receiving the produce.”

A number of factors have helped the Misfits—and other ugly-produce programs—take root in the U.S. With just seven major retailers in Canada, the options for getting ugly produce to market are not as plentiful as in the U.S.—and Loblaw, the largest grocer, already has its own ugly-produce program, Meinhardt said it’s easier to find a retailer willing to “commit and allocate shelf space” among the many options in the U.S.

Robinson Fresh has also found that “Millennial buyers are showing a stronger voice in the marketplace with their dollars, and they typically trend toward food with a cause,” Arneson said.

Connecting to customers in a new way, and one that lifts the veil on the picture-perfect produce aisles we’ve come to expect, also helps expand demand for ugly produce. We are drawn to the imperfect: “We’re all misfits in our own way,” Meinhart said.

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  1. Barbara Penning
    Saturday, May 13th, 2017
    An incredible important shift to get nutritious food at a reasonable price to more and more people. Food waste is not sustainable when so many people are stretched financially and could benefit with nutritious food at a discount.
  2. Saturday, May 13th, 2017
    For economic reasons and because I was raised not to throw good food away, I would shop where this program is offered. Could you please tell me where in my area (St. Louis in general or zip code 63126 more specifically) I can find these beautiful Misfits?
  3. Saturday, May 13th, 2017
    It disgraceful that the grocery store leaves produce behind and do not give it to people in poverty, homeless and people on welfare for free.
    The CEO should be fired. your customer service to people with disabilities is extremely poor. your customer service staff not very assertive and have poor customer service skills, people skills, and interpersonal skills. not educated to understand the dynamics of customer service skills. The government should launch a public inquiry and financial compensation for those people who file complaints against customer service, senior management and CEO. I want justice as soon as possible because I have reservations about customer service in the customer my whole life. I have been subjected to overt, systemic and institutional racism as a visible minority in customer service in the private sector my whole life and I want justice.
  4. shane
    Sunday, May 14th, 2017
    Wow I'm so glad the waste of food is being addressed in such a good way, thank you .
  5. Sunday, May 14th, 2017
    This is good news -- or rather, a running start at good news. I had already identified the minimizing of food wastage as one of the keys to solving the problem of hunger. This report confirms that some people out there are starting to very usefully address one of the major causes of that wastage. Yes! Their efforts now need to be further refined and massively scaled up.
  6. Linda
    Sunday, May 14th, 2017
    I think the Ugly Food Program is a great idea...simply because I hate seeing good food go to waste as long as the ugly vegetables are organically grown.