An interview with Jenny Costa, founder of sustainable condiments brand Rubies in the Rubble

by Ilana Lever on

As we step into 2020, sustainability is forefront of many people's minds, as we think of better ways to consume and reduce unnecessary waste. Motley Co-Founder, Ilana, sat down with Jenny Costa, founder of Rubies in the Rubble, who are one of the early pioneers of sustainability in the food waste space to chat chutneys, changes in consumer behaviours, and why she'll never let banana ketchup get the better of them again.

I was brought up on a small farm on the West Coast of Scotland

My father was a small farmer and moved up there when he became tired of London. My mother was an artist and an avid gardener. We would have fruit and vegetables that would last the whole year round, and would always preserve it in some type of way.

My Dad was the biggest feminist hero

He was always instilling in us that we can do anything. We were always inventing things, and trying to create solutions to things. It was a very inquisitive time, always using my hands and being really practical. I did start a business when I was in university, and I loved it. It was very small, but I loved having a finished product that you had a demand for, and was monitoring that and serving people, and they were wanting to buy it again and again.

I got a masters in Maths and Economics, then went straight into a hedge fund

I got a job in 2010, and it was a time where I didn’t even think about what I was doing, or why. Soon after, I realised I had no passion in what I was doing. The team was amazing, I learned a lot. But I knew if I stayed there for the cash or because it was comfortable, I would be really disappointed with myself when I’m older.  

I’ve always had a passion for chutneys

Which looking back was crazy, because no one even eats chutneys. But as a family, it was all we ever ate. The passion probably came from my Mum. If you’re growing your own vegetables and you have a harvest where you can’t eat everything, you want to find a way to preserve all the hard work. We never really had ketchup or mayonnaise at home, but we would always have big batches of chutney on the table. It transforms a meal. Plus I’m a lazy cook. It also seemed like preserving and condiments were the natural way when I was looking at the problem of food waste.

Food waste used to be such a hippy notion

I started my research in 2010, and the reason I became so hooked on it was that no one was talking about it. We were discarding a third of what we produce globally, it accounts for 10% of  greenhouse gases in the UK, the government was spending billions to get rid of it, but 60% of it was avoidable, and agriculture was the largest contributor.

I thought, instead of wasting a third of it, why don’t we just deal with it better?

Reduce your food waste to be more sustainable

Condiments felt like an obvious solution 

When you have perishable food, unpredictable humans, and the supply and demand is never really adding up, unpredictable weather, fruit and veg being discarded at the farm level by 30 tonnes every week… It’s often perfectly good produce, just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Turning these vegetables into condiments naturally preserves the life by two years.  Perfect product, and a brand that raised awareness to cherish food as a precious resource.

Everyone starts a business in a very different way

I am not a planner. I like to just do it. Rubies came really quickly, I was reading an article about food waste on my way home from work, got on my laptop as soon as I got home, and I remember sitting on the sofa, spouting facts to my flatmate.

I discovered three London wholesale fruit and veg markets that ran from midnight to 6am. I set my alarm for 4 am. It was November so it was absolutely freezing. This was the first time I saw pallets of amazing vegetables being discarded. It got me so excited, this new world of people working late at night, getting fresh fruit and veg before it hits the shelves. But if there wasn’t a buyer, the fresh product got discarded.

London wholesale fruit and vegetable market

I took masses of discarded vegetables back to my flat, thinking, "There must be something I can do with this, this is like diamonds in the dust, rubies in the rubble." My head started whirling. That day I looked up the cheapest farmers markets I could find. There was one in December so I had a month to figure out how to work with farmers and their markets. I used my Mum’s recipes, I collected old jam jars. A girl who was sleeping on my sofa at the time from a homeless shelter got really involved in the cooking, and was from Hungary so she had a bunch of different ideas for recipes. The two of us went and sold our product at this market. It got such a buzz that it sold out by 2:00.

I went home that Christmas and told my parents I was quitting work

It was a really stupid way of doing it. But I was 25 with no mortgage. My boss at the time, who was very supportive, said that whatever you do, don’t do it half-heartedly, and dedicate all of your time to it. It was the best advice I had.

I thought if I made a really fun brand, and had a product that tasted amazing and could stand up to any other brand, and has a bigger purpose, then I would be really really happy. 

Rubies in the Rubble condiments

I was really fortunate to get finance in the first year

Leaving a hedge fund helped a lot. I left my flat with friends and moved into a matchbox in somebody's house in East London, so my rent was pennies. I got a couple of grants from UnLtd for £22k. We did everything on a shoe string for the first couple of years. I worked by myself for the first two years, then got an intern, Alicia, who’s now my business partner. 

It was really tough divvying up the cash at the end of each market. But the nice thing with the food business is that the overheads are pretty small. We created our website for free on cheap sites. In 2015, we took a small raise with Mustard Seed, and last November, we closed a round of £2.2 million. Now we want to smash it in the next three years.

Jenny and Alicia

Fundraising as a woman was quite tough in the beginning

I find it hard, because you don’t often boast about what you do. But after about six months, when I realised we were running out of cash quickly, I’ve got 12 people on the payroll, suddenly I bucked up my game. I practiced my pitch with people in the office, which was something I’d never done before, 

It’s scary going into a room of suits, and condiments isn’t a sexy tech business, so you can see people turning off. But we said we were going to do things differently. This is who we are and we’ve got an amazing product, and had  the pizzazz and confidence to go for it. I also realised no one knows what any business is going to. You have your plans, but no one knows the future. So I changed my language to “We are going to do this”.

I pretty much worked up until the day my son was born.

Which when running your own business, you need to. I took three months off fully paid, then came back two and a half days a week. He’s now with a nanny and I work full time but I am always back by 5. It is still hard. Now he’s giggling and chatting, I really understand the Mum guilt. But there is something so wonderful about running your own business that you can do things the way you want. I can work from home, or come in late. I have been really fortunate that my business got to the stage it did before having my first born. And I thought it was really beneficial that I had to stand back a bit, it meant that everyone else has to step up. I couldn't have done if without a fantastic team

Saying 'Yes' to something we couldn't do was one of our biggest mistakes

It was back in 2014 when we were creating our products in our kitchen, in this funny little metal Portacabin. We got this amazing contract from an agency at Christmas. They loved our banana ketchup, which I had only made in small batches, and they wanted us to make it as presents for all of their 5000 clients worldwide. We said “Yeah, we can do that.” That was the 15th of December and they needed it in a week. As we got into our kitchen, and as we started scaling it up, it didn’t work. Bananas are really hard to cook with, and we couldn’t get it right. So we just bottled this stuff that was like wallpaper. We packaged them and they look beautiful, but it was revolting. We sent it out, and I felt sick throughout the Christmas period, waiting for a call. And of course, it came.

It was just that stupidity of getting it out the door, rather than saying this is not to standard. We really learned from that because there were 5,000 people around the world that could be influencers that have our bad product. From that we got real confidence to say “no” when we couldn’t get it right.  

There is a huge change in consumer perception around food waste

Now people actually want to buy into brands that are more sustainable, especially with food. The government have said that by 2020 they are going to reduce all the food that goes to landfill, supermarkets are starting to change their ways, and businesses are becoming more accountable for what they are wasting.

The consumer is the worst because we can afford to be wasteful. We are in a culture, where instead of looking in your fridge and think about what you can create, you want to eat whatever you want and at that time. Our office behaviours have changed. We have a lot of lunches and meals altogether. Everyone will text about the food they left in the fridge, offering for someone to grab it, or people bringing in their vegetables from home. They are changing the way they look in their fridge.

Quick fire questions

Biggest weakness?

Zero concentration for things. Concentration and detail. I have zero interest in detail. I am more go with your gut, and move on.  

Favourite start up?

Jenny: Pedal Me. They do all the deliveries around London. They're just some guys on bicycles who are very good at cycling and get things done.  

Guilty pleasure?

Ice cream probably. I eat an enormous amount of ice cream.  

Most interesting person you've met this year?

I know this sounds cliche but I met Paul Polman, I have heard him speak a few times, and always found him inspirational.  He lives out his values, and has made enormous changes.  

Book you'd recommend?

“Any Human Heart” by William Boyd.  I don’t know where it is going. But it really has been a lovely read.  

What you'd like to be remembered for?

I want to be remembered as someone who was kind, and fun, and someone who really made a difference.  And did things in a different way. 

See the full selection at Rubies in the Rubble

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