Ugly Pickle Co. Makes Food Waste Fun and Delicious

Savannah Kuang, CUESA Staff
May 17, 2019

While each of us can take steps to conserve food in our kitchens, food waste is a big and ugly beast to tackle. An estimated 30 to 40 percent of all food produced in the U.S. goes to waste, gradually rotting and emitting greenhouse gasses in the process.

Food waste not only hurts the environment; it’s also expensive, squandering enormous amounts of natural resources from the soil to our tables. And with America throwing out more than 400 pounds of food per person per year, food waste is also a food security issue, as millions of people go hungry.

Fortunately, nonprofits and businesses are starting to take action by rescuing “ugly” produce that doesn’t meet the cosmetic standards of retailers or markets and donating it to people in need. For Kayla Abe and David Murphy of Ugly Pickle Co., they’re addressing food waste one pickle jar at a time.

Starting a Food Waste Business

One of the newest additions to the Saturday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, Ugly Pickle Co. connects with farmers and market goers while making food waste activism fun and tasty. Before launching their pickling business, Kayla and David saw first-hand how perfectly edible food was wasted all along the food chain.

“I’ve been coming to the farmers market for at least 12 years now, buying produce for the restaurants I worked at,” says David, who previously worked at Whitechapel and Madera. “I noticed that farmers would start giving me cases of greens for free because no one else would buy them. Otherwise, that wasted food would wind up being tilled back into the soil and under a compost heap.”

Kayla, who previously worked for CUESA and who comes from a family of farmers, produce brokers, and distributors from the Salinas Valley, heard from many farmers about the many ways food is wasted on the farm and at markets.

For the couple, this sparked the idea of a business based on reclaiming ugly produce. “I started making this salsa with wasted produce and brought it to parties, and I thought about starting a company using the produce that’s being tossed out,” says David. “So when I told Kayla about this idea, she immediately responded with ‘I had this same idea about five years ago and had it written down in my little notebook!’” With Kayla’s marketing and design skills and David’s culinary, they launched Ugly Pickle Co. in 2018.

Creating the Ultimate Bread ‘n’ Buttah

Although they’ve always wanted to start a food business, they never thought it would be at the farmers market. “I’ve always hoped to start my own business that’s food or environmentally driven, but I never anticipated to be on the other side of the table at the farmers market in the way we are now,” says Kayla. “But because we saw this need in the market, we found being on the ground and talking with people is the best way to work on fixing this issue.”

What they’ve discovered is how disconnected people are from the issue of food waste. This drew them to package Ugly Pickle Co.’s important message in a cute and colorful aesthetic.

“We went through so many iterations of what the packaging could look like, but we landed on this fun, bright, and whimsical brand as an approachable way to talk about this serious yet terrifying issue of food waste and climate change,” says Kayla. “We want this to be an open dialogue, where people feel comfortable entering into the space of our farmers market tent or the shelves, and learning in a candid yet friendly way about how broken our food system is.”

Their current lineup includes their signature Bread ‘n’ Buttah Pickles, Carrot Top Chimi, Dilly Carrots, King of Krauts, and Roasted Root Hummus. Coming up with the products required late nights after their full-time jobs. “At first, I was making one or two pickles to figure out which way we want to go for the taste, and by the end I was making batches of around seven or eight while taking notes,” says David. “We wanted to add enough spices in these products such as coriander or pepper corn and chili flakes. Then we started to add more spiciness—kind of like a punch as soon as it hits you in the mouth. That’s what we found that makes them so delicious.”

Staying True to Their Roots

Kayla and David source their ingredients directly from local farms, such as Capay Organic, Heirloom Organic Gardens, and Lucero Organic Farms, who also sell at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, as well as the delivery service Imperfect Produce. They hope to also source ingredients from retailers.

“Food waste isn’t just happening to farmers. It’s also happening at the retail and distribution level and among consumers since all of this is intertwined. By sourcing from retailers, we get to have that conversation with them, as well,” says Kayla. “When resources are wasted, we’re contributing to deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, water waste; everything that goes into growing food is wasted when we waste food.”

As Ugly Pickle Co. expands to retail spaces like Bi-Rite Market, Kayla and David see more opportunities for education. “We wouldn’t exist without the support from people who care about food waste,” says Kayla. “Selling at retailers allows us to spread our mission even further and opens up more doors for new places where people can have access to these types of foods.”

Even though many of their farmers market shoppers are well-versed in food system issues, Kayla has observed that food waste is still not on many people’s radar. “We want to be a resource for people even if we don’t have all the answers,” says Kayla. “Ultimately, we want to make it easy for people to be more mindful of their eating choices and switch to a more climate-friendly diet with tasty, delicious food.”

Try Ugly Pickle Co. at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays.

Photos of pickles and Kayla Abe courtesy of Ugly Pickle Co.

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