Small business owners across the country have felt the double whammy of inflation and slow hiring as a possible recession looms on the horizon. But how are these concerns affecting non-traditional companies in larger sectors of the economy?
Take Matriark Foods for example. It is a social impact company working towards sustainability in the food system through a process called upcycling. Its unique business has helped protect it from the harsh sting of inflation, but it’s certainly not immune to its effects, the company’s chief said.
Marketplace’s Sabri Ben-Achour spoke to Anna Hammond, the founder and CEO of Matriark Foods, about her company and how it is weathering this economic turmoil. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Sabri Ben Achour: So you are in the food upcycling business. What is the food upcycling business?
Anna Hammond: So, upcycling means that all food reaches its highest value, which is feeding people. And upcyclers take food that would otherwise have been wasted and turn it into products. And that ranges from what we do, which is upcycling vegetable surplus and leftovers, to upcycling spent grains from beer production.
Ben Achour: Where do you get leftovers from, whether vegetables or grain from beer production?
Hammond: Yeah, so the upcycled food supply chain is really interesting. I like to say we’re not doing anything new, we’re doing something that people have been doing for thousands of years, which is to use whatever has grown and not throw it away. But over the past 80 years, our farming and food production system has created enormous amounts of inefficiencies from its efficiency. That’s why we, Matriark Foods, work with large fresh-cut facilities that produce carrots, onions, celery and cut fruit for all grocery stores across the country. And if you picture a bunch of celery and think about the celery sticks you buy at a grocery store, picture all the celery that isn’t there with those celery sticks. And we’re working with these fresh-cut facilities to capture those leftovers and truly bring them back to the food they are, rather than sending them to landfill.
Ben Achour: And some of the food you make this way is carbon neutral or climate friendly. How does food become climate-friendly?
Hammond: So all upcycled food is climate friendly. And we’re working with the Upcycled Food Association to certify that the food we use, the ingredients, some of the ingredients we use, would otherwise have been wasted. But we have also worked with Planet Forward to certify our products as carbon neutral. And that means we’ve performed a full life cycle analysis of every ingredient we use, from the packaging, to the vegetables and spices, to the long journeys to each production site. And when we come up with the final number with Planet Forward, they then have a carbon number attached to the food we make and we buy offsets from a third party that grows forests and we are then certified carbon neutral .
Ben Achour: How did you come up with this idea?
Hammond: [Laughs] You mean the idea of Matriarch?
Ben Achour: Yes, like recycling or upcycling food?
Hammond: Well I have to say I grew up in a family where we didn’t waste anything. My mother’s family were political refugees and they came to this country with very little. So the mentality of not wasting was very present in my youth. But before I started this business, I built a healthy eating program for youth and families living in public housing in New York City. And part of that work was brokering relationships with farmers in the Hudson Valley to get their surplus vegetables to these community centers where kids were learning to cook but had very little access to really good, wholesome ingredients.
And just an enormous amount of food was wasted on the farms, the farmers needed additional income. And then all these people who suffer from diet-related diseases, want to make better food for their families, but don’t have access to it. And the massive amount of waste and demand was really the inspiration behind the launch of Matriark. And really figuring out how to use all the veg and all the veg that’s grown, that’s using all of the natural resources — you know, water, labor, land — to be made, and then there’s no point doing that to throw away the out. So that was really the inspiration for the company to create better access to healthy food for all people and divert waste from landfills.
Ben Achour: They started this business during the pandemic. I mean running a business is difficult, especially at the start of the pandemic, let alone starting one. How did you do that?
Hammond: Well it was a very interesting experience. But you know, they say adversity creates all kinds of opportunity. And that was definitely our mentality until the end. We actually started the business a year before COVID started, built the product and developed the idea. And then in the first week of March 2020 we had our first order for a full range of our product. And in the next week, gastronomy will be closed worldwide. So we’ve been working, I mean we’ve been doing all sorts of things during the pandemic to keep the business going, to keep things going.
We were working with a large food service company in New York City that was also making the transition and they were making food boxes for frontline workers and we were wondering if we could make a small carton of our vegetable broth concentrate for those food boxes. So we did that. We had a grant from ReFED to make a healthy stew out of half a million pounds of vegetables sliced for canceled contracts. And we did that in partnership with Northern New Jersey’s largest food bank, Table to Table. But I have to say, it really validated us that during COVID we were actually doing what we set out to do even more intensely, which is bringing food to people in need and using our resources to their best advantage.
Ben Achour: Polls show that the #1 problem or concern for small businesses right now is inflation. How has that affected you? Did you have to raise prices? Or is your supply chain somehow unique in that it’s not exposed?
Hammond: Unfortunately, I don’t think there is a supply chain that is immune to inflation. But I think the nature of our supply chain certainly means some of our ingredients are fewer than if we were using first crops or no leftovers. But I also think that the increased awareness of food waste as a negative environmental impact, on top of the increased awareness of global hunger, has really only drawn more attention to what we are already doing. And so for us I would say activity for our business has increased due to COVID. There is simply no one who doesn’t know what food waste is, who doesn’t understand that hunger is a problem and who doesn’t want to do something positive for the environment.
Ben Achour: Yeah, I mean it’s related to labor. Finding labor has also been a challenge for many companies, just because they need labor they need help but at the same time they don’t know where the market is going. And at the same time it is difficult to find people. what about you guys Did you have trouble finding people?
Hammond: We had no trouble finding people. I mean, I think what we’re doing is of great interest, not just to young people entering the labor market, but also to people who have been in the labor market for a long time and want to do something that has a sense of urgency about it , as our environment certainly does. I think what’s interesting for us is that our customers’ work problems have created an opportunity to have a dialogue with them about what kinds of products we can make that can help with some of their work problems. For example, in the hospitality industry, scratch cooking is great when you have the manpower and time, but when you have a manpower shortage, you really need to have things that are easier and quicker to prepare. So we actually did some product development around additional products that can help with work problems.
Ben Achour: What do you see as the next step in terms of growth, especially at a time when people are fearful of a recession?
Hammond: When there’s a recession, people pay more attention to what they eat and how they spend their money. So if you have a company that makes products that make work easier and are also good for the environment, which everyone is talking about, it’s kind of focused on reducing waste. Sometimes a recession can be good — tightening your belt isn’t always a bad thing. And I don’t say that without respect for the difficulties it causes in people’s lives, but it does make people think a lot more carefully about how they use resources. And when we talk about the environment and food, that’s a good thing.
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