While Phil Wong and Ann Yang were undergrads at Georgetown University, the unlikely pair of best friends both focused on international studies and were interested in food system issues. A fateful couple of crates of bruised-but-still-delicious peaches was the accidental start of Misfit Juicery, the innovative juice company meant to address food waste which the duo co-founded in late 2015. Inside of cheerful, strikingly-designed bottles, Misfit’s mixtures are 70% comprised of food scraps from “fresh-cut” fruits and veggies, like watermelon cubes or baby carrots, as well as dinged-up-but-still -asty produce that grocery stores don’t deem pretty enough to buy from farmers. Here, Wong discusses the brand’s unlikely roots, how it’s expanded thus far and what’s next, plus the deeper meaning behind the company’s moniker, which is about more than just blemished pears and carrots.
Photography Gander Inc.
How did you and Ann come up with the concept for Misfit?
We’re on a mission to fight food waste, and we’re creating delicious products from supply chain inefficiencies. This was born out of our shared passion around food waste, and also my and Ann’s friendship. We met in college at Georgetown and became best friends, and were both really interested in various food issues. But food waste really captured both of our imaginations. Sure, it’s very environmental, but it’s also really value based and in the eye of the beholder. Looking at produce, we might think one is better or more valuable than the other. But a bruised apple is just as delicious and nutritious as a “perfect apple” we might find in a grocery store. It’s also an issue that isn’t really consumer-facing. Produce takes a really long journey to get to grocery store aisles. Getting from farm to table is not easy!
When did you two start making juices?
We started off with four crates of ugly peaches and a borrowed blender from our college farmer’s market. We essentially juiced for nine or 10 hours and started selling the juice in a coffee shop and salad shop on campus. That was the beginning of Misfit; we then fully launched in December 2015. Thankfully, we’re no longer making the juice in my college kitchen, to the delight of the health inspectors, I’m sure. We’re now selling in over 25 places in D.C. and New York, and we have some awesome distribution partners, like Whole Foods, Eataly, Sweetgreen, and WeWork.
Where do you source your bruised-but-usable fruits and veggies from?
We’re sourcing from the entire value chain before retail, so we’re not working with restaurants or grocery stores. Instead, we’re working with farmers that have a product they can’t harvest or that won’t sell, and distributors who, likewise, don’t have products that might the aesthetic specifications of retailers. We also work with fresh-cut producers, who are making baby carrots, for example. Those don’t grow out of the ground looking like that! To make baby carrots, you chop down a fully-formed carrot, and in doing so, create all of this really delicious and nutritious product, like trimmings and tops, that simply isn’t being used right now.
During college, what did you and Ann think you’d each be doing career-wise?
Yeah, it’s pretty out of left field! We were both in the School of Foreign Services, which is the international relations school, and a lot of people go in thinking they’re definitely going to work for the government or state department. Clearly, we are not there right now! My senior year, I lived in a house with six other guys, five of whom went into consulting after graduation; that was a pretty common thread amongst our friends. Despite the fact that it’s not where we thought we’d be, we’ve just been incredibly happy and grateful to be on this journey and doing something we’re passionate about. It gives fulfillment in a larger, big-picture sense, and well as joy in the day-to-day. I think that’s a combination to cherish.
How have you funded Misfit?
At the very beginning, we were working with pitch winnings from competitions while we were at Georgetown; they’ve been hugely supportive, from a financial perspective but also in terms of mentorship and community. We did raise some money last year, and we have an awesome group of investors who are totally mission-aligned; we’re really lucky about that.
How have customers been responding to Misfit?
When we do samplings [at stores], some of our biggest advocates are actually young kids, which is always a delight, to see them running around the store with our juice in their hands. I think that also speaks to the idea that Misfit is not just about food waste; it’s about the Misfit ethos and embracing difference in food and in life. That idea tends to especially resonate with kids, which is a huge validation and makes the whole thing worthwhile.
The packaging is gorgeous. How did you come up with Misfit’s aesthetic?
We worked with a Brooklyn-based firm called Gander; they do really awesome work, and they’ve been really great partner for us. It was difficult to define, first and foremost, what Misfit meant before we could figure out what it should look like. In that way, the branding process was a little bit like therapy. Ultimately, it comes down to the idea of greatness in differences, both in food and life, so our bottles are distinctive in terms of the palette and the illustrations. They stand out on the shelf, which pays homage to the food waste story, but also to the broader idea of misfits.
Are there other items aside from juice that Misfit might roll out at some point?
Juices are a really great product for us in many ways, because you don’t have the same visual biases towards fruits and veggie in a juice as you would on a grocery store shelf. We’re in the early stages of R&D on our first non-juice product, and we’re hoping that will hit shelves in late 2018. But I think the way we define food waste, a lot of people now think we’re just talking about fruits and veggies. But the fact of the matter is, food waste can mean a lot things, and we’re hoping to broadly new supply-chain stories with these new products.
So, perhaps a meal replacement or snack bar made from less-attractive produce?
A bar could definitely be down the line in the future, but for now, we’re looking for products that can sit on shelves next to our juices.
How do you predict and hope the zero-waste space, from forward-thinking startups to bigger companies changing their outdated, wasteful practices, will continue expanding?
I think there are so many opportunities for products using food waste. I hope there are more people that want to push the boundaries on that because you can really define food waste in so many ways: meat is oftentimes a form of food waste, because the resources used to produce it are way less efficient than fruits and veggies. So, I think we can collectively push our definition of food waste. There’s also a lot of education we have to do with consumers who are not accustomed to using the whole fruit or veggie when cooking. We should do a better job of building kitchen confidence and making people comfortable with wasting less food by virtue of cooking.