Bringing Business to Life: Rubies in the Rubble

When Jenny Costa discovered the scale of the food waste crisis, she started thinking about what could be done with all the surplus produce being discarded because it ‘doesn’t look right’. Her solution was to launch a market-leading sustainable condiments brand, using wonky fruit and veg and family recipes to create products that both taste good and do good. Read her story and inspiration behind Rubies in the Rubble.

What inspired you to launch your business?

I launched Rubies In The Rubble in 2011 after visiting London’s New Covent Garden market and noticing that the huge quantities of perfectly edible, beautiful quality, fruit and vegetables from all over the world were being thrown away if not sold. 

I soon learned about the scale of food waste, the fact that 1/3 of all food is wasted (contributing to 8% of greenhouses gas emissions) and I felt that this was a huge issue. At the time I was working in a fast paced job in The City, but thanks to my upbringing on farm in Scotland (with a family of keen environmentalists!), I had learned the art of preserving seasonal fruit and vegetables in chutneys and jam, and saw this as my way of doing something about all that delicious produce that was going to waste.

So I started making my first batches of relishes, inspired by family recipes, from surplus fruit and veg from Borough Market, and set up a stall, which is still there to this day.

Eight years, 7m pieces of fruit and veg, and a loyal fanbase of retailers and restaurants later, we’re still as committed to working with farmers and producers across the UK as were on day one, and we’re excited to continue leading the fight against food waste.

What are your sustainable priorities for it?

In the fighting food waste, we want to inspire people to value food, and view it as a precious resource. It’s part of the reason we’re called Rubies In The Rubble; we extend the life span of fruit and veg like tomatoes, bananas, onions and pears by using natural preservatives (sugars and vinegars), which result in great tasting, flavour packed condiments. 

We want to become the household name as the sustainable condiment brand of choice. There isn’t a brand as strong as ours in the market, and we want to prove that food brands can be ‘conscious’ as well as commercial. 

Currently, for every 100kg of product we sell, we save 9,499 tomatoes, 2,171 onions, 1111 apples, and hundreds of bananas and pears and cucumbers from going to waste. 

But we’ve still got a long way to go; 7 million tonnes of food that is intended for consumption is wasted each year (and in the UK up to 40% of produce from farms can be wasted), and so we want to scale up and make sure that where we can, this surplus produce is being made in to award winning, delicious condiments. 

How has your eco strategy developed as you have grown?

Our strategy is simple; become the market leader in sustainable sauces.

Being recognised for taste is as important to us as being recognised for sustainability, so we make sure that whenever we create a new recipe or launch a new product, we don’t compromise on the flavour factor. 

Last year we launched our first ever vegan mayonnaise, which as you can imagine, was a challenge being that the primary ingredient in mayonnaise is usually egg. So we worked hard to find a suitable replacement, and work closely with a hummus factory in Wales to source surplus Aquafaba (a fancy word that literally translates to mean ‘bean water’), which we whip up into a product that has the same consistency that consumers have come to expect from this popular condiment. 

Last year we also cracked the recipe for our first ever ketchup (it was a busy year). We know that consumers quite like the sweetness they get from a standard ketchup, but when the food industry is looking to cut back on its sugar content, we were faced with the challenge of launching a product that could compete with the market leader, but with much less sugar. It wasn’t easy, but we’ve done it; using rescued pears for that tasty sweetness, with 50% less refined sugar than other leading brands. This means that for every 100kg of product we sell, we save of pears, and this is the equivalent of 17.5kg of CO2E.

How challenging has it been to maintain your eco principles?

Staying true to your values can be challenging when you’re faced with a business critical decision. For example, we were so excited once we cracked our ketchup recipe that we wanted to launch it and get it on as many shelves as fast as possible. In order to make this happen, we would have had to do what many big name and own brand ketchups do: start selling our products in plastic ‘squeezy bottles’. However, we couldn’t find a packaging supplier that could fulfil our requirements of having plastic bottles that were both made from recycled plastic and were recyclable at the end of life. So we’ve stayed with our trusty glass bottles, and won’t switch unless we’re satisfied that our packaging is as sustainable as they stuff inside it.

Do you feel pressure from your customers to be more eco?

I’m proud to say that most people know what they’re getting with Rubies In The Rubble; we put our customers at the heart of what we do, and welcome feedback on how they think we could do things differently. We know that no brand is perfect, and that building a company is one hell of a journey. We do our best, and there’s lots we want to do to be even better! Recently we’ve seen a few people get in touch to ask about a tamper seal on our vegan mayo; we thought consumers would want the assurance of a plastic tamper seal but we’ve found through their feedback that they’re actually quite happy with a paper tamper seal. So we’ve changed it and paper tamper seals will be on our jars in the next few weeks. 

We also love seeing how our foodie community are reusing their jars and bottles; one lovely lady recently sent us an image of her old Rubies in The Rubble jar having a new lease of life as a plant pot

What advice would you give to anyone hoping to launch a sustainable business?

Be really clear about the problem you’re solving, and remember that you can’t be all things to all people. For us, leading the fight against food waste without compromising on taste, has always been the main focus of the business. 

However when we started in 2011, sustainability really wasn’t seen as something that was ‘cool’ or aspirational, and we built a reputation on being ‘the people who make sauces from wonky veg’. 

But after securing industry leading awards (for example, our Spicy Tomato Relish has won a coveted Great Taste Award), retailing in stores ranging from Fortnum & Mason to Sainsbury’s, and working with foodie lovers’ favourites Honest Burger, Duck & Waffle and HIX, we’ve elevated the concept of ‘sustainable sauces’ and proven that you can be a brand that does good and tastes good.

It’s now great to see sustainability sitting top of the agenda and taking space as of the most popular talking points in society today. This means the opportunity for sustainable businesses is bigger than ever. I would encourage anyone looking to start their own sustainable business to maintain a challenger mindset; while global companies have recently started to integrate sustainability as a core part of the business (rather than a CSR add-on), much of the innovation and demand has been driven by the start up world, emerging technologies, and on a grass roots consumer level.

Which other sustainable businesses have inspired you?

Belu is a fantastic brand; the concept is simple (it’s bottled water) but uniquely, all profits go to Wateraid to support their work in making clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene normal for everyone, everywhere within a generation (Global Goal 6 ‘Water and sanitation for all’ of the UN Sustainable Development Goals). 

What have been the main prohibitors to your progress in building a sustainable business?

Figuring out a route to market and establishing a strong supply chain was a big prohibitor in the early days. When we started making condiments in our kitchen, we worked with a wholesale model (mainly London food markets including Borough Market, and the aforementioned New Covent Garden market). In order to expand the business, we need a more stable and regular source of fruit and veg, so we started working directly with British farmers because we knew that up to 40% of their produce could go to waste, and this could be valued & get in the food chain – as a condiment. However, at the time a solid supply chain didn’t exist, so, being the anti-food waste pioneers that we are, myself and Alicia (co-founder and Commercial Director) worked hard to set one up! We ended up creating a whole new market so that farmers could put to good use the surplus food that would otherwise go to waste.

What have been your biggest milestones and triumphs until now?

There have been so many! Getting your first customer is always a big deal in the food world, but getting a letter from the Queen goes one step further! In 2015 I got the opportunity to speak at the World Economic Forum, and I’m really proud of our work with British farmers and leading companies. For example, we have a our closed-loop collaboration with Virgin Trains, whereby we collect surplus apples from their trains and then transform in to our West Coast Apple Chutney. The chutney is then supplied back to the trains, and served in First Class sandwiches and cheese boards. 

Most recently, this May we launched our first ever crowd funding campaign, which gives supporters of Rubies In The Rubble the chance to be part of our thriving sustainable business for as little as £10.

As it’s an equity raise, anyone who invests has a say in how we run our business, and so we want this community to be as balanced and representative as possible. Over the coming weeks we’re going to start speaking about women investing in business & the gender investment gap. Speaking openly about this is a new area for us, but as a company with a strong female leadership team, we feel we have a responsibility to be part of this conversation, and we’re well placed to encourage a more balanced investor marketplace.