Rubies in the Rubble: From Hedge Funds to Chutneys

Two intellectual individuals find their feet in jams & chutneys. We explore how one hedge fund manager and one Oxford Classics graduate are tackling food waste in an innovative way. Over some cheese & chutneys at their shared office space in London’s Kings Cross we look at the challenges faced when setting up a social business with Jenny Dawson & Alicia Lawson, founders of Rubies in the Rubble.

1. How do a hedge fund manager & an Oxford graduate end up creating chutneys for a living?

JD: It all started with an article in the Evening Standard about bin divers!
I was on my daily commute after a day at the hedge fund when I saw this article about big supermarkets locking their bins at night to stop people rummaging through for left overs. The article stuck with me, I kept thinking about it - not that I wanted to be a bin diver, but rather how much food waste we accumulate.

As I began to research I was pretty astonished at the facts. We are living in a world were there a so many advances, but in food supply we are allowing 1 billion people to go to bed hungry & 60% of discarded food is thrown out unnecessarily. I saw an opportunity to make a positive impact and change attitudes as opposed to negatively nailing the supermarkets. Lets value what we’ve got and love our resources! Thus Rubies in the Rubble was born.

AL: When I first started working with Jenny I thought of it as a fun project to do whilst looking for a job, I didn’t think of it as a full-time career. I’d just graduated from Oxford with a degree in Classics and I was applying for corporate jobs like management consultancy roles and big grad schemes with the likes of Unilver. Nothing in food or start-ups. I thrived on the responsibility of being in a team of two plus I’d always been crazy on food waste – my friends would joke that I had a World War II mentality of using every last scrap (not 21st century at all).

“I saw as an opportunity to make a positive impact and change attitudes as opposed to negatively nailing the supermarkets.”

2. The early days, how did you get what was an idea off the ground initially?

JD: We started working out of charity kitchens, we had to make use of our available resources and produce everything ourselves. We then got a grant to build a kitchen at Spitalfields market, this was perfect as they run a fruit & veg market through the night. All the restaurant owners and hoteliers would come and get their supplies through the night then at the end of the trading day (7am) we would go along and collect the surplus fruit & veg that would otherwise go to waste but is totally usable.

AL: The vendors thought we were totally insane, we were the only girls in the market and the cockney traders would wolf whistle at us asking what we were doing there. We established a good rapport with them and they started saving their old fruit & veg for us. As I was going to bed I’d say to my boyfriend sorry I’ve just got to text my onion friend to see if it’s looking good for the morning, then I’d get 2am texts saying ‘do you want my raspberries?’, all highly amusing.

3. Did you always want to start your own business?

JD: I did have a few ideas previously. I was in Hong Kong for three years from the age of 18. Here I set up a small company selling caviar, it started via hosting a trip for wealthy young Chinese people in Turkey – where they fell in love with caviar. As a broke student on the plane back to Hong Kong I thought how about importing caviar to sell in China. So I sent out an email asking if anyone wanted any, I went out bought my own stamps and bags and literally bought back a load of caviar in my hand luggage from Turkey. My mark up was ridiculous as there really wasn’t much competition. In China at the time it was all about extravagance and showing your wealth so it started to take off and I did really well from it, I managed to fund my whole university tuition from it. Although about a year into it I started getting emails from my family at home about fish going extinct and how caviar was not ethical. I always knew it wasn’t a long-term business for me, it didn’t feel right however at the time it worked out for me and taught me some good business lessons.

Another idea I had was selling 3D glasses, which in hindsight I’m so pleased I didn’t pursue.

I knew I wanted to or felt like I could do anything from the Hong Kong experience, as long as you stepped out and went for it, there’s not enough people doing that.

4. The term social enterprise is used and talked about a lot, what do you think defines a social enterprise?

AL: I didn’t know what one was at first and it’s not really a term that I think has ever been officially defined. Potentially any business could be seen as one if they’re employing people and treating them well or if a company is creating a product they genuinely believe is improving their customers lives.

We prefer to use the term social business, we have social aims but want to make money out of it (hopefully one day) the two can go side by side.

5. How do you find balancing your social mission & the commercial business side?

AL: We have got it now, although in the beginning we underestimated how difficult it was to start a business and make it profitable and sustainable let alone when you have a social mission too.

Initially when we started out we had two angles – food waste and employing disadvantaged women to work in the kitchen with us. People would always say to us how many crosses do you want to bear and it was true, although employing these women very much aligned with our ethos and was really rewarding we needed to be a sustainable business and every business needs economies of scale. Farmers would say ‘well it’s great that you’re doing this but I’m wasting 15 tonnes of tomatoes a week you are only taking 1 tonne a month’ so we were barely scratching the surface of the bigger problem. It was frustrating that we couldn’t scale it up.

So in April 2014 we decided to focus on doing one thing really well and where we could see us having the biggest impact was in the food waste sector so we decided to move our manufacturing to a small factory in Devon that can take much bigger volumes.

Business and social no longer battle each other, they work in harmony. The more we grow the more impact we have.

JD: I wouldn’t of started it or Alicia wouldn’t of joined me if it was just any old chutney, we feel like we make chutney to use fruit, we don’t use fruit to make chutney. The core social side is the only reason we have a product and business in the first place. Ethics & good business are key, you need to have a commercially viable product that for us tastes great and then falling in love with the brand story comes secondary. Some people think because they create an ethical business they should be treated as a charity however we see ourselves as any other product on the supermarket shelves.

“We decided to focus on doing one thing really well and where we could see us having the biggest impact was in the food waste sector.”

6. What have some key milestones been for you?

JL: Personally I sent some chutneys to the queen she thought I was 10 years old, it was for the jubilee. I got such a lovely letter saying the queen can’t tell you what her favourite chutney is as then she will see it and smell it everywhere however if you’d like to send some then please do as I’m sure she’d like to taste them. I packaged them up and got a response saying she loves the chutneys, I’ve since sent more – you get some great quotes from that saying the queen's a fan etc etc, as you can imagine.

7. What key advice would you give to budding social entrepreneurs?

– Go for it wholeheartedly: less planning and more doing – a lot of people start a business on the side but it needs your full commitment. If it fails you lose a little bit of time and a little bit of pride but there’s not much else and you will of learnt so much from that.
– Make sure your social aims make business sense: if you can’t sell a product you wont be able to execute your social mission
– Have a distribution plan: know how you are going to get your product into the homes of your customers. When we first started I was really naïve and used to work in the kitchen all the time, I lost sight of how long it takes to actually make a sale. Even when we got retail partners like Waitrose who was amazingly one of the first retailers to stock us, think how you are going to get consumers to take your product home – have a strategy (we have only just started to have one).

AL: Concentrate on one or two core values and do them really well. Don’t do too much too soon.

8. What does the future of Rubies in the Rubble hold?

Chutneys are our flagship, it’s been a great place for us to start as it’s a natural way of preserving gluts. But ultimately we see Rubies as an umbrella brand where we can work with lots of surplus food to create a diverse range of products. The likes of juices, soups and I can let you in on a little secret which is we are developing a line of compotes, so stay tuned! We have lots of ideas but trying to hold ourselves back from doing too much too soon.

Alicia Lawson (Right) Wears: Collective – Relaxed V Neck Grey T-Shirt (£49)

Rubies in the Rubble:
Photographer: Yuvali Theis