3 million tons of food wasted every year in Switzerland, seriously?

Instagram @gmueesgarte

In 2015, Franziska, Jan, Geo & Simon rolled out in Bern an innovative concept to fight food waste: sell bread & pastries from the day before instead of putting them in the trash. In 2017, the Swiss quartet offended again in selling surplus fruits & vegs, with the “Gmüesgarte” project. You do not change a winning team, especially with an inspiring vision and lots of energy.

Simon is smiling; slightly bearded (COVID-19 style) and I can see wooden wall panels in the background, revealing a cozy home office setting. He explains that despite not being the leader of the quartet of entrepreneurs (his wife, Franziska, is), he is the one working full-time on the Gmüesgarte project. Hence, he has time for our Zoom conversation.

Simon admits that before launching their first project in 2013, he and his friends did not have a clue about what being entrepreneurs meant. They had studied geography, German or literature, but nothing had prepared them for the venture. They just had a vision: fight food waste. At first, they did it in parallel from their respective jobs, like an intensive hobby. In addition, their success exceeded initial expectations.

“Food waste refers to food designed for human consumption that gets lost or thrown away before it reaches our plates.”

Sparking sustainability

Instagram @aessbar

Every day, countless loaves of bread, croissants and sandwiches end up in the rubbish container — yet they are still in perfect condition and far too good for the bin. For fresh fruits and vegetables, it is even worse: tons of them are trashed before reaching our stores because too small, with uneven color or size, hence not accepted by traditional distribution channels. Farmers do not know what to do of them, as their time is precious and the opportunity window to handle fresh products is often narrow.

55% of bred, 53% of fresh fruits & vegetables and 46% of potatoes produced are wasted each year in Switzerland — source: foodwaste.ch

These striking figures inspired Simon & his friends to act upon. The “Gmüesgarte” project (literally, “the vegetables garden” in Swiss German) aims at buying surplus of fresh fruits & vegs from local farmers and resell them to individuals or businesses i.e. restaurants. Part of the production is also transformed into smoothies, soups or juices. An appealing value proposition for Bernese citizens.

The concept is sustainable in 3 ways:

· Business model: leverage food production that would be otherwise trashed, local footprint in the Bernese area, delivery via e-bikes

· Economics: fair price for consumers, fair pay for producers

· Social framework: fair treatment of partners and employees

Finding the right model

Instagram @gmueesgarte

The green entrepreneurs struggled at the launch of Gmüesgarte. It took them 2 years to reach breakeven. As the shop is located in Bern downtown, the rents are very high, the storage space is huge and the logistics, heavy. They now have 15 employees and are well known in the area. Their next challenges are to 1) stabilize costs and find more affordable storage space, 2) expand client base with an e-commerce model.

The 30 farms provisioning Gmüesgarte range from 1 employee up to 150 employees. Biological agriculture is not a pre-requisite to be part of the network, but all farmers support the idea of fighting food waste. Most importantly, Simon and the team know personally the farmers they work with. A guarantee of quality.

Organic food production generate less surplus, partly because clients are less sensitive to products’ look & feel.

The biggest challenge faced by the 4 entrepreneurs so far? A lack of norms in this niche: they struggled a lot to calibrate with their partners what is legally & commercially possible in selling fruits & vegs surplus. A breakthrough, paving the way for other initiatives of the kind.

Sustainable growth

From left to right: Jan, Geo, Franziska & Simon — Copyright Gmüesgarte

On one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic shed a light on local consumption and inspired people to cook fresh and tasty products. But on the other hand, it also challenged the local distribution model, with temporary shops closure or restrictions on frequentation. As an answer, the Gmüesgarte team is working hard to reinforce its B2C model: invest in digital marketing (today, 100% of acquisition goes through word of mouth) and develop an e-commerce strategy to reach new clients and scale. The future of the B2B model is more uncertain and closely tied with local restaurants’ reopening plan. Today, 10 restaurants are collaborating with Gmüesgarte. Tomorrow, it could double or stay as is.

Changing mindsets

Simon share with me local tips for anyone wanting to join the food waste crusade:

· https://mein-kuechenchef.ch/: a pioneer and very inspiring cook/chef in the topic of food waste.

· https://puretaste.ch/: awesome fermented products from food waste vegetables

Life is so complex, fighting food waste should not be a burden into good citizen’s shoulders. Hang a sheet of paper in your kitchen and note what you throw away: this simple gesture helps raising awareness on the leftovers

Beyond individual change of mindset, Simon believes in the power of collective action. The Gmüesgarte team normed the market and would be happy to share their lessons’ learnt with any courageous entrepreneur willing to implement similar concept. Any taker, breaker.

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