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Rubies in the Rubble: the chutney company taking the fight to food waste

Written by Adam Pescod on Monday, 04 August 2014. Posted in Scaling up, Interviews

Jenny Dawson is tackling global food waste in the tastiest way possible with her scrumptious social enterprise, Rubies in the Rubble

Rubies in the Rubble: the chutney company taking the fight to food waste

Packing in a hedge fund job in the city may sound ludicrous to some. But it was a no-brainer for Jenny Dawson, founder of Rubies in the Rubble, the chutney company that’s tackling the food waste epidemic head-on. “One thing my parents instilled in me is a lack of fear,” says the 28-year-old entrepreneur. “It doesn’t really matter if you fail; you are going to learn so much by trialling something and giving it your best shot.”

Despite securing a degree in maths – and subsequently moving into finance – Dawson would probably be the first to admit that she bleeds green. Growing up on a farm in Scotland made her view the world as something that’s worth saving. “As a family, being very close to production made us quite sustainable,” says Dawson. “Being brought up that way means I have always been very conscious about those sorts of things.”

This green streak was accompanied by a flair for entrepreneurialism: a sign of things to come. “Before Rubies in the Rubble I’d bought a lot of website domains for 3D glasses and other various ideas,” says Dawson. “I’d always played around with ideas and liked the idea of having your own product and trying to sell something you’re really excited and passionate about.”

Whilst her initial business ideas may have fallen flat, a newspaper article on food waste reignited Dawson’s passion for all things green – and sparked something else in the process. “People were getting arrested for bin-diving in the back of supermarkets and it made me realise there are these unpredictable human desires when it comes to deciding what we want to eat at night,” she says. “It’s impossible to get that perfect balance whereby supply and demand matches. Supermarkets want to provide everything in great condition for everybody and it just made me start thinking ‘gosh, there must be a lot of surplus’. The more I researched the scale of it, I discovered there was surplus throughout the supply chain from the farm to the fork. I just thought ‘how can we afford to be this wasteful?’ The injustice of that didn’t seem quite right.”

In March 2011, Dawson quit her job at Odey Asset Management. “I knew I wasn’t going to stay there forever even though it was great fun.” She’d already been putting in the groundwork for Rubies in the Rubble. Four months earlier Dawson had gotten herself up at the crack of dawn on a chilly November morning for a cycle down to New Covent Garden Market. “I saw the scale of surplus products coming into the country and being shipped out to different shops,” she explains. “Because it was perishable, you couldn’t really blame anybody for it. It had often come a long way to get to a place where consumers could buy it.”

Dawson recognised the twisted reality of so much perfectly edible food going to waste whilst millions of people worldwide were suffering as a result of food poverty. And closer to home, Dawson’s involvement with Crisis, the homeless charity, made her even more keen to do something that made a difference. “I was dealing with people who were struggling to get back into work,” she says. “The more time I spent with them, the more I saw that they had great potential and value but because of past circumstances or a lack of self-pride or self-value, they were struggling to get into work. I wanted to get them back and give them purpose again.”

Dawson employed a small team of disadvantaged women to work with her in a charity kitchen in King’s Cross. The chutney-making had begun in earnest and, with her first batch having sold out at Cabbage & Frocks Market in Marylebone, she soon found herself with a stall at the prestigious Borough Market – where Rubies in the Rubble has traded ever since. “That was a great place to trial our flavours and see what people liked,” says Dawson. “Our flavours initially came from my mother’s old chutney collection. We then built up a core range based on customer demand but we were also trying to make sure we were creating a range based on fruit and veg that there was a surplus in.”

As Dawson explains, the name Rubies in the Rubble is a play on ‘diamonds in the rough’, reflecting the company’s commitment to utilising that which is usually overlooked or undervalued. “I wanted Rubies in the Rubble to represent more than just food waste,” she says. “The ethos behind the brand was to raise awareness and make people think.” 

But the company’s ethos extended far beyond the ingredients it was sourcing and the people it was employing. “Our jam jars were all recycled from cafes and restaurants around London and the packaging was mainly made of scrap materials from a lovely kilt-making shop in my local town,” says Dawson. “Everything was taken from things that would otherwise just have been thrown away. Every jar was different and unique.”

It was at Borough Market where Rubies in the Rubble started to attract the attention of foodies, media types and some big name retailers. Dawson may have been producing some delicious preserves but the story behind them made them even more appealing. The company’s ethical credentials didn’t go unnoticed by major players in the food industry and in August 2012, Ben & Jerry’s named Rubies in the Rubble the UK winners of its inaugural Join our Core competition, which sought to find the best, young sustainable business minds across Europe. With the final held in Uganda, it opened Dawson’s eyes even more to the impact of global food wastage.

This was also the moment that kicked off a period of rapid growth for the brand. “They [Ben & Jerry’s] wrote a great article and it got picked up by Waitrose, Fortnum & Mason and Selfridges,” says Dawson. Her chutneys, jams and pickles are now stocked by all three retailers and are proving popular with top chefs, including Jamie Oliver who commissioned Rubies in the Rubble to produce London Piccalilli for the house hotdog at Diner, his new American-style restaurant in Piccadilly.

However, like any business, expansion often comes with some sacrifice. With demand for her product growing and growing, Dawson was eventually left with little choice but to outsource the production side of the business to Somerset, which she did earlier this year. Having established a commercial kitchen in Spitalfields Market in the summer of 2012, she had to let go of the four-strong team of chefs she’d employed from Crisis. “It was really hard but we just felt that we’d got to the stage where we were limiting our capacity to grow,” says Dawson. “We had a lot farmers asking if we could take surplus and we were struggling because our kitchen is quite small. We ended up thinking ‘let’s try and raise proper awareness and do one thing well’ and that was food waste, food injustice and growing that side of things.”

She adds: “Hopefully we’ll be able to come back to the employment angle further down the line. We had a fun two years, a really lovely team and we still keep in touch with them.”

At the end of the day, a social enterprise still has to make a profit in order to keep itself afloat and meet its wider ethical aims. Whilst Dawson was advised to set up as a charity prior to launching the business, she says it wouldn’t have been a feasible way of tackling the societal issue that was at stake. “I think charities do incredible work but I felt the identity of Rubies in the Rubble was a business,” she explains. “We wanted to address a problem but at the same time be a sustainable solution to that. We really believed that the business could stand on its own two feet and solve some serious problems in society.”

The awards have kept coming for Rubies in the Rubble – and for Dawson herself. She picked up the Veuve Clicquot New Generation Award earlier this year. “For us and everybody involved in the business, it is really amazing to have the recognition,” she says. “The awards have been an incredible help in building the brand and getting more credibility for what we are doing.”

Dawson’s new business partner Alicia Lawson – previously an intern at the company – is helping her keep on top of the ever-increasing demand for her treats, which look set to include some new product lines. “We have always wanted to be a first-class sustainable brand that’s known for great products made out of fresh fruit and veg from surplus,” she says. “We are looking into healthy snack ranges, crisps and juices. As we grow, we will really be seen as an umbrella brand.”

The entrepreneur is now earning money for herself again too. “It’s exciting and almost rewarding being able to take out a small salary,” says Dawson. “It feels like the business is actually starting to grow.” 

About the Author

Adam Pescod

Adam Pescod

EB's former editor, Pescod was tasked with ensuring these hallowed pages are rich with excellent, engaging and error-free stories, all written with the entrepreneur in mind. Pescod previously plied his trade penning pieces about pubs and pints. He is also a sucker for alliteration. 

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