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Episode 74: Combating Food Waste One Cup O’ Sugar at a Time (Transcript)

TAGS: Food Waste

[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi everyone, welcome to Waste360's NothingWasted! Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste recycling and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.


[00:00:26] Liz: Hi everyone. I just want to make sure that you all know that WasteExpo Together Online registration is open, you can go to WasteExpo.com to register and check out who's speaking and the amazing content we have lined up for you guys. We're super excited and know you will be too.

Hi everyone. This is Liz Bothwell with Waste360 and I'm with Brook Sheehan, Co-founder of Cup O' Sugar. Welcome, Brook, and thanks for being on the show today.

[00:00:51] Brook Sheehan: Hello and thank you for having me, Liz. Very excited for this opportunity.

[00:00:55] Liz: We are too. We can't wait to hear about your journey, so please tell us a little bit about your background and how you ended up founding Cup O' Sugar.

[00:01:02] Brook: It's quite the interesting story and a series of unlikely events. I was actually in chiropractic school, working on my graduate degree to become a doctor of chiropractic, which I completed back in December, but this story began back in 2017. I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area and out in San Diego, which is my hometown. I was staying at my best friend's house and we were baking some desserts for the kids' bake sale the next morning.

Late at night, realized we didn't have eggs. One of us could have left the house late and let the kids sleep, but my best friend texted her neighbor and was like, "Hey. Any way we can get a couple of eggs?" That's where it began a little bit. I went back to the Bay Area, was making a recipe that I've never made before and it called for, and forgive me because I struggle saying this word every single time, but Worcestershire sauce.


[00:02:11] Brook: A very hard one for me. But I was needing that ingredient for this recipe. I was living in an apartment complex and I guarantee you somebody in this building has it, but I'm quite the introvert and I was a little too chicken to maybe go knock on my neighbor's door and ask for it. I just left to the grocery store and picked up the bottle, used it twice, and I was haunted by that bottle of sauce sitting in my fridge that I used, maybe, four tablespoons of. I'm a big food-waste person in terms of I hate food waste and I will make it a point I use every last single drop of something, so it doesn't get wasted.

It really pained me and I was thinking about it. I was just like, "Gosh." I called my best friend and I said, "Look, we have this incident at your house. I'm having this problem right now. What if we created an app that really allowed these communities to connect over, 'Hey, I need this ingredient' or, 'Do you have this?' Very helpful for introverts like me that may not want to knock on a door." A lot of people don't even do that these days, especially now with COVID-19.

Long story short, that was back in August of 2017. I couldn't get it out of my head, I just really started to dig into the research of it and this is all while going through grad school. At that time, I was only a year into a three-and-a-half-year program, so I was still pretty busy with school. Then, on the side, doing all the research to understand how to build an app, to understand what it means to have that kind of technology, and whatnot.

We ended up connecting with some people through our own network, who led us into different arenas, found a developer, they did some design iterations of it, they built it for us, we launched it on Earth Day 2018, and really worked on building up community out in the San Francisco Bay Area. There's a lot more I can say on that, but I don't know if you have any follow-up questions while I'm sharing some of that story.

[00:04:35] Liz: That's amazing. I love the origin of it and that's, a lot of times, how innovative things happen. You're solving a problem. I'd love to hear that.

[00:04:48] Brook: Thank you.

[00:04:49] Liz: You're talking a lot about neighborhood connection and I know that's a big part of Cup O' Sugar, how important is that to you and the company in trying to foster that connection?

[00:05:04] Brook: It's very important. I think that for me, personally, because I am more of the person who tries to consume everything and not throw away usable good stuff. My Co-founder Rema, she is more of the community. It's very important to her, she grew up in a very rural area and knowing her neighbors has always been very important. She is the one who knew the neighbor, in her apartment complex, that she could even send the text message to. I think, as a co-founding team, the fact that we both have really strong values in both of the pillars of Cup O' Sugar community and food waste, it really helps drive our mission.

[00:05:56] Liz: That's awesome. Can you tell our listeners about the app? How it works and a little more behind it?

[00:06:01] Brook: Absolutely. Cup O' Sugar, right now, we're only on the Apple platform. We are currently working with the team to get a web-based version and Android. If you guys do have an Android phone, you could just go to our website and maybe sign up for our email list to find out updates on when that's coming out. The way the app works, currently, is you can log in, very simple, easy-to-use interface where it allows you to share excess items, or you can request an item.

If you're making dinner, you're in a pinch, you need a couple of eggs, you jump on there and you can say, "Hey, anyone have two eggs?" At that point, when you make that post, a push notification will go out to the other users within your neighborhood, within a certain radius that can, basically, get that pop-up saying, "Hey, your neighbor is looking for help. Can you help?" They can respond to it, there's a very interactive chat base in the app that allows people to connect that way.

Liz, if you're looking for something, I have it, and we're neighbors, you see that post, you say, "Hey, I can help you. You can come pick it up, I'll have it next to--" whatever, like a pot outside or something. I think in the event with COVID-19, a lot of people are trying to connect, yet still, be socially responsible, so with this chat feature, it really allows that to happen in a seamless, easy way.

On the flip side, users can share excess, so if I had the Worcestershire sauce- hopefully I said that right- [laughs] if I had that sauce, then I used it like a couple of times and it's like, "Well, maybe I want to be able to share with somebody", so I can scan the UPC code of that. The information about the item will populate into the app, so the picture will be there, the ingredients will be there, all of the nutritional facts will be there, the only thing a user would need to populate when they are creating a listing is the diet type.

When I say diet type meaning, "Is it organic? Is it vegan? Is it gluten-free? Is it this? Is it that?" These are just simple little boxes that you can click and I'll explain why we have it that way in a minute. The other thing is food type, so if it's a sauce, or snack, or whatever, and then the expiration date. Now, I used an example for a product that is currently been open, something I used twice and never used again.

Obviously, people can be worrisome about open items and I can totally understand that. It's not just for open items. If you go to Costco and you buy a huge box of granola bars for your kids and they eat two, and there's 22 unopened packaged granola bars, that's also things that can be shared. We just really believe that once people start- let's say, again the example you and me Liz, we're neighbors and we start interacting and sharing things with each other, you would be feeling a little bit more at ease about maybe taking an open bottle of sauce from me than initially having no interaction at all, and then getting something.

[00:09:40] Liz: Definitely.

[00:09:43] Brook: Yes. To go back really briefly on the why we have people populating dietary preferences is because also when you go into the app initially, and you create your profile, your profile is very personalized to your dietary type. A lot of people have different things, they're vegan they're gluten-free. For me, personally, I don't do gluten and I don't do dairy, so it's important to find items that fit within my dietary preferences. Liz, if you posted something that was gluten-free or dairy-free and you submitted it, I would get a push notification that an item was posted based off my preferences.

The entire community, the neighborhood, would be able to see everything that was posted but I would see that post first because it triggered based off the settings that I have set up. We want it like that so where people can- if they are fall in line with a certain philosophy or a certain eating habits, they can get that first priority because it's going to be more important to them to find that item than it would be to someone who's like, "Oh, let me just see what's on Cup O' Sugar today", and, "Okay, cool. I'll take that snack because no one else has taken it".

[00:11:06] Liz: Yes. Because you were working so well within the communities, do you find that you're getting a lot of word-of-mouth marketing and neighbors are sharing with neighbors, friends, and so on?

[00:11:21] Brook: There's definitely a lot more word-of-mouth marketing. We -again, launched it 2018- initially started it as our- we were only going into apartment complex communities, so very highly dense areas. College dorm rooms, 55 plus senior living facilities, those kinds of properties. We had a lot of traction growing a lot, and then with COVID-19 hitting, we decided to just open up the parameters more to suburban areas. I live in a housing community now, but there's all kinds of people out walking the streets and people have been home and stuff like that, there's a lot more home cooking being done. But On the flip side, there's a lot more waste happening as well.

It's been interesting because while we still are very connected to the apartment communities and the property managers that we've built up connections with, we are working on really getting more word-of-mouth out to the suburban housing community.

[00:12:32] Liz: Good for you. I know you just mentioned that COVID has allowed you to expand just because people are home and cooking more, how else has COVID-19 affected your work and what you guys are doing?

[00:12:44] Brook: COVID-19 has really affected our work, I feel like, in a more positive way. I don't know that we've had any detrimental or negative effects for COVID-19. I know a lot of companies have had to lay off employees and that kind of stuff. Because we're still a small team and a startup in that way, I feel COVID-19-- Cup O' Sugar became such a great product during this time.

[00:13:18] Liz: Yes, I could see that and it definitely has really shined a light on food waste as well, the pandemic.

[00:13:26] Brook: Yes, absolutely.

[00:13:31] Liz: Do you feel that you are working towards your goal to combat food waste? Is it working?

[00:13:38] Brook: I believe it's working. I think that it can be definitely more impactful and so, obviously, with more users, more people engaging, and interacting on the platform, it would have a better turnaround in terms of combating food waste.

The problem is, and this is something that we've understood ever since the beginning too, is I know that I'm part of a minority, I know that a lot of people given the overall consensus, just even the United States, isn't really concerned. I say that with air quotes, "Concerned about food waste maybe to the degree that I am".

There's definitely a lot of awareness campaigns and a lot of different organizations that are putting funding towards it and trying to help reduce the figures, but the problem is, on an individual level, I don't think most people really truly think about it. They're like, "Oh, I got to clear my fridge, I bought a bag of lettuce, some salad. Oh bad, bad, bad." They buy it and they end up throwing it out.

The way that we designed Cup O' Sugar is there is a very interactive part, users earn sugar cubes for every interaction that they have so there is some sort of, "Reward" for that behavior, and it allows them to at least feel like they're doing their part. Even if they come or care zero percent about food waste, in their mind they're like, "Well, I needed three eggs. I was able to get those three eggs. Great. I got to meet my neighbors and I got to make new friends".

I guess what I'm really trying to get at is the fact that our angle is really addressing the population of people that may not care about food waste, but also bringing in the people who do care about food waste because those are our voices, those are our spokes people, those are the people that become the brand ambassadors for the company. Then the other community members that don't care about it could also see the other angle of, "Hey, I actually got to know neighbors that I never even knew before, and this app helped break the ice for it." It's a way to connect through technology but then get to meet face to face, or obviously from a social distance aspect, but meet people that they live next to.

[00:16:17] Liz: Yes, that's awesome. To your point, even though they might not be the most proactive proponents of reducing food waste, they're still doing their part without maybe realizing it as much as the people who are proactively doing it.

[00:16:33] Brook: Exactly. I think that's been what has been most exciting for me because, like I said, I'm a very big food waste proponent, my co-founder may not be as pro as I am, but she's very driven by community, so it just really works out well.

[00:16:54] Liz: Yes. Because of this pandemic, you talked about the awareness, but do you think people are becoming more aware of their own contributions to food waste?

[00:17:05] Brook: I would like to think so. I hate to sound pessimistic about this, but I feel still there is an aspect of the population that is just-- I mean, when this whole lockdown first started back mid-march it was like everybody hoarding things at the grocery store, just buying excess of items. Then people couldn't find a simple bag of flour and things like that. I know a lot of the reports that I've been reading in terms of food waste that numbers have gone a lot higher, and that's not just from the household level that could also be from restaurants and different things because people aren't able to go out and eat, but from an aspect of people understanding or being more aware of their contribution to food waste.

I'd like to believe that more people are waking up to it, but I still don't think that there is a lot of solid action on their parts, I don't know [laughs]. I don't mean to sound pessimistic, but that's why, for me, I'm like, "Hey, if you don't care about food waste, Cup O' Sugar helps you make friends", period. Or helps you get what you're looking for and makes all those meal time frustrations that you might be having, "Oh my gosh, you need a pinch of salt", or, "You need two tablespoons of oil." Loading up four kids in the car to head out to the grocery store wearing face masks, and crying, and all of it, this is a simple solution.

[00:18:43] Liz: Absolutely. Do you guys track what's your most requested item or anything like that? I'd be curious to hear what you found during the pandemic.

[00:18:55] Brook: We do track that. Initially, when it started it was a lot of baking products. There were those flowers baking sodas, eggs, those things. Right now, it's a bunch of different type of things now, more like kitchen essentials. The oils, the salts, the spices, things like that. Because I even think back to me making that recipe for the first time. With everybody at home, there's a lot of people trying new recipes and doing a lot of different things.  There was a whole big sourdough bread boom, people making their own fermented sourdough breads and stuff.

I think that if I looked back and I'm like, "Oh if I just had Cup O' Sugar app when I was in that apartment complex looking for Worcestershire sauce." I just needed the two tablespoons, I was trying the recipe for the first time, I had not known what it was going to be like, and like I said, I only made it twice [laughs]. 

[00:20:03] Liz: I read that you have a partnership with Comcast, how is that going? What does that look like?

[00:20:10] Brook: Yes. A subsidiary of Comcast is Xfinity Communications. We work with them directly in the San Francisco Bay Area. They've been working with apartment complexes to really get their services in with the user or with the residential base there. Our partnership with them has been they do a lot of different community events at the property, and we go in with Xfinity. Xfinity talks to them about their cable and internet bills, and then we get to talk to them about connecting with their neighbors in the apartment complex over-sharing and requesting food ingredients.

It's been really great because it helped expand our product into different areas because I was only one person going into each apartment complex talking to the property manager, working on getting events set up. When we partnered with Comcast, they have a full-time team. Just in the SF Bay area, I think it's probably about 35 reps that go into all of these, they have certain territories and areas, they go in and speak to all the property managers, they have relationships built up with them already. When they get events booked and scheduled, we come in and support them, help them with their budget because we bring contribute towards the event.

It really worked out great. Obviously, everything is going virtual at this point so we haven't been able to do in-person events. We are just starting to tick off some virtual cooking classes in conjunction with Xfinity Comcast where they are going to be sending a main ingredient to their property complex or property management complex. Then, we will be there to show the neighbors how Cup O' Sugar works and how they can request extra stuff if they want to make some changes to the overall recipe.

[00:22:27] Liz: Sounds like a great strategy and partnership.

[00:22:31] Brook: Yes. It's been quite incredible, I must say.

[00:22:38] Liz: Good for you. What are you thinking? Are you expanding? Are you getting into new territories? How's that going?

[00:22:45] Brook: The main focus right now, yes, we are expanding, yes, we are trying to get into new territories, and working with other Xfinity reps. Xfinity is not down here in San Diego, they're up in the Bay Area and they're all over different parts of the United States. We would like to expand more to all of Xfinity's area to really broaden and deepen our partnership with them. Right now, we have team members that are focusing on that. Me and my co-founder, primarily, are working with the tech team to get the Android and web version built out because right now there's a whole segment of the population that we're not able to capture because they don't have the means to be able to even use the platform.

[00:23:38] Liz: Okay, that makes sense.


[00:23:43] Liz: You've had quite the journey from concept to execution, do you have any advice for someone who's just starting out with an app or a tech idea like you had?

[00:23:53] Brook: It sounds very cliché, I feel like I've said this every single time this question is asked, but it's so important. It's just two words, it's, "Just start." I had zero understanding of tech when I got into all this. To be honest with you, Liz, it's funny and it's embarrassing at the same time, [chuckles] but I did not know how apps worked and I didn't understand that it was like a website on the internet. I really, honestly, thought that there were people behind the scenes inside Uber, or whatever like, "When I click on a button, there's somebody behind the scenes that's going to direct that button to a page." Actual people working [laughs].

I don't know what I was thinking, a bunch of monkeys back there clicking buttons for people like, "Brook just hit share items, I'm going to direct her to the share item page", not that there was actual servers, technology, I don't know [laughs]. I'm embarrassed to say that, but that was the extent. I say that to show you where I started, it was literally zero understanding of it. But that drive was there., and like I mentioned earlier, it kept eating me alive, I was like, "I got to figure this out." When I wasn't in school, and in classes, and dealing with projects, and class work, and all that stuff, I was researching, I was figuring it out.

I utilized a lot of my social media network to find people that knew what they were doing. I would just simply put out posts like, "Hey, anybody know an app developer?" It was a process of learning as I went. I think that people have a lot of great ideas, but because they don't know where to start with it, they allow that to hold them back.

I understand how that can feel, I understand the overwhelm and not having all the answers. Even a simple Google search of, "How to start an app?" Or whatever it is, "How to put a food product out in distribution?" It could be a lot of different things, but just starting, really taking even the smallest step forward and really leaning into your network because I guarantee you there's people that you know that could help you or lead you to somebody who can help you. That's really where I feel a lot of our success came from is really being able to lean into our network and knowing that even the smallest step forward is a step forward.

[00:26:57] Liz: I love that, I think that's timeless advice that everyone can use, "Just start." That's awesome, Brook. It sounds like all of the Apple users who are listening can check out the app there. Android is coming soon. We can't wait to see what else you do, thanks so much for sharing your story, Brook. Is there anything else you want to share with our audience before I let you go about your busy day?

[00:27:26] Brook: I think we covered it all, Liz. I think this was a really great interview. Again, I appreciate your time. Thank you.

[00:27:35] Liz: Thank you. Good luck with the app. Stay well. Will you please keep us posted as you grow and progress? I really want to follow your journey.

[00:27:45] Brook: Absolutely.

[00:27:48] Liz: Awesome. All right, thank you, Brook. We will chat soon.

[00:27:53] Brook: All right, sounds good. Thank you, Liz.

[00:27:55] Liz: Take care.


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