Pretty imperfect produce

Operators cut costs and food waste with ugly fruits and veggies.


Shortly after Marco Alvarado, executive chef for University of the Pacific’s Café Bon Appétit, started purchasing secondhand produce—perfectly edible fruits and vegetables that can’t be sold to stores because of cosmetic imperfections—a local TV news station came knocking. With the cameras rolling, Alvarado made a vegetable saute using an imperfect zucchini with a small indentation, as well as a second saute with the kind of perfectly smooth zucchini you’d find on the supermarket shelf. “I placed the two sautes side by side, and no one could tell the difference,” Alvarado says.

Roughly 6 billion pounds of fruits and vegetables are thrown out each year just because they’re ugly, the National Resources Defense Council estimates. But some operators are realizing it doesn’t make sense to toss fresh fare just because it isn’t the ideal shape or size.

Many, like Alvarado, are enlisting the help of Imperfectly Delicious Produce, a program launched by Bon Appétit Management Company in 2014 that connects foodservice operators with regional growers. Farmers sell the cosmetically-imperfect produce that would’ve gone unharvested to operators, who often end up treating it exactly the same as nicer-looking fruits or vegetables.

“I don’t really look for something that’s super pretty, because I’m just going to process or cut it anyway,” says Alvarado. Often he’ll use spinach with broken leaves in composed dishes, such as a salad with strawberries and blue cheese. When a potato arrives blemished, he’ll cut the ugly parts off, dice up the rest and roast them.

It’s a similar story for Ryan Pomeroy, regional executive chef for senior-living contract services provider Flik Lifestyles. When IDP growers send him tomatoes that might not be pretty enough for the salad bar, he dices them up for fresh salsas and relishes. Moves like this have helped cut costs by 15 percent.

Matthew Dorsey, a Flik Lifestyles regional executive chef in the Washington, D.C., metro area, hasn’t noticed a difference in costs, but says imperfect produce helps him save in other ways. Broccoli florets that are too tiny to sell to supermarkets can be added to pizzas, stir-fries and grain or pasta salads without additional prep work. “It’s open the box and go—so you get a better cost-return,” he says.

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