He is 27 years old and the founder of sustainable grocery store UglyFood. Augustine Tan started his entrepreneurial journey in his early 20s.
Five years ago when he was a student at the Singapore University of Technology and Design School (SUTD), he saw a fruit store selling a seven-star fruit at heavily discounted prices. He noticed that the fruit store seller was clearing the fruit at a slashed price even though it was only browning a little.
Struck by that experience, Augustine started to eat consciously to reduce food waste. Subsequently, for one of his school projects, he was tasked to talk to staff from supermarkets, local farmers, and wet market stall owners. With the exposure to more sellers, he realised that many businesses also reject less than perfect produce that to him could be salvaged. That was when UglyFood came about.
Today, the UglyFood business constitutes a grocery store and an e-commerce website. The business is a pivot and was founded by a new team early in 2021. Prior to this version of the business, it had tried other iterations like selling juices, ice cream, and fruit tea.
UglyFood’s mission is to eliminate food waste and revamp the food ecosystem by selling excess or ugly produce and sustainably-sourced goods, said Augustine. As more Singaporeans became conscious of the food that they eat and sourced for sustainable food options due to Covid-19 last year, it helped UglyFood get its foot in the door into an already saturated local grocery scene.
The business has also expanded to a team of 10 permanent and temporary staff. “Our operations are growing and we are hiring for essential roles according to business needs,” said Augustine.
“UglyFood’s mission is to eliminate food waste and revamp the food ecosystem,” said the entrepreneur.
Singaporeans embrace conscious eating
Due to supply chain disruptions and border lockdowns caused by the pandemic, it brought about a stronger focus on food sustainability in Singapore.
Statistics from the National Environment Agency reflect this trend of conscious eating from Singaporeans. In 2020, Singapore had 665,000 tonnes of food waste, which is an 11 per cent decline compared to a year ago, and 18 per cent less than 5 years ago.
“More people are getting aware of the food waste in Singapore and working towards eliminating it. In 2021 alone, UglyFood saved about 50 tonnes of food from waste,” shared Augustine.
Although the business has thrived as more look for sustainable food options, the founder admits that there’s still a group of people that’s a tough nut to crack: those Singaporeans that must have everything that looks perfect.
“The majority of consumers are happy to purchase the products at discounted prices, provided that they get the groceries they require. As for those who want perfect looking items, we face the issue of having to explain our business model and that some products might have cosmetic defects.”
It may be a long way to go to have this group of consumers come onboard fully, but all in all, the needle is moving in the mindsets of Singaporeans to eat sustainably.
Webtoon and e-commerce
UglyFood has an e-commerce website and a grocery store that’s located at SUTD. According to Augustine, the e-commerce store captures consumers’ changing habits of going online to buy necessities like groceries.
Its online store and social media platforms are not ugly but rather cute, literally. UglyFood designs webtoons of talking and smiling fruits for its marketing advertorials.
Explaining why the team spends time and effort designing these characters, Augustine said that content creation is the best way to educate people about the items they are buying.
“That includes educating people on how to accept items with certain conditions, along with learning new food facts. This encourages people to purchase items on clearance and keep a flexible eating mindset.”
In fact, the cartoons are attractive and useful for children for their early education too, since they are the next generation that will inherit this earth.
Up to 60 per cent off retail prices
Augustine said that UglyFood’s products are sourced locally. It offers competitive pricing for clearance items, and discounts can go up to 60 per cent off retail prices.
He said that the popular products sold on UglyFood are fresh fruits, vegetables, and surprise bundles.
“Our surprise bundles are made up of assortments to create the best customised bunch for you. Shopping for a single item in our store costs more than buying it in a bundle. In the bundle, the prices of all the items are 25 per cent cheaper. A bundle also goes a long way in reducing food waste.”
For this Chinese New Year, Augustine shared that shoppers have stocked up on mandarin oranges and oranges. Corporate firms are also purchasing surprise bundles for staff.
Quality control over the “ugly” food
Augustine stressed that UglyFood’s product brands are the same as those found in other retail stores. These products are often over imported, thus they are let go at cheap prices.
“For the uglier items, there’s an internal quality control process to manage quality and we have a refund process in place to ensure that the customers are happy,” he said.
Refunds from customers don’t happen that often but it does occur to some products that require more care, like strawberries and peaches. “Sadly they may get damaged during delivery due to harsh conditions. We offer refunds in such cases.”
So why can’t we squeeze fruits or vegetables when buying them?
Pressing or squeezing fruits or vegetables is a big no no in Augustine’s book.
The avid environmental guy said that this will cause permanent damage to the product if it’s already ripe or overripe. “This happens when there is a hole made from the squeezing. This will cause rotting or expose the fruit which may otherwise have been enjoyed in perfect condition.”
“We advise customers to rely on other ways to find out if a fruit or vegetable is ripe – such as observing the colour and weight. If need be, you should just gently feel the fruit’s hardness instead.”
Chinese New Year may be a holiday period of joy and celebrations for some in Singapore, but it often becomes a problem for grocers and eateries as tons of food go to waste.
“There’s definitely more food waste during festive periods, both on the upstream and downstream ends. That’s because suppliers and retailers will stock up in anticipation of a demand surge, while end consumers might also overbuy,” said Augustine.
Other sudden changes in the pandemic situation also impact supply and demand. Any vaccinated travel lane opening, or changes in grouping and dining regulations will throw the food supply chain off balance.
Providing a solution for consumers like you and me to cope with the changes, he said: “For end consumers, it’s best to plan your menus and meals in advance to reduce waste.”
Sustainable food journey
As a contributor to Singapore’s sustainability movement, Augustine thinks that the initiative is taking shape.
“People are more conscious of the government’s 30 by 30 plan, and we see an increasing amount of people asking about what we do.”
Singapore’s 30 by 30 goal was announced in 2019 to raise the country’s ambition for local food production and enhance the resilience of Singapore’s food supply.
Right now, UglyFood plans to continue to grow and expand its business in Singapore. “We’re shifting to a larger space after Chinese New Year to the Sembawang/Yishun area. As the business evolves, we are also exploring omnichannel approaches.”
UglyFood is currently working on a seed-stage fundraise to grow its business, and details will be revealed in due time, shared Augustine.
For people who are not buying from UglyFood but wish to contribute to this trending sustainability movement, Augustine encourages them to support the business’ cause through its food drive.
“We have a food drive that is aimed at diverting excess food from suppliers that would otherwise go to waste to feed needy families. We have partnered with various food and beverage businesses who are supporting our cause to give discounts and vouchers to those who support our food drive!”
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Featured Image Credit: UglyFood