Toasted Earth

Shameless Pets: Alex Waite

August 11, 2021 Michelle Cunningham Season 1 Episode 11
Toasted Earth
Shameless Pets: Alex Waite
Show Notes Transcript

This episode features Alex Waite, the co-founder of Shameless Pets. Shameless Pets uses surplus and misfit produce to create healthy upcycled dog treats, rescuing food waste in the process. Alex is passionate about the environment, a dog lover and a food scientist. Together with her co-founder, James, she’s found the intersection of these interests with Shameless Pets.

Michelle and Alex discuss the food production chain and waste produced along it, how that waste can be upcycled into other products and the sustainability challenges facing food producers.

Relevant Links:
https://shamelesspets.com/

Support the show (https://www.buymeacoffee.com/toastedearth)

Michelle Cunningham:

Hello and welcome to the Toasted Earth podcast, a show about founders, visionaries, and environmentalists pursuing novel ideas and sustainability to ultimately save the Earth. I'm your host, Michelle Cunningham and for today's episode we have Alex Waite, the Co-Founder of Shameless Pets. Shameless Pets uses surplus and misfit produce to create healthy upcycled dog treats, rescuing food waste in the process. Alex is passionate about the environment, a dog lover, and a food scientist. Together with her Co-Founder, James, she's found the intersection of these interests with Shameless Pets.

Alex Waite:

I have a background in food science and food product development. I went to school actually for Human Nutrition and Dietetics in Northern California. And through that school, I also got a master's degree where I just really dove into getting nerdy about research and community research. But through my experience in learning about research to the community, actually started applying that and I know this sounds totally random, but into food production and taking my research background to start researching more about food and learning more about how to commercialize food product food products for the grocery store shelves. So I got into the human food industry through a company called Mary's Gone Crackers. They make organic and allergen snack food items I created their super seed product line among others that some saw the shelf, some others didn't, you know, behind the scenes, you know, everything you make in the kitchen actually gets commercialized. But through them, I really learned hands on how to develop food products and take them to the factory and make them shell staple and food safe for for people at home. So yeah, that's that's kind of where I got started in terms of my background. And it led me to other opportunities, which which inspired me to start my own business.

Michelle Cunningham:

Yeah, I've heard of the Mary's crackers. I've seen them at the store. So that's really cool that you were part of making those. And I bet you noticed along the way, like maybe some things that led you to see waste happening in that work stream there. Can you tell me a bit about what you saw?

Alex Waite:

Yeah, yeah definitely, you know, working in food manufacturing, it's really interesting. When you think about food waste, I would say that food gets wasted at all aspects of the supply chain. So when you think about food waste from where it's grown, like if you're using fruits and vegetables as an example, starting at the farm level, waste happens at that that level, just for reasons like maybe it's not pretty enough for the grocery store shelves, or maybe they over planted because they're, they want to make sure they can make their contracts, you know, meet their contract needs, but so they over plant to produce enough to meet that contract. And so what happens to the surplus that's leftover. So think about waste happening in that in that realm, at the food manufacturing level, I use, I like to use the example of a fresh cut produce. So thinking about veggie noodles, when you walk into the grocery store and you walk to that fresh counter, you see veggie noodles that have been spiralized and packaged in a plastic container that you can grab and take home and easily, you know, make your sauce and make them all fancy for yourself. But those veggies certainly didn't grow as a spiral. So there's a there's a manufacturing facility that is spiralizing are processing that material. And when you think about it, what happens to the rest of that that butternut or that that zucchini You know, there's there's waste that occurs and that process. So in food manufacturing that happens across like thinking about oat milk, for example, that people you make, you press the oats or you soak the oats and you have this water that's left behind, which is the milk. And then when you take that liquid and you package it, you drink it, what happens to the oats that are left behind so happens in so many so many places in terms of food production, that that's something that I noticed in, in my my experiences and working in the manufacturing facility.

Michelle Cunningham:

What does happen to it does it just get thrown away?

Alex Waite:

Um, a lot of it depends on like the situation I would say, you know, for us at and what we do at art, my business at shameless. We work with a lot of these food manufacturers to take some of those products that traditionally get either going to get, they could go to landfill, they could go to compost, a lot of the times they are turned into commoditized animal feed so you think about like pigs or, or cows they get tossed to the to the pigs and cows, but it's not really the way that it was intended for that material to be used. You know, I think that it's in when you look at like the the guidelines around where food should really be priority. In terms of where it goes, it's not the highest and best use of that material, though compost is great, and using it for compost is great, it's really actually supposed to be grown to be eaten and consumed. And when it's not eaten or consumed, it's it's, you know, oftentimes a waste of resources that that it took to create that product.

Michelle Cunningham:

So how did you decide to take all this food waste? And then turn it into dog treats?

Alex Waite:

Seems a little random, right? Yeah, so I, you know, I think that when I started the business, I was really, when I thought about the food industry and where it was heading, I was really inspired by businesses that were doing creating sustainable solutions. You know, I think in the food industry, it's such a burden on, I mean, it's here to provide us the nutrition we need, but there are also some practices in the industry that are really not the most sustainable. So when you think about when I was thinking about it, I really wanted to create a business that could have some sort of impact in terms of sustainability. And, you know, as being a dog, a dog Mom, I say that very proudly I am a, I would say, a hardcore dog mom. The idea of, you know, being able to incorporate my pet into a solution was really exciting and interesting to me, you know, when I when I cook at home, we as consumers are actually a pretty significant contributor to food waste at home, just, you know, cooking your, your fruits and vegetables, like I would actually toss like, my zucchini tops, or, you know, I have a sad looking piece of lettuce, like, I throw that on top of my, my dog's food and she just, she doesn't care. She loves it, she provides her the the micronutrients, and you know, the fiber and, and all the good stuff that's in that fruit and vegetable item, and she doesn't care that it's maybe a little bit wilted. Or maybe it's, you know, zucchini at the end of his life or whatnot. And so I started to do that, and really was inspired by that. So you're right yet today.

Michelle Cunningham:

That's awesome. It totally reminds me of my my mother in law has chickens. And these chickens are like the best fed chickens ever. Because they get all the scraps after she cooks, she puts them in a bowl takes them down there and they love it. It's kind of amazing what a chicken can even their faces are so small that they managed to fit all this different types of food in there. But yeah, okay, so you saw that, like, your dog could eat all this stuff that would otherwise either go in compost, or the trash or wherever, wherever you could put it. And then you decided to start a business, were you already thinking about doing a business and looking for something that you could work on or did this just like kind of come out of that idea,

Alex Waite:

I was employed at the time at a place that just didn't feel like a good match for me. You know, if you ever had that experience working for an employer, and you're like, this is not, this is not what I had hoped for. It's really not where I want to be or what I want to be doing. And so I left that job. That job actually took me from Northern California to Boston, and I moved to Boston for that job. And after about five months, I was like, This isn't working, I quit, and I didn't have a plan. And I really, you know, at that time, kind of left it, left it open for you know, things to evolve. You know, I wanted to make sure I had the time and the space to really just not jump into a job because obviously I think I did that and it didn't work out I wanted to really leave leave space to explore and consider what what might be possible. So I think I have always had an entrepreneurial kind of drive. You know, I think that's something that's always been of interest to me. And it was I think the time at the time, it was the the right thing to do and consider

Michelle Cunningham:

awesome so how did you go from idea to actually getting this stuff out there where people could give it to their dog?

Alex Waite:

Yeah, so for me I knew that I couldn't do this by myself. I knew I not that I couldn't I just didn't want to to be totally honest. For those of you who have started business, you know just how demanding it is. And just so much that you have to know and what what you have to wear you have to spend your time it's more than like just food science and it's more than I'm baking in my kitchen and wearing my apron and yeah, this is fun, but it's about how do I make sure that the packaging is you know, marketable, how do I make sure that I have some place to sell it so for me one of the first steps is really finding a partner in crime to to go to market with and I found that I found a business partner His name is James and him and I met in Boston through a mutual connection and we just kind of hit it off and decided to take Physically together. And so that was that was, I think, a big first step. And for me, like, a big part of my responsibility was sourcing and learning, you know, figuring out the right partners that I could work with. And for us, that's, as I mentioned, working with farmers we work with farmers have that surplus that have their, their misfits, or their imperfect produce, we work with farmers, and we work with food processors. So we actually do work with a veggie noodle facility that has veggie scraps, and we take that and incorporate that into a piece of our jerky jerky products. So my, my, my big task was, you know, finding the right partners and people that had a challenge that we could be part of a solution for, and then figuring out how to make it in a factory, which is what my my background and more of my expertise, if you if you will lended itself towards

Michelle Cunningham:

Yeah, yeah, I mean, it definitely seems like your background from manufacturing food before would apply, like really well to the this, this place where, I think, might seem daunting to other people trying to start a business like this. It's like, Okay, how do I even find all that, like, there's a lot of people in the chain to get it from? I've made this thing in my kitchen. And now I need to like mass produce it and find all the ingredients in a reliable and scalable way. And then like get it made and packaged and, and all of that, but you guys did it. You've got something out there. People can go on your website and and buy your products. How? How's it going? How's it going? Since since you got started and got this out there?

Alex Waite:

Yeah, it's been going super well. I think with any business, it's, it's a roller coaster, you know, one day, you're like, Oh, this is awesome. I'm doing it's going well. And then another day, you're like, putting out 10 fires. So I think you know, as far as How's it going, we have been really fortunate to, over the past few years continue to to grow and increase our revenue and launch new products. And we started building a team. So now it's not just James and I, you know, as of last summer, we, that's when James and I hired our first team member. So in the past year, we've hired an additional eight people. So there's, there's 10 of us now. And so that's been really, really fun and exciting and hard to figure out how to, you know, make make every, you know, transfer of information from us to them and create new systems for the growth. And so that's been really fun, and also just challenging. But we're really fortunate, again, from the past year, given how COVID has been going, we've been in industry, the consumer packaged goods industry, the CPG industry, that's really blossomed and been able to get into consumers hands and more convenient ways through like DTC, or, you know, Amazon to we other other platforms that really support of supportive people in this time, we've been able to kind of pivot from just looking at grocery stores and really focusing on more of that DTC side of business as well. So you are available in both, you can buy online, or you can go and find it at the store. Yeah, totally, we're in all those I mentioned, we are channels that we really are focused on our grocery stores and targets of the world, Costco if we can, we're really focusing on making a bigger impact through those, those volumes and those those ways of getting into people's hands. So you can find us at Whole Foods, you can find us some products at Walmart, the best place to find the biggest varieties, boys going to be online. So yeah, hopefully we can reach you in a variety of ways.

Michelle Cunningham:

I'd love to hear a little bit about how you go from a treat concept to actually making that thing. And who's coming up with the concepts who's coming up with the latest dog tree we're gonna make,

Alex Waite:

that would be me, but I would say that's the most fun part of the process. I really love thinking about I mean, and then thinking about food creatively, like how do I the the mind frame I have is really how do I pack as much good stuff nutrition and, you know, micronutrients, all that good stuff into this one product and one treat, for example. And so, you know, for us, that means using whole food ingredients and making sure that everything is just the highest and best quality so that we can provide the most nutrition and that's how I think about food I think especially you know, when you think about dog treats you think oh, well you know, my pets gonna be eating this. I don't necessarily care but at the end of the day, well I mean, it depends on what kind of dog parent who cares necessarily as much but I would say we're selling also to you as a consumer You know, when I'm when I'm making a profit I'm making flavors that I think that would taste good. Like I'm making peanut butter and pumpkin and I'm making something that when you open the bag, you smell cinnamon and it's real cinnamon so it's appealing to you as well as it is to your pet.

Michelle Cunningham:

Do you taste it along the way?

Alex Waite:

I do I have tasted the majority of our products. And I don't know if I've tasted a lobster. I might I think I have tasted it. But it's been a while. When you open the lobster bag it It smells like the seat was pretty strong. Like lobster.

Michelle Cunningham:

I bet that the pets probably love it. They get that smell. They're like, Yes,

Alex Waite:

they do. Dogs Go crazy. Or one of our most popular flavors is the lobster rollover and the dogs really, really they they taste with their there's more than just their, their tongue. They're selling it. And so they're they're really excited when you open the bag, and then it's just really stinky.

Michelle Cunningham:

I'm gonna have to try that one. I have a pug. And he's actually under my desk right now. And he would love to try a lobster bag. So I'll have to go. Go get that one and have him try it out. Well, I mean, he loves all foods. So I cannot imagine him not liking it. But it'll be like a nice treat for him just to be like you're eating lobster. That's nice for me to eat. So well, cool. I'd love to talk a little bit about just food waste in general, and why it's a problem. Can you tell me a little bit about like, how big of a problem is this? And what's what's the impact that food waste is having on our environment and climate change?

Alex Waite:

Yeah, it's huge. I mean, food waste is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, it's it's a solution, it's one of those problems that if we created a solution for would have significant impact in terms of, of dollars, it's over almost a trillion dollars worldwide annually is wasted through through food. And with that comes wasted energy, wasted water, mean wasted nutrients that could be feeding people when there's people that are going hungry. And and so and the places, like I mentioned, it's more than just a manufacturing and industry problem. It's so it's consumers at home that are actually, like I said, the biggest contributors to food waste, and I and it's something that we can all actively establish goals for and and really make

Michelle Cunningham:

a significant impact on. So it's all it's all along the chain. And so like from the the farming, like you mentioned earlier to the manufacturing to us now having the food at home and just throwing a bunch of it away or like not actually consuming it.

Alex Waite:

Yeah, and then just a couple of other pieces in there to transportation, so moving food to another, and then retail. So at the grocery stores, an immense amount of food waste occurs. And there's, there's measures that are being taken. There's lots of really cool innovations coming out that will help alleviate that by connecting those who need food to those who have food to give to trying to hone in and explain better explain Best Buy date and expiration dates. I think there's confusion around that. How long can I keep my food in the fridge? How long after the expiration date, can I actually eat it, it doesn't mean moldy today, but I have a few extra days. And I think there's just a lot of really unclear information out there about food. And I think that it'll be a big focus for the food industry over the next decade

Michelle Cunningham:

It's a lot to keep track of to as an individual, all this stuff in your fridge and actually like knowing when it's all gonna go bad. So you can plan ahead and make sure you're using it up. It's a lot to track.

Alex Waite:

Is it even possible to eat a full container of spinach?

Michelle Cunningham:

It always goes bad before you get rid of it. Yeah. Yeah.

Alex Waite:

And that's where, you know, one of the things that we can do as consumers is really meal preparation is is a big deal. I mean, if you really think about and think ahead about your week's needs, and this isn't always possible it isn't and I think that's one thing to consider is that it's not always black and white. It's not like do this every time and it's always going to work for you. Right it's it's a like when I can and I'm going to do my best to think ahead about my my week's needs and I'll you know make a grocery list instead of going in on an empty stomach to a grocery store and, you know, just throwing things in and without really having a plan for it. I think that's that's where we can can really think ahead a bit better about what our needs are and And what our plans are for the week?

Michelle Cunningham:

Yeah, yeah, that makes a ton of sense. And at the grocery store level is the reason there's a lot of waste at that point, just overstocking is that what happens?

Alex Waite:

Yeah, they do overstock intentionally. One, you don't really want to run out because you don't have something to sell. But too, we, as consumers expect, when we walk in to have an appearance of abundance, that's just one thing. chicken or the egg, I think they've kind of trained us to think they retailers have trained us to think that when we walk into the retail store, we should see that huge, you know, pyramid of avocados to pick from and the reality is that not all of those avocados are going to get purchased. So what happens to those, they generally get tossed out, unless there's some sort of program in place for them to donate food to you then, and not every store has that. But some do.

Michelle Cunningham:

When you were picking like which suppliers to go with to create your treats? Why did you decide to go with the manufacturing side versus maybe maybe you could get them from the grocery store. But what was the trade off there?

Alex Waite:

Food Safety, food safety and control, you have to be able to control the environment as much as you can. So that means that at the farm level, really what I'm purchasing, in terms of nutrition or composition is no different than, like, maybe it's a sweet potato that's like watermelons, the giant ones, right, or the tiny little golf balls that are just didn't quite, you know, grow to as big as what you would buy on the shelves. So yeah, we utilize that call it surplus or misfits to to create a powder and dry them. So it really doesn't matter to us, we're drying up, we're using them as a flower in our biscuits and our recipes. So we can utilize that without like in a controlled environment that was producing the same that you would for like the fresh grocery store market. Manufacturing is also a controlled environment, we can go to our processors and say, Hey, you know, instead of tossing this material in the trash, like let's create a system where we can actually bag it and process it in a way that that maintains the integrity of that material, because I want to make sure I'm providing a safe environment for the food to then be produced for for our pets.

Michelle Cunningham:

Going back to like the topic of impact. What do you think is shameless pets impact right now, you guys are rescuing all this food, we

Alex Waite:

as a now, more I should say as of end of June, as we try to track how much material we use and have used in our, in our history, we're out about half a million pounds of food that we've saved the past few years, probably more than that, because my early records of tracking where the best. But yeah, we're about a half a million pounds, you know, with our goals of continuing to, to expand into new products and you know, try to increase our percentage of upcycle material and our recipes. Right now we're at about at the low end, 20% of our recipes are upcycle. at the high end, we actually have some in the 40 to 50% range, that are upcycled. So we really do try to incorporate as much as we can into the recipe

Michelle Cunningham:

to have the biggest impact. And where do you see it going from here? What's next for shameless pet?

Alex Waite:

You know, I'm working on a lot of different projects that are really thinking about sustainability more holistically. I think, as a business, we know that food waste is one way we can have impact. But I there's there's other ways to, to also look at our end of life. So our packaging, which is a big challenge in the food industry, to look at our energy consumption to look at our greenhouse gas emissions, we haven't, we haven't really been able to measure that directly. But there's systems out there that we're looking at being you know, being able to, to join and get some support and figuring out these really complex, you know, ideas around around that. Because you know, the only way we can really know if we're doing a good job or if there's more that we can do is if we can start measuring and knowing where we're at. So I think that's really the vision for incorporating more sustainability. I think I'd also really like to see us create more pet products. So other pet care items, like when you think about upcycling food, it's it's, it's hugely impactful, but there's also other materials that get wasted that can be utilized to create new and better products. So I think I really think we can do that with other materials and through our pet care line.

Michelle Cunningham:

Do you have any like products in mind that that you guys are starting to work on?

Alex Waite:

Not yet, you know, we've really focused on dog dog products dog treats, we recently expanded into cat trade. So we do have a crunchy cat tree that I don't have any cats. But I have seen a lot of my friends text me videos of their cats eating it, and they get very excited about it hit with the cat. So I'd like to see us really give more love to cats, I want to get more cat products out there. But I think you know, going forward maybe next year looking at, I don't know, like grooming products or toy products, things that you know us as consumers. We are when we're looking for ways to be to easily be more sustainable. I think that these are ways that we can cater to that.

Michelle Cunningham:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, great if we can use anything that would otherwise be wasted and turn it into something that gets a new life. That's awesome. It's great to see how you've done that with food. And if you can expand other places as well, you know, more props to you and more props, I think. So to get there, I guess on both those notes that both the like sustainability side and the things you're doing there to make everything more sustainable, as well as maybe expanding out and other product lines, what do you think are going to be the big challenges to doing those?

Alex Waite:

I mentioned packaging, it's one thing that everyone in the food industry really struggles with its I think, being on the inside, you know, our goals, as producers are to provide something that is safe for consumers and protected. And also, you know, maintain some sort of shelf life for that product, it's no good for me to to make a biscuit and have it go to wait like basically have a three week shelf life. So it's wasted. So the packaging, I would say again, industry wide is just a really big challenge. For us, we we started working with post consumer recycled materials. So 25% of the material we use is recycled plastic bottles, milk jugs, those kinds of things. And that's that's one big step that we took towards, you know, more more sustainable solution. But unfortunately, there's just not a good system out there for like compostable. What happens with compostable packaging is that it ends up degrading to a point where what you now have, as inside the package is then compromised. And so that's that's kind of also again defeats the purpose, you can't have a package at home that you're like, man, I have to throw this away because it's like the packaging is falling apart or something like that. And then the recyclable material is also a big challenge. I know there's there's systems out there where you can actually take your package. I know everyone, everyone, most people shop at amazon, right? A lot of people have an experience with Amazon, you get their their package that is able to be recycled, but it has to be recycled in a very specific way. And if it's not recycled, and that specific way, you can't just throw it in your like recycling at home, you have to like take it to a grocery store. And that grocery store has to be participating and have these bins where you can toss it in. Do you see where all these barriers kind of come into play?

Michelle Cunningham:

Oh, yeah, yeah, I see it.

Alex Waite:

It's hard. And I think that's that's what I'm really excited to see in terms of technology, where that heads and where that goes. Because I think it's gonna make a huge impact. So that that is a challenge that I've struggled with, in working in food and probably will until I see some some really great solutions with from creative people that are out there working on it.

Michelle Cunningham:

Yeah, and there are people working on these things. I don't know how well they would apply to the packaging for your for your business, because it's it's food, but there's people making packaging out of seaweed and like other other things. Yeah, it's probably getting down to the problem you were saying about composting and like it degrades over time. But it's nice to see that there's so many people out there trying to take these problems and like recognize them and just think of creative and interesting solutions to them. So hopefully there'll be lots of things coming down the pipeline for packaging and making that better because it is a shame. Anytime you like, buy something, you're like, Okay, well now I have this thing that I have to get rid of. And I mean, want to figure out the most sustainable way to do that. And sometimes it's not not that easy to do it in a sustainable way. So

Alex Waite:

totally. And I says manufacturers like we care and we want to do the best thing and, you know, for us that was doing post consumer recycled as a as a first step and we actually made our bags thinner too. So we're overall plastic usage was just not quite not as much. So there's things that we steps that we Took towards just reducing our plastic usage. But you know, we'd be first on board to, to work with a technology that that was able to be even more sustainable.

Michelle Cunningham:

Well, is there anything our listeners can do to help shameless pets, and it's becoming like an even bigger brand than you are now or in any of your, your missions that you're trying to achieve?

Alex Waite:

Yeah, I think that's a great question. I would say, you know, supporting us at your local retailer is always a great way. You know, I say I would say it's not the only way to support us. But it is a great way to show that you care about what we're doing, and you're excited to support us as a brand. We love getting pictures of you feeding to your dogs and your cats. We love it. We really want to build a community of sustainable minded pet owners. And so anything in terms of you know, reach out, let us know what your pet thinks we we love that feedback. And yeah, I think, you know, being being creative with your pet, I think if you are, you know, making your fruit veggies at home, like you have some little scraps or carrot tops or whatever, like, I'm sure your dog would gladly eat it and supporting them in that way is it's providing them that nutrition, and it's giving them a treat and makes you feel good. I think it's just an easy way to really partner with your pet in that way.

Michelle Cunningham:

Yeah, I love that. I'll have to start doing it more. I throw our dog treats here and there from when I'm cooking for maybe not enough maybe I should give him a little bit more and cut back a little bit on all the treats. He steals from my son which are like not healthy.

Alex Waite:

That's funny. Yeah, I you know, carrots are great cucumbers. My dogs love bell peppers. They aren't good enough. If I put a belt up or down it would be game over. So I know

Michelle Cunningham:

it is right. It's weird what they like and like what they don't he he will eat carrots. He loves carrots, but most other vegetables like I can't give him lettuce put in his mouth.

Alex Waite:

to chew. I just gave my dog one dog the other day just couple days ago love to the lettuce and the other dog was like not happening.

Michelle Cunningham:

They all have their opinions just like we do, I guess, for sure. Well, before we sign off, we like to end every episode with a toast to the earth. What do you hope for our planet's future?

Alex Waite:

Oh, man, I love this. I hope that we as individuals can just take a critical look at the things that we're doing and or ways that we can make small improvements. I think we I know I tend to get overwhelmed by the plethora of things I feel I should be doing. And sometimes that overwhelmed feeling makes it makes it so that I'm not I don't I don't necessarily jump in. But I think that if we just take these small things that we can do every day, I think they really add up. And I think that that's that's my hope for for the future is that we all just kind of take small initiatives to make a better future for our planet.

Michelle Cunningham:

Thanks for listening to the show today. If you love this show, please leave us a review wherever you listen to podcasts. You can learn more about Shameless Pets by visiting shamelesspets.com that's s-h-a-m-e-l-e-s-s-p-e-t-s dot com or visit our show notes at toastedearth.com for more links and details about this episode. If you are currently working on an idea, company, nonprofit or movement to benefit the environment, send us an email at hello@toastedearth.com we would love to hear from you. Raise a glass to the earth everyone, it's the only one we've got.