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How To Change The World? Start With Dumpster Diving

Originally posted on forbes.com

What’s it like dining in a dumpster? Ask Josh Treuhaft. He has recently hosted five gourmet dinner parties in a retrofitted demolition dumpster in Brooklyn, N.Y. What’s even more surprising is that the culinary creations — like roasted parsnip apple and potato soup and babaganoush with roasted cumin carrot hummus on toast — are all made from slightly bruised or overripe fruits and vegetables and past-expiration date foods that were headed for the garbage dump. The food is donated from local farmers markets, co-ops, restaurants and sometimes friends.

Since the launch of his Salvage Supperclub in March, Treuhaft has served seven dinners with 110 diners, saving about 209 pounds of food and earning approximately $4,500 in the process. Production costs, which included dumpster rental and retrofitting costs (he got the dumpster donated for the last dinner because of the media interest) and minimal food expenses have run well under $1,000. Profit margins have come in between 38% and 43%, he says, though so far, he has donated the proceeds to non-profits.  The first meal started at $5 per person and seven dinners later he is charging $50 per person. “I’ve haven’t yet reached the threshold of the price points guests will pay,” he says.

Treuhaft, 30, isn’t a restaurateur, but rather an industrial designer who was looking to apply design, innovation and sustainability to the problem of food waste; specifically “How do I get more people interested and excited about food waste so we can send less food to landfills?” What we’re willing to eat as consumers is a big cause of food waste and Trehauft aims to broaden the spectrum of what people consider edible. “If you could expand what people see as desirable food, there would be less waste,” he says.

An Integrated Systems Approach

What started as Treuhaft’s Masters thesis project in the Design for Social Innovation (DSI) program at the School of Visual Arts has slowly morphed into a small business. After struggling with a stalled start-up created to reduce waste by collecting food scraps from small and mid-size restaurants, Treuhaft realized he “needed access to other successful social innovators and entrepreneurs who were really interested in helping to grow and move my project forward.”

People can learn lean start-up techniques just about anywhere these days, but what drew Treuhaft to DSI was the program’s systematic and integrated approach to problem solving where systems thinking and mapping, entrepreneurship, design, communication, data visualization and game theory were all found in an experience-based learning program. Typically these disciplines aren’t taught together but rather spread out across several different types of schools—business, art and architecture and computer science.

The Value of Ethnographic Research

Treuhaft also learned ethnographic field research techniques that taught him to think differently about his problem. “Waste is not a good word or concept to engage people or motivate change because people feel guilty about waste,” he says. Treuhaft learned to understand his audience and take into account their behavior. People “lit up and got excited” when they talked about food. So he turned around his original idea from a negative into a positive and shifted his focus to modifying food behaviors rather than waste. “By testing some early hypotheses quickly and cheaply, I learned that maybe I needed to shift my approach…focusing on waste makes it harder to engage people or motivate change,” he says.

His aim was to create an experience that made people want to care about sustainability. Trehauft brainstormed on the cheapest and easiest way to test his idea. Would people be interested in eating great food in a fun setting that encouraged them to reflect on the social issue of waste?

He teamed up with a chef to create the first prototype: a dinner party for 12 held at a DSI studio in March. “Launching with a minimal viable product was incredibly valuable as it gets you to take a risk for the sake of learning,” says Trehauft who has been working with Celia Lam of the Natural Gourmet Institute for the last five dinners. “As a designer, I’m trained to be comfortable not getting it right the first time, listening, learning and iterating.”

Delight in Design 

While Treuhaft succeeded in getting his diners to reflect on the social issue of waste and making the meal visually appealing, he learned that he needed to put design to work to “delight” his customers. So after the success of the first two events, he thought about what would be attractive, unique and visible—essentially incorporating elements of design into his service. By the third Salvage SupperClub Trehauft had decided to host his dinners in a dumpster. He has had a waiting list ever since. 

You don’t have to change the world to change the world

Quite often, social entrepreneurs get stuck because their goal is too unmanageable. “If you start too big with perhaps some naive or grandiose ideas of changing everything, sometimes that gets in the way of even starting,” says Treuhaft. “It can get in the way of really listening to the signals that come your way during the process and being willing to pivot (another startup term!) when you need.”

Treuhaft isn’t alone in his desire to solve some of our society’s larger social problems, using design, innovation and sustainability. He really is just part of a larger trend that incubators like PopTech, Unreasonable Institute, and schools like D-Lab at MIT, the Archeworks alternative education school in Chicago, and the d. school at Stanford University are tapping into. PopTech, for example, is a nonprofit think tank, mentoring organization and social innovators network that offer support to entrepreneurs like Treuhaft.  The PopTech Social Innovation Fellows program selects 10 to 12 entrepreneurs in for-profit and not-for-profit worlds to participate in a one-week intensive program focused on insights and tools for accelerating and scaling “big bet” innovations.

Like many trends, change doesn’t happen over night and there isn’t just one catalyst. It could be tied to the increased popularity of social innovation, social entrepreneurs and their rise in media coverage. In 1999, the Stanford Graduate School of Business identified the need to develop leaders to help solve global social and environmental challenges and started Center for Social Innovation. The launch of their Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2003 began to broker a dialogue between the public, private and non-profit sectors in the media.

In addition, social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank and a pioneer of micro finance and microcredit, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 and increased society’s knowledge and appeal for social innovation. Indeed, people are inherently interested in entrepreneurs—the against-all-odd stories of how they succeed creating new products and services that improve people’s lives. Also in 2007, the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, produced an exhibition “Design for the other 90%” which focused on design solutions that address the most basic needs of the 90% of the world’s population not traditionally served by professional designers. It has been traveling internationally after a stint at the United Nations in New York in 2012.

Whatever the reason, many young professionals are turning their career ambitions toward using design to improve the lives of others. One recent PopTech Fellow was Krista Donaldson, CEO of D-Rev, a non-profit product development company that designs and delivers products to people living on less than $4 a day. D-Rev owns the research, design and development of the their products and then partners with industry leaders to manufacture them.

Another entrepreneur who has also focused on design, innovation and sustainability is Erik Hersman, a co-founder of Ushadidi, a non-profit Africa-based technology company that builds open source software and digital tools for developing economies. Last year, Hersman went to Kickstarter to fund the production of BRCK, a “back up generator for the internet.” The BRCK allows users in rural and other difficult-to-connect places to have a reliable way to connect to the internet even without electricity. His non-profit truly did change lives. Now he is starting a social enterprise because these efforts need to be sustainable businesses to scale not non-profits.

What is happening is that these social innovators and incubators are coming up with game-changing technologies, and now the business world is interested. Design has always played an integral role in the success of business, so it is integral here as well. What is driving the integration of design for social innovation into so many different businesses is that these ideas and processes are now being discovered by impact investors.

Right now, Treuhaft is working with advisors to continue to iterate his business plan to make it more sustainable or figure out how his model might be used by other people wanting to initiate a conversation about food waste around the country. He has even been approached about doing some catering events where he would do some or all of the food and tell the salvage story and techniques to educate and inspire the guests. “It could be really interesting, but time will tell,” he says.

Photo by Mohammid Walbrook
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