Beauty is only peel deep: New delivery service offers 'ugly' produce

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
Imperfect Produce sells fruits and vegetables that traditional retailers may not want because they don't meet certain cosmetic standards.

A new grocery delivery service will launch next week in Metro Detroit that puts a different spin on fruits and veggies that may look “ugly” or imperfect on the outside but taste just as good on the inside.

Imperfect Produce, a grocery subscription service started in 2015 and already available in two dozen cities across the United States, aims to reduce food waste by delivering boxes of fresh fruit and produce to customers that might otherwise be thrown out by farmers because of slight imperfections or irregular sizes.

They'll deliver to at least 13 communities in Metro Detroit, but delivery zones will be expanded as the company adds more cities and townships over the next few weeks and months. Prices for produce boxes — which customers can customize to pick and choose what they’d like — start at $12 for a small box each week and can go up to $43. The first boxes will go out Tuesday.

The company says by targeting foods that don't meet cosmetic standards for retailers, they’re cutting down on food waste. One of the company’s slogans is “Groceries on a mission.”

"The focus on reducing waste is really in the DNA of our company and the heart of our mission," said Reilly Brock, Imperfect Produce's content manager. "We're really focused on building a better food system for everybody."

Brock said launching the service in Detroit has been on the company's radar for awhile. He said Chicago is one of their biggest markets, so it was just a question of building the infrastructure to get started in Detroit as well.

"We’re really excited to be coming to Detroit," he said. "We know folks really care about sustainability. It made a ton of sense, and we’re happy to make it finally happen."

This delivery of fruits and vegetables from Imperfect Produce includes some slightly misshapen pieces, but most are close to what you would find at a grocery store.

According to Imperfect Produce, which has its headquarters in San Francisco, 20% of all fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S. don’t meet the strict cosmetic standards of grocery stores. That means 20 billion pounds of produce go unharvested or unsold each year. Foods can also be thrown out if they're too close to their expiration date or if packaging has changed.

And while those cosmetic standards are at the heart of their mission, don't expect a box full of weirdly shaped or "ugly" vegetables if you sign up, said Brock.

"A lot of it doesn’t look as weird as people think it will – or expect it to," he said. "That’s some of the most common feedback we get from folks is ‘Hey, this doesn't actually look that odd.' Sometimes that’s just because they’re getting a surplus item, but a lot of time, it’s just because what qualifies as imperfect is something remarkably small or subtle. If you’re a produce buyer for a big mega-market, you might notice that this apple is not the right size or it’s got some blemishes or its not the right balance of red to green color. But if you’re someone at home eating, you're not going to notice or care."

Henry Deblouw, president of Mike Pirrone Produce, a 1,200-acre farm in Capac in St. Clair County, knows what happens if the vegetables his farm grows aren't just right for retailers.

Deblouw, who has been working with Imperfect Produce for about a year, grows about 35 different crops, including rhubarb, zucchini, yellow squashes, cucumbers, peppers and organic kale. If he grows green peppers that are slightly larger than what his retail customers may want, that's an issue.

“For our retail customers, they want perfect stuff,” said Deblouw, who owns the farm with his brother and mom.

Imperfect Produce’s fruits and vegetables may not always look ideal, but they taste the same as grocery store produce.

It's not as issue for Imperfect Produce. The company was founded in 2015 by Ben Simon and Ben Chesler. While Simon was a student at the University of Maryland, he noticed that a lot of food was going to waste in the cafeteria. He founded the Food Recovery Network, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing waste on college campuses.

Today, Imperfect Produce is already available in several cities along the West Coast, but also Milwaukee and Philadelphia. It also works with local food pantries in each city it serves to cut down on food waste. In Detroit, it will work with Gleaners Community Food Bank.

Allowing customers to pick and choose what they want in each box and how often they want to get it is key, said Brock. Besides produce, they now also offer some staples like rice, quinoa and other grains.

"It would be counterproductive if we were sending people stuff that they weren't excited to eat," said Brock. "So it's really important to us that you get it when you want to get and you pick what goes in it."

Deblouw, the farmer, said even though the Metro Detroit market won't be as big as Chicago, he believes customers will respond. In today’s busy world, having produce shipped right to your door is appealing to most.

“Nobody has food in their fridge anymore,” said Deblouw. “We’re all on the run. This helps.”

Imperfect Produce

  • Starting next week, Imperfect Produce will deliver boxes of "ugly'" vegetables and fruit to 14 Metro Detroit communities: Warren, Dearborn, Farmington Hills, Clinton Township, Livonia, St. Clair Shores, Southfield, Dearborn Heights, Royal Oak, Troy, Westland, Southgate and Taylor.
  • Eligible delivery zones will expand as the brand rolls out more neighborhoods in the coming weeks and months.
  • Prices start at $12 for a weekly box and can go up to about $43 depending on customization. 
  • Information: