Premium waste

3rd November 2016

News, Student news, Alumni news

Making premium relishes and chutneys from discarded fruit and vegetables has become a mission and a career for Wadham alumna Alicia Lawson (Classics, 2008).

Director of Rubies in the Rubble, Alicia joined forces with founder and CEO Jenny Dawson after meeting her at a party, then responding to Jenny’s request for an intern.

“It sounded like a fun thing to do while I looked for a proper job…and I’ve been there ever since,” laughs Alicia.

“Food waste had always been a bug bear of mine and that was part of the reason the job appealed to me so much,” she adds. Alicia had no direct experience in the food business, though a father working in ingredient manufacture and commodity trading meant the food world was not alien to her.

“I had been thinking of working in the charity sector and when I first joined Rubies in the Rubble we had our own little kitchen and employed women from disadvantaged backgrounds, through the charity Crisis, to work with us. So we were not only tackling food waste we were providing employment to women who needed it most.”

However, as demand for Rubies in the Rubble relishes grew, Alicia and Jenny were faced with a difficult decision. “It was a perfect supply chain. We’d got to know the traders at New Spitalfields and they called us when they had surplus at the end of the day which they would have previously thrown away. We’d take it to our kitchen and turn it into delicious chutneys, doing everything from cooking to screwing on the lids of the jars and cleaning up afterwards. But our little cottage industry was never going to have a real impact on food waste so, if we were serious, we needed to outsource our production to bigger manufacturers so that we could put our energies into the sourcing the fruit and vegetables –far more fresh produce was not even leaving the farm for the wholesale market.”

Business got a boost when Rubies in the Rubble won the Join Our Core sustainable business competition run by Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. The Guardian wrote an article about them resulting in an approach from Waitrose who wanted to sell their chutneys. The relishes and chutneys are also sold by Ocado, Fortnum and Mason and Whole Foods as well as online through the Rubies in the Rubble website. 

Alicia now spends much of her time meeting farmers, working directly with the growers, building relationships and finding what is being wasted and when in the year they have over supply. “So our business model starts with supply rather than the demand. We’re also collaborating with other businesses. For example we heard from Virgin Trains that they had a lot of uneaten apples from their daily food services on the trains. We agreed to collect them and use the apples to make a West Coast Apple Chutney to be served in Virgin’s first class carriages.” Similar collaborations are happening with Eat, Marriott hotels and other big food brands.

And Rubies in the Rubble has further plans for expansion. “Our existing products are artisanal so are high quality premium products. We are looking to develop and expand our range, possibly for the supermarkets, and are currently developing a range of hot sauces.”

Why the name – Rubies in the Rubble? The concept behind the name Rubies in the Rubble relates to the innate beauty in everything, and bringing value back to hidden or missed things. In this case, the tomato which dropped off the vine, the misshapen carrot or cucumber – the quality foods which are overlooked.

Alicia returned to Wadham earlier this year for a reunion Gaudy where she spoke to fellow alumni about her time at Wadham and her career.

  • Alicia Lawson (Classics, 2008)

  • Alicia Lawson (right) with Rubies in the Rubble founder and CEO Jennie Dawson