Business As Unusual: meeting new demands in COVID-19

The founder of ODDBOX poses with a pumpkin
Image from ODDBOX
Holly Branson
Holly Branson's writing
Published on 9 August 2020

The list of inspiring stories of Virgin StartUp-funded companies stepping up and branching out during COVID-19 keeps growing longer. As we continue to explore this new and unusual business landscape, here is another brilliant example of a small business making a big impact. 

ODDBOX is a subscription service that rescues wonky, surplus fruit and vegetables from farms and delivers the produce directly to doors in London. During COVID-19, ODDBOX had to react quickly to cope with a massive increase in demand and big shifts in the food industry. I reached out to the company’s co-founder, Deepak Ravindran, to learn more about their journey. 

The founders of ODDBOX smile inside a greenhouse
Image from ODDBOX

The concept behind ODDBOX is absolutely brilliant. When and how did you come up with the idea?

It was during a holiday in Portugal in 2016. We were at this typical Portuguese local market when we saw a really odd tomato. Totally misshapen - absolutely delicious. Emilie is from France and I am originally from India, so we were both used to shopping in local markets and thought it was strange that the fruit and vegetables in UK supermarkets looked so perfect. 

We started exploring this and discovered the true extent of food waste in the UK and the inefficiencies in the food system. With 20 to 30% of fruit and vegetables never actually leaving the farm, we felt we needed to do something about it. And so, we launched ODDBOX - London's first and only food-waste-fighting fruit and vegetable box. It’s been an amazing journey and we couldn’t have done it without the advice of like-minded people in the field, a tight-knit team of hard-working and dedicated employees, and the entrepreneurial spirit that companies like Virgin StartUp help to cultivate.

How has COVID-19 impacted your business and the way it operates?

It's been a busy few months. During the week the lockdown was announced, we saw an order influx 10 times greater than our average daily volume. When March rolled around, we paused new orders for three weeks as we worked on building a strong supply chain foundation so we could scale our operations.

Our main focus has always been to reduce food waste by delivering amazing quality produce directly from the farm. At this time, guaranteeing the reliability of our service. the quality of our produce and the customer experience was more important than ever. We wanted to get boxes of fresh fruit and veggies to as many people self-isolating as possible. We also wanted to help growers who suddenly found themselves with a whole lot of produce that has nowhere to go, as food businesses around the country had to close. Finally, we wanted to help our customers and community stay resourceful and making the most out of their food, while staying indoors.

To do this, we had to grow our operations, our team and change the way we thought about the customer experience. Since March, we have been lucky to hire 10 new members for our head office, 25 new drivers and we’ve tripled the packing team. Our brand team has completely pivoted its content strategy to meet the new needs of our community. It’s all paying off too! In April and May we registered 600% Year-Over-Year growth and rescued over 1,400 tonnes of produce that could have otherwise gone to waste.

Image from ODDBOX
Image from ODDBOX

Unlike many businesses that were forced to close or experienced a big slump in demand in recent months, ODDBOX seems busier than ever! How were you able to keep up with demand while also following tightening lockdown measures and shifting government regulations?

It was difficult at first as demand seemed to increase overnight. As mentioned before, we had to pause new orders while we worked around the clock to meet this demand and get as many boxes out to people self-isolating. Keeping our team, drivers and community safe was also paramount. Our head office team started working from home one week before the lockdown announcement and we rolled out an entire COVID-19 safety plan in our warehouses. Our drivers started using PPE straight away and we paused our box collection – a creative initiative encouraging our community to upcycle. 

Helping businesses find purpose is one of my greatest passions, and I’m so inspired by the way you run ODDBOX. How do you stay true to your purpose in tough times?

We undertook a long process with the whole team to identify our mission, vision and values. More importantly, we also have sessions on how we can all live these values every day. Inclusivity is one of our values and we encourage anyone in the team to challenge us whenever we make a decision that might go against our values. We also complete a values checklist while communicating messages internally or externally- i.e. are we being transparent, mindful, inclusive and innovative? We also plan to include a value-based recruitment process so we can make sure there’s a natural alignment of values across the whole team. 

The coronavirus pandemic has really changed the way we consume products and the importance we place on community. Do you think COVID-19 will have any long-term effects on the demand for more local, ethical and sustainable products?

Absolutely, a recent YouGov survey found that nearly 40% of participants want to buy from local and community-driven businesses. The silver lining of this crisis is that it has thrown us into a future where we all become more mindful consumers.

Image from ODDBOX
Image from ODDBOX

What advice do you have for other small businesses owners and entrepreneurs navigating these difficult times?

Look to see how consumers behaviours are changing - what are they are looking for and how can you meet their needs in the best way possible? With adversity, there is opportunity and this doesn't mean taking advantage. It simply means satisfying an existing or evolving consumer need. So, if you can spot opportunities and persevere, opportunities will come!

Do you think we will see any other trends or changes in business as a result of COVID-19?

Adoption of e-commerce is growing at an unprecedented pace. People are shopping online and the barriers to this have been reduced enormously. It also helps that people are working more from home, so they will be around to receive deliveries. Another accelerated trend is flexible working. People are spending less time commuting and at work, which would make it difficult for businesses catering to the traditional workplace.

Quote from ODDBOX
Image from ODDBOX

I read that every four boxes of large fruit and vegetables you deliver saves over 2,775 litres of water from going to waste. This really highlights the positive impact we can make, simply through our consumer choices. What are three other consumer choices we can make to help protect our planet?

70% of post-farm wastage occurs in our very own kitchens so reducing our own food wastage is a big step. Here are a few tips from me:

  1. Stick to a meal plan so you use up everything in your fridge.

  2. Befriend your freezer.

  3. Leave the peels on when you’re cooking with fruit and vegetables!

What’s next for ODDBOX?

We have been expanding to cater to more areas in London and have added nearly 20 new postcodes in the last month. We are aware that we're still London-centric though and with inclusivity being one of our values, the next step is to go nationwide.

The founder of ODDBOX poses with a pumpkin
Image from ODDBOX

Thank you so much for sharing your optimism and your insight with us Deepak. I’m excited to see a more sustainable future taking shape thanks to small businesses like ODDBOX.