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November 18, 2016 Staff

The Ugly Apple Cafe Food Cart is Changing Perceptions of Fresh Produce

the ugly apple cafeLaurel Hague, owner of The Ugly Apple Cafe based out of Madison, Wisconsin, works with local farmers to minimize waste by using overstock produce to help the cities less fortunate. We had the opportunity to speak with Laurel about her business and the long-term vision of The Ugly Apple Cafe.
M&R: Tell us about the Ugly Apple and your goals.

Laurel: The Ugly Apple is a food cart that serves breakfast in downtown Madison.  Madison has strict size restrictions for mobile food, so it’s a 6ft by 9ft trailer that is designed to look like an apple crate. It’s a tight squeeze, but I have a small deep fryer, flat top, coffee maker, and refrigerator. I serve from scratch biscuits as biscuits and gravy and egg and cheese sandwiches.  Also mini apple fritters that come in a peck or a bushel (I’m sorry for the cuteness but I couldn’t resist) Also locally roasted coffee, oatmeal and frittatas featuring local overstock produce.

Because I am just getting started and it is November in Wisconsin, I have been doing different things with squash and winter greens the last couple weeks.  When the season starts again in the spring I am hoping to have a lot to choose from and also get into processing overstock produce as well.  The overstock part is really important to me.  I want to buy the fruits and vegetables that are from the local farmers and that are delicious but that might be the wrong shape or scratched or just don’t sell at the market.  I am working towards getting a food processor certification also so I can make as much of the overstock produce into jams, salsas, sauces and things of that nature.  I want to give the farmers a customer for the vegetables that would become compost and doesn’t deserve to be.

I am also trying to minimize waste as much as possible.  This goes along with the overstock idea, but there is a lot of waste in general in food service and there are local organizations in Madison that take food from restaurants and get it to people who aren’t food secure.  I love this idea and hope to work with them to donate my leftovers.  Also using bio-degradable products and giving discounts for bringing a mug for coffee and things like that.  I am trying to work within the law of people bringing their own to-go containers for food, but that gets really tricky health code wise so that is down the line a little bit.

dog cafeM&R: How did you come up with the idea?
Laurel: While working in restaurants, waste was always something that bothered me and I wanted to try to minimize it as much as possible when I started my own business. Then about 8 or 9 months ago I saw a report on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver about food waste and heard an interview on a podcast on the same topic and wanted to do my part.  We don’t eat most foods raw and whole.  We have to process them at least somewhat so how often does it matter if a tomato has a small split? If an apple has a dent? It’s still going to be better than the produce that is grown thousands of miles away, picked under ripe and then is beautified for the grocery store.
So that’s the Ugly part of the Ugly Apple.  For the breakfast part of the concept I really like breakfast food and I saw an opening in the market.  Madison loves food carts, this year there are 60 carts who are vying for busy spots downtown, near the UW campus and the surrounding area. There are only two that do breakfast as far as I can tell and I am one of them.  One other cart is trying breakfast for now, and one of the lunch carts comes out early.  I found a niche, and now I am hoping to build a customer base and go from there!

M&R: Can you tell us a little about the process of working with Kiva to help launch your business? How did Kiva help you get started?
Laurel: There is an organization in Wisconsin called the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation, WWBIC, that does amazing work.  They are a great resource for small businesses and start-ups.  They were the ones who told me about Kiva.  Kiva is very supportive and helpful with launching the loan campaign. I needed a loan to help pay for the equipment for the cart. I wanted to use crowd sourcing to help start my business, but without having a tangible product I felt a little weird about asking for money.  With the Kiva loan system I think a lot more people felt good about lending because they are going to get their money back and they can stay connected to my business.  I spoke to a few Kiva support staffers who gave me tips and was fully funded!  Kyra and Dawn were so helpful walking me through the process and in the last few days I got a X2 matching from the Diller-von Furstenburg Family Foundation and that really built up a lot of momentum and it seemed like I finished really strong!

M&R: Where do you plan to operate primarily?

Laurel: I am planning on being downtown on the capital square in Madison most weekday mornings for the commuters.  I also have been going to the UW research center in town one day a week. During the summer I am hoping to operate also outside the farmers markets in town, the big one on Saturday mornings downtown and others on afternoons and evenings.  It really depends what will fit in my schedule.  Right now I only have two part time employees and they just help me during operation to make sure I keep service as quick as possible on busy days.  In the spring I might try to get a little more help to keep up on prep and such.
M&R: Where do you see the Ugly Apply in five years?
Laurel: I am hoping to have a line of canned products that are made with the overstock produce.  I hope to still be in the cart for breakfast, but maybe also with a space for private parties or classes and catering.  Eventually I would like for that space to be a cafe, but I think that might be more than 5 years out. I will hopefully have a small staff and a strong following in Madison of people who like breakfast, farmers and not wasting things.  Madison is a pretty crunchy town and I am hoping to strike a chord with my community and be a responsible business.

Seeking Funding For Your Food Startup?

As mentioned in the Q/A above, Laurel got help from Kiva.org to raise money for her purpose driven food business. Below Adam Kirk from Kiva explains a little more about the non-profit:
Filling the void in funding for businesses like the Ugly Apply is more than important for Kiva: it’s crucial. It’s why our U.S. program exists.
About 3 million small business loan applications are rejected in the U.S. every year, banks are risk-averse, and entrepreneurs are more frequently turning to alternative sources of capital – many of these alternative sources offer high, and even predatory, interest rates. 
Kiva’s U.S. program exists to increase access to capital for entrepreneurs, lower the cost of that capital, and give entrepreneurs the boost they need to grow their businesses to the point at which they can access more traditional, affordable, capital. 
We consider ourselves to be the first rung on the capital ladder: businesses borrow from Kiva’s community at 0% interest, repay their loans, and build their business credit. 
After a Kiva loan or two (or three!), entrepreneurs have the base they need to be approved by a community bank or organization backed by the U.S. Small Business Administration, and we even make the introduction when we can.
We help entrepreneurs succeed by filling the funding void, and entrepreneurs’ success is what we’re all about.

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