You think you know grocery stores: fluorescent lights, chilly aisles of freezer cases, and nearly tasteless produce from around the globe. in.gredients, a new bulk and retail food store opening in Austin, TX, is setting out to change the way Americans shop for and eat their food. Why buy your beer in new bottles when the bottles from last week’s party are languishing in the recycling bin? Why truck in kale from California when it can be grown in the backyard of your neighbor? Our staff writer Meggie O’Dell sat down with Christian Lane, one of the co-founders of in.gredients, to discuss the store’s genesis, volunteer base, green ethics, and more.
Thanks so much for sitting down to talk with me today. I find the whole concept of in.gredients totally fascinating. Whose brainchild was it, and how did it come to be?
I think we’ve had notions of something like this for a while, maybe since our college days. My brother Joseph and I had been wanting to get more into sustainability, as far as business and business models, and we were just hanging out, having a couple of beers and talking about beer. Then we thought to ourselves that a really simple, easy business would be one where we have a bunch of beers on tap, a bunch of wine on tap, and all you do is bring in your growler or your wine bottle and we refill it.
That was very simple, very easy to start, very little capital, but we decided we’d rather have a full offering and actually start thinking about food, and we decided to start exploring the dispensing mechanisms that are available. You know, there’s a whole lot of them already, everything from bulk grains and rice and spices and all that to beer — you know, the beer enthusiasts love the kegs of beer. It seems like there’s a lot of popularity out in California around wine out of a keg, too, so we just started thinking through those things and thinking, yeah, this might be pretty cool. So we kind of increased the scope of our original idea and started just thinking through a business plan.
In October of 2010, Joseph spent a lot more time focused on a business plan and also formulating and putting in some projections based on what we could find and research. And we kind of kept pushing forward and started building out a website and increasing content. Then, in June of 2011, we hit this go or no-go decision. So we decided to do it, and we decided that as part of that we would do an Indiegogo campaign and use social networks, use our blog, and really be very Internet-intense about it, really try to pull in the online community.
So we had a really successful Indiegogo campaign, raised some money there, and it provided a really good kind of test market. We didn’t do any focus groups, and we just kind of used the Web to get feedback. That’s got its downsides, but it’s got a lot of upsides.
The idea kind of snowballed, and people have been really supportive and excited through it. It can be perceived as a long process, but we’re really close to opening now — we’re on the edge.
[note: in.gredients is now open. Find it at 2610 Manor Road, Austin, TX 78722]
So exciting! It must be great getting to see that initial idea finally come to fruition.
Yeah — a lot of our effort is in trying to make things very repeatable, so we’ve not just spent time finding a vendor that does something, but trying to build systems and planning for success as much as we can so that if and when this store does really well, we can hopefully scale [our process to the new stores]. At the end of the day, we won’t know if we can do more than one store. We hope to, so we always want to plan for success so that in the event that it is a hit, we can scale it and grow it.
As you mentioned, a lot of supermarkets have bulk food sales — Whole Foods, another Austin-grown store, comes to mind. How is what in.gredients is doing different?
Well, I think a lot of grocery store or natural food stores had kind of started the way we are, but in their goals of finding organic products and other types of stuff, they started shipping stuff from, like, everywhere. And that’s great, but we’re kind of a greenfield-type situation, where we’re making a pretty strong commitment to limiting packaging and buying as local as possible, and we’re not invested in this whole wide array of products that you’re going to find in larger grocery stores. We’re trying to focus on a subset of all those things and keeping that at the core of what we offer.
in.gredients is zero-waste, package-free, and organic — helping consumers live (and eat) responsibly
Your commitment to being “package-free” brings to mind all sorts of health and practicality considerations. How do you plan to avoid problems in those arenas? What steps are you going to take, or do you not see it as much of a problem?
We’re going to follow the same principles and best practices that restaurants and other grocery stores follow. A lot of these dispensing mechanisms already exist: you can go to a restaurant right now and get food out of a salad bar, or to a grocery store and get food out of an olive bar. All these things really exist; they’re just not all in one place and focused on local and package-free.
There are some products where, by health code, we can’t offer them package-free. Those are potentially hazardous foods — some of the dairy products and things that we just can’t. But we think of our business as a cause-based business, and you don’t fulfill your destination the day you open — you don’t fulfill it within a year or two. So our goal is to reduce packaging in all those areas, as well, over time, and to do so we have to grow to a certain size so we have more economies of scale and maybe more purchasing power. Maybe we can convince vendors to do more returned bottle-type systems like we used to do back in the day. And that goes back to: if we’ve got the bargaining power and the community behind us, we can do this.
I think people also come to the realization of the whole “inconvenient truth” thing — the convenience of discarding things has some pretty inconvenient consequences. Although it’s so easy to just toss something out — “Oh, that was convenient!” — that’s only true until it snowballs into a big problem, which is the path that we’re trying to get away from.
Speaking of discarding waste, we all learned “reduce, reuse, recycle” in school. Can you talk about the concept of “precycling” and how it relates to in.gredients?
Precycling is really a prioritization of “reduce” and “reuse” over “recycle.” The three arrows [in the recycling symbol] that we consider recycling are really “reduce, reuse, and THEN recycle.” Precycling prevents the opportunities for waste entering the home or business in the first place, so we’re emphasizing that, and encouraging people to bring containers. To a large extent, we’re trying to provide solutions. A lot of what we’re doing is just us thinking, “What can I do to reduce waste? What can I do not to have to recycle so much?” Because as good as recycling is, it’s got its own energy costs and those sorts of things. By no means are we against recycling, but there are a lot of things that have far more utility than we give them credit for.
Most of the grocery stores we visit are owned by large conglomerates like Supervalu and Kroger. What challenges have you faced going into this as a solo venture?
It’s like any business — there’s going to be the Big Five or the Big Ten, whether it’s in consulting or groceries or whatever. But there’s a lot of room in any industry, I think, for the little guys. We’re just picking up crumbs in terms of revenue, but those crumbs can be fairly good-sized and be enough to sustain a business — that’s what we’re hoping for. Of course, in business, like in anything, it’s risky, but we think what we’re doing is pretty cool, and we’re having fun doing it.
Writers like Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan talk about how what we put on our plates is one of the most politically potent decisions we can make every day. Do you agree, and, if so, what food politics does in.gredients promote?
You know, we can go buy a bucket of chicken or whatever for nothing — for less than it really costs us as a society, for less than it costs some animal’s sacrifice, for the cost of torture. Right now there’s this whole organic piece, there are a lot of farmers who are following organic practices and sustainable production practices, but they can’t afford the organic label. Or the fact that so much of our food is being subsidized, and what we’re really eating is corn — all that has to do with public policy. So absolutely, what we’re doing in our purchases of food and other things is very much a political thing.
We’ve been paying attention over the past five or six years to the things that are going on, with food activists like Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, and collaborative consumption with Rachel Botsman — what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine. There’s a lot of that. What we’re doing is a collaborative thing — we do have to work with our consumer base, our customers, our friends, and our neighbors to say, “Hey, bring your container — we’ve got a little technology to help you measure the tare weight.”
I think there’s a lot of things going on in food politics, in food justice, the democratization of information — there’s a lot of cool movements going on right now that we’re happy to be part of, and I think it’s a pretty exciting time.
Speaking of grassroots food movements, CSA boxes and farmers’ markets are becoming more and more standard nationwide. Is in.gredients part of this movement, or do you view its mission differently?
Yes — part of, alongside, in cooperation with — all those things. We had plans on being more of a CSA pickup for quite a while. I think logistically that has its challenges, and we’ll see how we can overcome those. We’re also actively engaged with Urban Patchwork. Urban Patchwork is a great organization here in Austin. It’s a network of people’s houses and properties, edible landscapes collectively being a farm. We’re part of the Cherrywood Farm, and our property out front has a garden, and all that produce goes to the CSA, and our hope is that whatever excess of produce they grow, we’ll actually sell at the store. We hope to collaborate more than anything with farmers — small farms, organic farmers, CSAs, the lot.
One difficulty with the locavore and organic movements is that there are those who claim that we couldn’t keep people fed if we only depended on locally produced or organic foodstuffs, so they will remain the purview of the wealthy. Is that true? If so, how can we change that model?
As long as non-organic and GMOs and big corn producers are subsidized, it’s going to be hard. I mean, if I’m down to my last dollar and cent, it’s hard for me to say that I’m going to go get that product that’s on the shelf ten times more expensive or twice as expensive — even a fraction more expensive. But the reality is that you’re talking about subsidized items versus non-subsidized things. There’s a lot of arguments and a lot of research being done by folks a lot smarter than me who say that, yeah, we can feed the world with organic practices. It’s just that it’s hard to compete with the industrialized food manufacturing system. And the reality is, we’re eating rebranded, reconstituted corn — it’s just too cheap.
You’ve already incorporated community into in.gredients through your Indiegogo campaign and volunteers earning credits for when the store eventually opens. Is a radical departure from standard grocery shopping the kind of venture that requires a certain kind of community — is this an Austin or LA or New York kind of thing? Or do you think stores like in.gredients could change communities in which they’re built?
Well, you know, the community piece has been very important to us because it’s a collaborative thing. There is a community of people who really care about the food that they’re eating, really care about farmers — for us, the volunteer thing was really, really humbling. When our Indiegogo campaign launched, people came to us saying that they wanted to help. And we were, like, “Really? We’re not a non-profit, we’re not a co-op…” And they’d say, “Yeah, we know. We want to help.” So we sort of said, “Okay, cool — I guess we’ve got volunteers.”
Like I said, we try to plan for success, so we try to leverage technology to help us. We’ve created a form online to help manage the data for the hundreds of volunteers we have — and we don’t have enough hours to accommodate everyone who wants to be involved. We try to mobilize and encourage them to volunteer with whatever — it doesn’t have to be with us, and we try to incentivize them. They can build up credits to get stuff at the store — because this community is what we’re all about.
Community-wise, we do have a lot of other stuff going on. Shayla works with the schools in the area, teaching them about school gardens and stuff, and I already covered our involvement with Urban Patchwork. Our goal is to be different from anything else, grocery-wise, and we are. This is way different.
The in.gredients team believes in community and collaboration. Image by Patrick Lane Photography
For those of us far from Austin, what small changes can we make in our lives to move toward sustainability?
It’s a big change, but it’s a small change. When I say that, I mean just to be more intentional with what you’re doing. Whether you intend it or not, your actions have consequences, so I would encourage people to live a little more conscientiously, and have greater thought and consciousness about what’s going on and how their lives affect everything around them. Not to sound all New Age, but just doing that will trigger us to think about everything, starting with waste. It will open up your mind to possibilities and your eyes to the problems around you, and then it will open doors into more changes you can work on.
Also, I’m working on this: cook your own meals. Cook at home. You’ll save money because in the life cycle of any given product, in the value-added chain, [by eating out,] you outsource everything. You’ve outsourced cooking the food, and you’ve given up control over what goes into it. You don’t know what you’re eating — probably a lot of salt and sodium, a lot of preservatives, a lot of junk. You’re creating a lot of waste, because all that stuff has to be packaged, shipped, and transported. We’re in the United States — we have an abundance of food all around us, even in places like Chicago. Despite the winters, urban areas like Chicago have great things going on with vertical farms — there’s great stuff going on all over the place. Christopher, our partner, he’s a forager — he goes so far as to get stuff down the street that you don’t even know is there. I think cooking at home is huge — with you, your partner, your children, it strengthens those bonds and communities at large.
We’re all very anxious for in.gredients to succeed and expand, but in the meantime, what can Daily BR!NK readers do to help you toward your goals?
Tell your friends and family in Austin! I think there are things we can all do with movements like this — just get involved. Participate. Just engage.