How two internationals built a sustainable business in Denmark to tackle food waste from the ground up.
Photographs: Céline Martin-Pedersen
Text: Erin McMillen Gustafson
Like many internationals, both Petra Kaukua (from Finland) and Carolin Schiemer (from Germany) moved to Denmark seeking new opportunities and change. They met during a two-year master’s programme in “Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Sustainable Business” and instantly clicked. Studying at Copenhagen Business School, the two bonded over common interests. One was their shared love of techno and trance music. The other? A focus on current issues surrounding food systems and food waste.
Fast forward to 2020, outside an unmarked warehouse on an unassuming street in Copenhagen’s Nordvest quarter. Quietly, people begin accumulating along the sidewalk, parking their bicycles and waiting patiently in a cluster without queuing - as you do in Denmark. Through an open glass door, bright and graphic coloured cardboard boxes are stacked behind a tall table where a laptop and a bottle of hand spritz sit. In each box, a curated collection of “ugly” fruits and funny shaped vegetables. Soon, a volunteer welcomes those waiting and one by one people step forward to receive their pre-ordered EAT GRIM food box for the week. Grim means “ugly” in Danish. But these fresh organic fruits and vegetables aren’t as bad looking as you might think.
Making a sustainable change through food
The business behind all those food boxes is the brainchild of Petra and Carolin. At the core, their concept is pretty simple. By tackling food waste from the start - where it is produced on the farm, they are determined to change how people eat in a way that benefits the environment. Bringing overproduced and imperfect crops to the people, these two are intent on making an impact here in Denmark. And maybe even the world.
Neither of this power pair had any agricultural or operational experience in their background. But both see that less as a negative, believing that they came to their concept with fresh eyes and a unique approach. When they launched their business in 2018, it was only Petra and Carolin out there grinding and networking, going to events and tracking down farmers willing to sell their surplus or marred produce. At first, many farmers baulked and didn’t see the benefit. They were told that others had tried this before, and it never seemed to work. But it didn’t stop them, they felt their new perspective, coupled with a lot of enthusiasm and a splash of style were key to making this new company blossom.
Beyond sometimes superficial imperfections, they ask does that misshapen apple taste less sweet? That scarred lemon less juicy? Co-founders Petra and Carolin say no. But because market standards set by the European Union create unrealistic expectations of perfection for each piece, nearly a third of all produce is discarded or wasted before it even gets to you, the consumer. You will only see the prettiest products for sale in your local grocery store. To combat that forced food quality and control, farmers overgrow - wasting water, land and resources in anticipation of only part of their crop making the final cut. But what if all that edible food wasn’t wasted?
Inside the cold storage at the warehouse, volunteers and interns spend Tuesdays carefully packing the branded cardboard boxes with each week’s assortment of unmarketable goods. Crates at their feet filled with red cabbages, carrots or apples and the like are delivered directly from the farmers. Each piece of seasonal produce is first checked and cleared, ensuring it’s ok for you to eat. Then staff work quickly and efficiently along an assembly line placing pockmarked Hokkaido pumpkins or curiously curved cucumbers inside each box. Customers subscribe online to receive boxes that can be picked up in person or delivered by bicycle right to their door.
Women in business
As internationals and women, there were very few role models in Denmark for doing what they’ve done. Only 25% of all entrepreneurs here are women, a statistic that has gone down over the past few decades. As investors attempt to reverse this decline, Carolin and Petra have seen an increase in those looking for more female-founded companies and business cases across the country. Carolin grins and remarks that their own company has been only women until just recently when they hired their first male.
She says, “In that sense, we’re maybe not diverse because we have mostly women. But maybe in and of ourselves, we are diversifying the industry. We have ambitions for our own company to have a minimum of 50% of females in leadership positions or as board members. We can make these decisions and make these rules about how we want to have our own company, which is great.” It goes beyond in-company dynamics for the duo who have prioritized and partnered with many female farm owners in this male-dominated trade.
EAT GRIM has also become a company full of internationals (plus a few Danes) both in office and in the warehouse. They both concur that finding a job here in Denmark can be difficult. “We studied sustainability and entrepreneurship - it’s not exactly a course that has lots of jobs lined up afterwards, so we searched for a few months. But then decided that - look - we studied this - so let’s try it. It wasn’t actually a hard decision to go for it, because there weren’t a lot of options available to us. I felt like that for me, not being Danish was a big set-back on getting a job or even an interview,” shares Carolin. Even with both learning Danish, Petra adds, “you are always up against a Dane for any position.”
But starting your own business in a foreign country is certainly not the easiest way forward. These two have worked extremely hard, being proactive about getting their venture out on the scene. Carolin again; “We were hustling, we are still hustling really hard to make it work. Until last year November, it was just Petra and me and some interns doing everything ourselves. Now we have a team of eight people in the office and eight people in the warehouse, and we’re currently hiring more. To get to this point, we have had to do it a different kind of way.” That idyllic promise of Scandinavian work-life balance and 37-hour weeks might take a backseat when you start your own business.
"We have ambitions for our own company to have a minimum of 50% of females in leadership positions or as board members."
Building a start-up
To make it happen, the two had to get creative about building and manoeuvering new networks here. They both agreed that it was a huge help for their budding enterprise to be part of a Danish innovation “incubator” program. An incubator is a Danish investment scheme that affords “professional support for early-stage start-ups,” from mentoring, to counselling to seed capital. It made an immeasurable difference for them in the beginning, and they would both highly recommend those starting apply for this route.
But without significant outside investments, which traditionally go towards tech and not agriculture, Carolin and Petra decided to go next level through community-sourced crowdfunding. “It was very much in line with our values and growing from the ground up. We chose this [crowdfunding] route on purpose because it was difficult for us to go the normal way.”
From the start, the women at EAT GRIM have engaged their supporters and encouraged collaboration through events and social media. “When you don’t have many resources and you have to go looking for that knowledge elsewhere, you start collaborating. This is what we did from the beginning. We kind of crowdsourced content which started with people sharing recipes. We gave boxes to people who could use it to make food, and in that way, we’d get recipes in return. The whole mindset of empowering each other - I tell about you, you tell about me - it’s a win-win situation and everybody benefits and can spread the word.”
It goes beyond their customers and committed foodie fans, Carolin and Petra have garnered great relationships with the small farms and local food business owners. With each weekly box, you get a list and full transparency about where your organic food was produced, highlighting farms across Denmark and around Europe. In July, they launched an initiative to support local shops struggling this year. Putting their boxes for pick up in different places around town makes it easier for customers to collect their food. “For each box, you pick up at a local business partner, you pay a 20DKK fee for which you get 20% off selected products at that spot. That way, we support local businesses directly.”
"Take the leap to create something for yourself. I don’t know where I would be right now if we hadn’t done that."
Advice to other internationals
Even now, they are branching into other ideas, better ways to combat food waste. Petra explains, “We already run a B2B operation, acting as a wholesaler for food businesses from our connections in the industry.” Carolin pipes in, “like my first cafe job! That cafe was our first customer, and he’s a huge fan because I was a waitress there. We’re actually having dinner there tonight.” Petra adds “in that sense, there are a lot of possibilities.” And no job too small to build networks.
When asked what advice they had for other internationals coming to Denmark and struggling to find work - they both believe in taking the leap to create something for yourself. “I don’t know where I would be right now if we hadn’t done that,” remarks Carolin. Petra adds that they meet a lot of internationals in the start-up scene. “You know that you won’t have a lot of jobs to choose from and that if you have some kind of idea, it is fairly easy to access support networks like the incubators and others where that internationality is not a problem.” But adds that those same internationals are “really hard working … and willing to grind.”
Carolin recently met a fellow international in person, a guy from New York who wrote her asking what he should do here? She invited him to the warehouse to volunteer. And while it’s a win for the company to have more eager hands on deck, she chatted with him about the importance of following your passion. Try to prioritize the things that are important to you and find those communities and “then find a way to interact with them and see how you can get involved.”
“And physically go there. Get behind the door and find those people,“ Petra adds. “Only sending emails and CV’s doesn’t work as they can so easily get lost. So much of what you have as an international is your unique energy and approach. And only in person can people get that real impression.” If you can afford it, she highly recommends taking an internship. Although unpaid, it is a great way to get inside a company where you can prove your talent and your skill and your energy.
“Also, your willingness. We have hired a lot of people who don’t have the experience on paper, but have something else and are just willing. It’s the same with us, none of us really had the experience, we just all wanted to make it work. Here we are. So there is always a way in, with personality and ambition,” adds Carolin. Petra reminds those looking that “we appreciate people who are ready to work hard and if you are, then you can carve your way and your own place.”
In just two years, that is precisely what these impressive women have done. Today, the team had packed 1600 boxes that will be distributed from their warehouse in Copenhagen to customers across the country. They guess that almost half of Denmark can access a fresh food box, especially with recently opened operations in and around Aarhus. Goals to expand offerings into Aalborg, Odense plus other Danish cities and then into Sweden are already in the works. Check on their website EAT GRIM to see if a “Big and Beastly,” “Small and Ugly” or “Mini and Mean” box of fresh organic produce is available near you.