ENVIRONMENT | By Bret Bradigan
Local Entrepreneur Finds Food Waste Solution
The idea for Ambrosia Bags goes back decades to when Jan Randolph-Rem watched her thrifty grandmother wrap fresh produce in linen, then marveled at how long the lettuce and spinach and other vegetables stayed fresh. “Not wasting things was huge for me as I grew up,” she said.
About five years ago she started researching linen, and discovered that the product of the flax plant is “truly a wonder fiber,” with a hollow cellular structure that was the first material used for suturing human wounds. About three years ago, Randolph-Rem started sewing bags by hand, now she’s got brisk sales and is ramping up production.
They’ve since done business in more than 20 states, as well as Spain, Canada and even Norway, and have standing orders from several grocery stores. It’s an enlightened product, she says, because it solves two major problems at once; reducing the use of plastic bags as well as decreasing the enormous percentage of food — as much as 50 percent, about 300 pounds per person, per year — that’s thrown away.
As husband Norman Rem recounts the elevator pitch, “An Ojai entrepreneur has figured out how to extend the life of produce, get rid of plastic and do her little bit to save the planet.”
One unsolicited testimonial came from a Thomas Fire victim, who told them that they evacuated their home on short notice, “and when they came back weeks later, the produce in the Ambrosia bags was still fresh.”
They’ve also noticed other repeat buyers since the fire, Randolph-Rem said. It gradually dawned on them, “oops, you’ve lost your home!”
There’s currently four types of bags — produce, berry, herb and mushrooms (two hydrating, and two dehydrater bags; “mushrooms: they’ll never get slimy again,” she said.) They are now also sold in farmers markets in Topanga Canyon, Woodland Hills and Los Angeles. When Jan and Norman make their rounds at the farmers markets and mention they’re from Ojai, “people are always impressed. Ojai has a lot of cachet,” she said.
Sales have steadily increased; As of January, Ambrosia Bags are now in Rainbow Bridge, as well as Erewhon Markets with its four stores. “They called us! And it usually takes six months to get into the stores. Our customers sell them for us.” The bags will also be available in Bristol Farms (which includes Santa Barbara’s Lazy Acres) and its 15 stores by early 2019.
Next year will be busy. “We are expanding our produce bag line with different styles that will retail for less. Our goal is to saturate the market, both brick-and-mortar, high-end kitchenware stores like Sur le Table and Williams-Sonoma … and I am working on a prototype for a simple line that will appeal to the top box stores like Target, Costco and Whole Foods,” she said.
Jan Rudolph-Rem’s interest in food’s “sell by date” began decades ago when she was spent months in Canada’s Yukon Territory, a “companion to a white woman trapper with six kids living in the bush. When we’d come into Whitehorse (Yukon’s main city) and go dumpster diving, find produce and other food, then cook it up with bear grease.
She also spent months traveling around southeast Asia with Anne Carper, of Down Home Furnishings in the Ojai Arcade, making connections between people and they way they bought, used and preserved their foods. When her children were at Montessori School, she started their lunch program “in exchange for tuition,” which grew from 6 students to 60. One parent reached out to say, “It’s a miracle! My boys are eating vegetables.”
Rudolph-Rem worked 19 years as waitress at L’Auberge, and was amazed at the food waste. She was always an avid gardener, even when her shifts meant she didn’t get home until well after dark. “I’d garden at night by the light of the living-room lamp.”
Five years ago, she tried “biodynamic farming,” a holistic approach to farming which integrates a scientific approach with spiritual understanding of the land, each tailored according to close study of each garden’s scale, climate, culture and landscape, rooted in the work of Dr. Rudolf Steiner who popularized the approach in the 1920.
It worked, but caused its own problems. “I had all these lettuce and greens, but how in the heck can I keep ‘em fresh? So I started using damp linen tea towels, and would roll them up. I started learning about linen’s really amazing beneficial properties. It holds three times its weight in water, and is permeable to air,” she said.
“So I started experimenting. One time, 10 days later they were still green and fresh,” she said. So then she searched for consistent and high-quality suppliers, which took her to Europe, where she visited linen mills in Scotland, The Netherlands and Belgium.
“I drew up a provisional patent, and had to get over my ego and fear and set out to start branding. That took place during a two-week daily brainstorming sessions with (designer) Thomson Dawson, “digging down deep into the soul of it,” she said. Early slogans included “Stop the Rot,” and now “Reduce the Guilt.”
Rudolph-Rem said, “The future is looking great! I am doing a lot of brainstorming with an investor and philanthropist who owns an umbrella company who loves what I’m doing … it’s perfect timing for such a product.” She also credits Ventura County’s Women’s Economic Venture (WAV) for “being my anchor and starting point.”
She concludes: “Produce is only getting more expensive and the awareness of saving the planet against plastic is growing. I love solving problems and being a positive influence for our environment.”