This is Laura Hoogland, founder of what we think is an amazing little company called Sunt Banana Bread. It’s a food sustainability brand in Amsterdam that Laura is just getting off the ground. Her goal? To end banana waste. We recently spent time with Laura at her banana bar and at the bakery where her banana breads are made in Tholen, and here is some of that conversation.
Laura: I started my journey in college. I studied event management and finished my degree in two and half years instead of four. After that I started working in the events industry, but quickly realized I wanted to be at the events and not working behind the scenes, so I switched to advertising and worked for a creative agency on in-store marketing, radio commercials and so on. But then I realized I wanted to be sitting in the chairs of the brand managers and not the marketing managers. So I thought, why not go to a smaller company where I can be a brand manager? I joined a startup that asked me to help them build the brand — a vegetable pizza. They had a pilot at Albert Heijn (a big retailer here in Amsterdam) and if it failed, they would be screwed. So I asked myself, could I do this? Put on bigger shoes than I was used to? I decided to go for it, and it was very successful. Within a year and a half, we expanded throughout multiple supermarkets in the Netherlands and even started selling the pizzas abroad.
I thought, okay I’ve found what I’m good at! I’ve always had these crazy but pretty good ideas. I wanted to have my own business, but I never had the balls to do it. So after the veggie pizzas, I thought, this is the moment to start my own business. I quit my job and just started with this banana bread idea. And here we are.
Banana bread was one of my favorite snacks and I loved to bake it, too. I had quit my job and had nothing to do, but I didn’t want to sit on the couch watching Netflix all day. I would make banana bread so I had a healthy breakfast at home, and my boyfriend ate a lot of loaves — within two or three days they would be gone. So I went to my local grocer, a Turkish man who has a small grocery shop, and asked if he had ripe bananas because the ones in the shop were green and not ripe. He answered that he did have some in the back but they had spots on them — perfect for baking my banana bread. He was going to throw them out, so I proposed the idea that if he gave me his old bananas, I would make him a banana bread a week to sell in his shop. Within two weeks, a guy came into the shop who had multiple restaurants in Amsterdam, and he was interested in selling my banana bread in his restaurants.
So I thought, wow, there are actually people interested in this, and they’re asking for my bread! I started researching if I could make a business out of this. How would it work? If this guy throws his ripe bananas away then other places must be doing it as well. I was already getting a lot of bananas just from one shop, so how many bananas would a big store be throwing away? I found out after some more research that out of all the food waste, bananas are the worst offenders. I saw a video about a banana farm in Australia where about 40% of the bananas are regularly discarded and go right into the shredder. That bothered me. I wondered how I could combine my favorite snack, an apparent demand for banana bread and this huge problem of banana waste?
“I HOPE TO SAVE THE 75 BILLION BANANAS THAT ARE THROWN AWAY EACH YEAR. NO MORE BANANA WASTE!”
So I asked a big grocery store to start saving all of their bananas, and I started making breads for the guy with the Amsterdam restaurants. I also had to research if the retailers would ever be interested in having a banana bread in their shops. I didn’t know anybody working within that area, so I sent emails to people on LinkedIn. I knew that sustainability and health are core interests at Albert Heijn, so I sent someone an email saying I had a product they might be interested in. They gave me a pitch time of ten minutes at their head office. With my banana bread wrapped in tinfoil, I went to the pitch. I sat in the main entrance and quickly did my presentation, and they took the bread and tasted it behind closed doors. That evening, they got back to me and said, “When can you start supplying?”
I thought it would take months for them to make a decision, so I went a little crazy thinking, I need a production facility, the recipe isn’t scalable yet, I can’t do this. It was all happening a lot faster than I’d anticipated. The long and tough part came after that. We had to do the product development, new ingredients and scalable recipes. Luckily, the bakery helped me out a lot — they had the experience and knowledge to make it work. It took about half a year to get to this point, but we launched at Albert Heijn four weeks ago.
I really feel that if you don’t put yourself in an uncomfortable position you’ll never grow. You will just stay in the same position. When I was working at that large creative agency and I was leaving to be a brand manager for the other company, the manager told me, “You are not ready for these things. You can’t do it.” That just motivated me more, and put me in fighting mode. What was the worst thing that could happen? Maybe it wouldn’t work out and I would have to quit and look for a new job. I stopped being scared, because I realized there was really no need.
It is bizarre that there are countries where people suffer from hunger, while there is so much food produced right there that’s just being thrown away. It’s so clear that there are environmental and social aspects of food waste that have to change. I watch even my parents throwing food away and think, why? Here in the supermarkets, things are discounted and thrown out that are still perfectly good to sell.
I hope to save the 75 billion bananas that are thrown away each year. No more banana waste! When I set a goal, I want to achieve it. It’s a huge goal and I’m still not even close of course, but I am trying. The good news is that we were supposed to start with 35 Albert Heijn shops, but the demand has been insanely high. So now, after just four weeks, we’re up to 120 shops in the Netherlands and Belgium. I keep getting messages from these great people I've never met, saying they can't live without my banana bread. I couldn't have wished for a better launch! It's great to see we're not the only ones trying to do a little better. Hopefully, I can inspire someone to strive for their goal and have the guts to change their life to do something similar that’s good for the planet. That would be great! Save the bananas and inspire people!