Madison startup makes zero-waste foods easy

Saffi Foods partners with local wineries to recycle old bottles for its oils and vinegars.

With all the attention single-use plastics have received for their detrimental effect on the environment, it should come as little surprise that a Madison startup has begun cornering the local market on zero-waste food products.

If zero-waste food sounds like a pipe dream, you’re probably the parent of a picky eater. But it’s the aim of Saffi Foods, a Madison-based supplier of oils and vinegars, to operate as sustainably as possible — and to make it easier for consumers to control their own food packaging waste.

Saffi Foods was founded by Sascha Dhanjal Eifler in 2014 and the company was recently awarded a $10,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC) to help fund its zero-waste recycling program.

The company got its start, however, when Dhanjal Eifler moved to Chile after graduating from college to work with a small olive oil farm. While she was there, she grew frustrated watching quality-oriented farmers struggle to get their products in the U.S. market due to the widespread fraud in the industry. According to Dhanjal Eifler, around 70% of the imported extra virgin olive oil in the industry is adulterated, or diluted with lower grades of oil. She also felt betrayed as a U.S. consumer, knowing that she had been lied to about products she had been consuming her entire life.

Dhanjal Eifler came back to the U.S. and, in 2014, started Saffi Foods to offer premium unadulterated products direct from small, family farms. She spent the first few years of her business selling directly to restaurant chefs because they could immediately taste the difference in quality.

“My sustainability story started because I had been a bulk shopper for years, mostly due to the fact that you can reuse bottles and reduce packaging and product waste,” explains Dhanjal Eifler. “However, I was disappointed with the quality and lack of information about the products in the bulk section. So in 2018, I set out to improve the experience of the bulk section of grocery stores, showing customers that having sustainable products shouldn’t mean compromising on quality.

“When COVID hit, we wanted to continue offering our premium ingredients in sustainable packaging,” Dhanjal Eifler continues. “We launched an e-commerce website with our larger format oils and vinegars so that consumers could buy them directly. This is also when we started our zero-waste line, where we collect used wine bottles from local restaurants, sanitize them, and refill them with our products.”

The name “Saffi” has multiple meanings, notes Dhanjal Eifler. Her parents are from East Africa — Kenya and Uganda — where the primary language spoken is Swahili. Saffi in Swahili means clean or honest” which reflects the company’s ingredients. Saffi is also a Greek girl’s name meaning wisdom, which Dhanjal Eifler says is fitting given that Saffi Foods is a female-founded and mostly female-run organization.

Zeroing in on zero waste

The zero-waste movement in the food industry is a movement toward reducing packaging, food, and energy waste, explains Dhanjal Eifler. Zero waste can sometimes be divisive since it suggests that consumers should reduce their waste to zero, and historically, large corporations have put that responsibility on consumers.

“Reducing waste to zero is the ultimate goal; however, we believe that making small, easy changes can make a huge difference,” says Dhanjal Eifler. “More importantly, we believe that it is the responsibility of companies, like Saffi Foods, to make it easier and even enjoyable for consumers to reduce their waste. This is why we developed our zero-waste line; it is also why we spent years reinventing the bulk shopping experience, and we are thrilled to launch in June at Willy Street North.”

The Saffi Foods bulk liquid experience includes:

  1. Premium ingredients used by Michelin-starred restaurants around the country;
  2. Custom-designed and manufactured hassle-free dispensers for grocery stores that convey the quality of the products inside;
  3. Signage that guides customers through the process of buying in bulk and answers frequently asked questions about the products and company; and
  4. Supplying the bottles that customers buy once and can keep bringing back over and over again to refill.

“Sustainability is important to Saffi Foods because we believe that it is not only consumers’ responsibility to live sustainably, but companies must develop products and experiences that make it easier for people to reduce waste and their impact on the environment,” notes Dhanjal Eifler.

“Food, plus packaging — some, though not all, of which is used to contain food — make up about 45% of all the materials in U.S. landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency,” notes a 2018 MarketWatch report. “And that all adds up: Americans throw out about $165 billion worth of food every year, according to NRDC.”

On the surface, wasting is actually very cheap, says Dhanjal Eifler — financially it does not cost Saffi Foods anything to throw stuff away. It’s easy to throw away packaging and food and not think about it ever again. But that’s the problem.

“With current policies, recycling is actually very expensive and difficult; most consumers, including myself, are not educated on how to recycle correctly or what materials are easiest to recycle,” says Dhanjal Eifler.

For example, people assume that glass is very easy to recycle, but many recycling companies have stopped accepting it due to the weight and cost of transportation. Additionally, it releases significantly more carbon emissions than plastic during the melting process.

“According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the U.N., 36 billion perfectly reusable wine bottles are produced every year,” says Dhanjal Eifler. “We believe that well-made glass is meant to be repurposed, which is why we started our zero-waste wine bottle recycling program.”

Prior to receiving the WEDC grant, Saffi Foods was hand washing each individual bottle. Dhanjal Eifler says the company used the capital to lease a bottle sanitizing machine that allowed it to scale its capacity, which enabled it to gets its Zero Waste Olive Oil into the 70 Fresh Thyme Market locations across the country. Remaining funds were used to keep employees on payroll during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Saffi Foods products can also be found at SaffiFoods.com, Willy Street North and West in the bulk section, Vitruvian Farms, and other local Madison partners including Origin Breads, Mintmark, Rare Steakhouse, Cento, and Fresco.

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