Watching kitchen staff throw away cooked grains that weren’t served at the restaurant where they work sparked creation of SoulMUCH, a San Diego cookie company.
Marsha W. Johnston
BioCycle July 2018
Working as waitresses at True Food Kitchen in San Diego’s Fashion Valley Mall, Reyanne Mustafa and Kristian Krugman helplessly watched as its kitchen staff, like so many, had no choice but to dump uneaten cooked brown rice and quinoa mix, the restaurant’s staple, into the garbage.
But one night, as Mustafa saw her chef walk toward the trash with an untouched, industrial-sized pot of grains, she could no longer support the status quo. “I just said, ‘Stop! I will take it!’ And he looked at me and said, ‘What are you going to do with 50 pounds of quinoa?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, feed the homeless. I don’t know, but I’ll take it.’” Krugman immediately said she would go with her to distribute it to the homeless.
Mustafa packed the grains into a giant aluminum foil ball and put them in her small apartment fridge: “My roommates were livid, but I just said, ‘I’ll take care of it,’” she recalls. She and Krugman, students at San Diego State studying nutrition and environmental science, respectively, packed the grains into individual serving foil packets and distributed them to homeless people in downtown San Diego. “People were like ‘What’s quinoa?’” said Mustafa, who noted that they ended up handing out condiments to give it extra flavor. “It was a good idea, but we were pretty naïve.”
Realizing that their method was not efficient or sustainable, the two young women “kind of gave up and turned a blind eye” to the wasting of food at the restaurant — until Mustafa examined a protein powder label a few months later. The first ingredients: Powdered brown rice and quinoa.
Armed simply with their idea to turn the uneaten cooked grains into protein powder got the two women admitted to San Diego State’s business incubator, the Zahn Innovation Platform LaunchPad. “The first thing they taught us was: Don’t do what you want and think will be successful, do what people want,” explains Mustafa. Because they weren’t sure what to do with the protein powder, the women began interviewing vegans about what kind of food product would appeal to them. “Everyone said they wanted an on-the-go product,” notes Krugman,” either a protein bar or cookie, so we decided on a cookie.”
Feeling some momentum, the women began experimenting with cookie recipes using the cooked grains rather than converting them to protein powder. An early iteration was combining cooked brown rice and quinoa and dates for sweetener in a blender, formed into cookies and baked. As it turns out, “you can’t really grind up the kernels of rice and quinoa, and they turn really hard after a few days, hard enough to break your teeth. And the cooked grains were like glue,” explains Krugman. Adds Mustafa, the bigger foodie of the pair who once had a food blog: “The cookies were awful! They tasted like mush. I said, ‘No one is going to pay for these.’”
Frustrated and depressed, Mustafa said she “hit rock bottom,” which enabled her to reset her perspective on the project, coming back to the original idea of making a protein powder, as she realized that “cookies need flour. But I had never made flour in my life, had never dehydrated anything myself.”
At the same time, through her environmental science program, Krugman learned about the “How Green Is Your Dream Challenge,” a North American competition hosted by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, which grew out of NAFTA. The competition was hosting its first-ever Youth Innovation Challenge, with categories that included Food Waste. The two women entered their idea to turn wasted rice and quinoa into protein powder and were chosen as the U.S. finalist.
With their $3,900 prize money, they bought an industrial dehydrator on Craig’s List. Once mastered, the machine produced a high protein flour which they combined with fruit and vegetable pulp to test cookie recipes. “The juice pulp has tons of flavor,” Krugman explains, which comes from area juice bars. “Juice just has so much water, and the pulp has all of the fiber and the vitamins.”
Ultimately, they settled on three cookie flavors to launch their business in November 2017: Chocolate Chip, Carrot Cake and Red Velvet Beet. The Carrot Cake cookie features carrot, ginger and turmeric pulp, while the Red Velvet has beet pulp. The newest flavor, Chocolate Espresso, features super-fine coffee grounds.
With products finally in hand, the women needed a name, as their original moniker, Soulfull, turned out to be the name of a Campbell’s Soup oatmeal company. They brainstormed and put out calls for a new name on social media, but it wasn’t until a visiting Brazilian friend heard Mustafa say “thanks so much”, and exclaimed, “Reyanne, SOUL much!” Mustafa said, “No, I said so much.” And the friend just laughed and said, “No, no, your business name! SOULmuch!”
As a result, SOULmuch, whose tag line is “SoulMUCH more than a cookie,” sells the cookies at three San Diego area farmers markets every week, while its founders also continue as full-time students and restaurant servers. Working with five area restaurants and juice bars — True Food Kitchen, Trilogy Sanctuary, Eve Encinitas, Vida Kombucha and Oh! Juice — SOULmuch uses its own vehicles to collect approximately 40 pounds of leftover grains and 20 pounds of pulps daily. In a commercial kitchen space in El Cajon, SOULmuch turns the 40 pounds of wet grains into approximately 22 pounds of grain flour. “That’s about all we can handle right now,” notes Mustafa. PF Chang’s would like SOULmuch to collect its leftover white rice. The women don’t want to put it in their cookies, but would like to process it into rice flour for sale to restaurants and bakeries.
CalRecycle Chief Deputy Director Ken Da Rosa, who met Krugman and Mustafa at True Food Kitchen, pronounced their vegan snacks “delicious” when he introduced the women during his keynote to BioCycle WEST COAST18 attendees in San Diego in March. At the conference, Mustafa and Krugman learned about CalRecycle’s Food Recovery Grant program, and intend to apply, either on their own or in partnership, as it would provide them more refrigeration and transportation capacity.
“We had a goal to divert 5,000 pounds of food by Earth Day,” says Mustafa, adding that April 22 would mark about 8 months in business for the young enterprise. Though they did not meet their goal on Earth Day, SoulMUCH hit the 5,000 lbs diversion mark on June 15.
Marsha W. Johnston, an editor with Earth Steward Associates, is a Contributing Editor to BioCycle.