Interview: Jenny Dawson of Rubies in the Rubble
Interview: Jenny Dawson of Rubies in the Rubble
The award-winning London chutney-maker on creating a socially-responsible business
by Emily Millett
Claiming to make the "tastiest chutneys in the nicest possible way," Rubies in the Rubble founder Jenny Dawson is as entrepreneurial as she is charmingly modest. Her award-winning company addresses the issues of food waste, sustainability and unemployment by making a delectable range of boutique chutneys from surplus fruit and veggies all sourced fresh from London’s food markets before it is thrown away. With fans like Jamie Oliver, Dawson is heading in the right direction for true chutney stardom.
When did you officially launch Rubies in the Rubble and can you tell us the concept behind the company name?
I’d say the official launch was in September 2011 when we got our stall at London’s Borough Market. I love Broadway Market—mainly because of its great location, but it also has an awesome feel. We still haven’t had a launch party yet. It’s got to happen this year. The concept behind the name Rubies in the Rubble relates to the innate beauty in everything, and bringing value back to hidden or missed things.
What were your pre-launch procedures and expectations and how has reality lived up to those expectations?
I was a bit rash in just getting started because I was so set on what I wanted the company to stand for and our aim—which is to give life back to things that society has discarded. At the beginning the main concern was playing around with recipes to see what worked best, based on what people loved. One thing I didn’t really think much of was the selling side. We started on a shoestring and I naively thought if you make a great product, it will just sell. Actually getting it into stores and changing people’s habits is the big challenge.
Can you walk us through the Rubies in the Rubble chutney-making process?
We have a commercial kitchen (which is in a converted porta-cabin) onsite at New Spitalfields Wholesale Fruit and Vegetable Market, where we source a lot of our produce as well as work with UK farmers. The produce arrives in the morning, we have a small team of two to three women working at any one time—they wash, sort and chop everything, then start cooking it in batches of 30kg at a time. Each batch boils and bubbles away for hours until it is ready to be put in jars. The labels get stamped and stuck on the following day.
You used to work in hedge-funding. What inspired you to leave the world of finance and investment and start up Rubies in the Rubble?
I hit 25! No, I just knew I wanted to be spending my time building something I was really passionate about and could put my all into. Finance is a very important sector for our society, but my heart just wasn’t in it. I also thought, "I’m so young, if I try for two years at something and it doesn’t work—I'll just learn a lot, gain experience and move on with some great stories of how it all went wrong." I didn’t really have anything to lose. Sometimes I miss having an income, but I love the diversity of my week. Every day is different; it’s all about people and tangible products and it’s very rare to have a whole day where we sit or stay in the same place for its entirety.
You’ve won a number of awards and accolades, what would you say has been your proudest moment so far?
My most exciting moment was definitely doing BBC News. That was really funny. They sent a car for me five minutes after calling me. I was in a hoodie—looking pretty worse for wear—with no knowledge of the news story, but off we went. My proudest moment was receiving a letter from The Queen. I love her, so I wrote to her asking what her favorite chutney was as I wanted to make her one for her Diamond Jubilee last year. She probably thought I was a 10-year-old, but she wrote back with a lovely letter saying she couldn’t tell me but would love to try my chutney anyway, so I sent her the range and she loved them.
What is the most satisfying thing about running your own socially responsible, sustainable business?
Meeting all sorts of people from all sorts of businesses, from our kitchen team, to farmers to designers to supermarket buyers. That’s definitely the best bit—people have been amazingly supportive and encouraging.
Which is the most popular of all the chutneys you make? Do you have a personal favorite?
Red onion and chili is a favorite, but personally I love pear and walnut. I’m a sucker for strong cheeses and it’s the perfect pair.
What image were you aiming to create with your product design and branding?
The brand is all about everything being different, and about celebrating the innate beauty in the fact that we are all unique and great in our separate ways. The original branding for the first year was of my thumbprint for that reason. But then I wanted to differentiate each flavor more easily and we were looking for simplicity, and that’s when we stripped it right back. I had a lot of meetings and we bounced various ideas around until we got to the design we use now—which I love.
You have become something of an inspirational figure. Who were your personal mentors or role models and what would you say to inspire anyone thinking of starting his or her own business?
Ben and Jerry’s have been a huge support to me after we won their Join Our Core Award in 2012. I love the way they do business. Jo Fairley, the founder of Green and Blacks, has also been a great help, inspiration and mentor to me. To someone starting up on their own I would say, “Go for it!” You may as well give it your best shot and then if all fails, at least you tried. Start small, test the idea and if it seems possible, then you can always scale up.
You’ve recently been given a contract to stock your chutneys in Waitrose. What is next for Rubies in the Rubble?
We want Rubies in the Rubble to become an umbrella brand, so we’ll be developing new products to go under the name. Also, bigger growth—the more we sell, the more we achieve what we set out to do—save unnecessary waste and create jobs. So we are excited about growth.
Finally, if you were chutney, what flavor would you be?
I love this. I would probably be a lemon chutney. Yellow is one of my favorite colors and I imagine I’d go well with fish because I love the sea.
Images courtesy of Rubies in the Rubble