Neighborhood Fruit is a new San Francisco-based business that aims to create a network around urban fruit trees. We spoke recently to founders Oriana Sarac and Katyea Petro.
How did you get the idea for Neighborhood Fruit?
KP: Neighborhood Fruit was my master’s thesis from Presidio Graduate School, where Oriana and I received MBA’s in sustainable business. The idea came to me while I was looking for a master’s thesis. Walking home from school at night, I would always covet the neighbor’s apples leaning over the sidewalk. She was never home, so there was no way that I could get the apples, and so they fell, and rolled down the hill. It was such a waste.
OR: People don’t really get that “I can just go pick it and eat it.” That is the strangest thing. I grew up stealing my neighbor’s fruit. That’s what kids do. Katyea too, she knew where the trees were in her neighborhood. She grew up in San Francisco.
How does the service work?
KP: Neighborhood Fruit has over 10,000 trees registered nationwide, in both people’s back yards and street trees. This is an important distinction, because fruit on public land generally belongs to everyone. Some parks and municipalities have different laws. Fruit on private land- backyard fruit- belongs to the person who grows it. For this reason, they are handled differently. On the public tree map, one may find potentially fruit bearing trees growing on public land, they may or may not have fruit on them. On the shared fruit map, people with backyard fruit to share offer a specific quantity of it in specific ways. All these trees, they produce a lot of food that sometimes goes to waste. There’s a social benefit.
OS: We’re still in beta, so we haven’t started to charge for our service. The plan is to charge the people who are seeking fruit from backyards. Fruit on public land should always be free and available to everyone because it is a public good, and because those trees are public property.
We’re bringing awareness to people that they can actually get food out of the urban environment. It’s not like they have to go to the grocery store to get local produce. We also have a monthly newsletter. We are usually looking for partners to contribute to the content. Anything that can be of value to our users, from backyard tree pruning or urban beekeeping to recipes that are made of exotic foods you can find locally.
Part of the fruit we get goes to a food stand in the Mission, FreeFarmStand.org. We partner with them. We’re also working with a local chef, Eskender Aseged. He prepares food at a coffee bar in San Francisco on Thursday and Fridays. He uses locally grown, sustainable produce in his menu. This week we’re providing apples that are grown right in his neighborhood. He’s going to make an apple crisp. The idea is to get local chefs interested in our services so they can use the website to get the products themselves, or use our service to get the produce delivered.
The idea is that once we have a critical mass, we’ll be charging for the information about where the fruit is. That would support our operation. Right now everything is free because we’re building our user base. We’re testing different business models. We’re thinking about a pay as you wish mode- if people think the info is valuable, they will contribute. You can’t really sell your fruit unless you’re a certified grower. Every county has a different application. It’s usually anywhere from five to 50 pages. It’s just too cumbersome. We’re working under the assumption that people will give away the fruit and we’ll be charging for the access.
What’s your typical day like?
KP: Anything can happen on a typical day: a TV crew shows up, we go fruit picking, we spend a day poring over spreadsheets and getting really confused, we make a presentation to a school group, there’s a big bug in the code that needs fixing now. This is the life of an entrepreneur. The days are most energizing and uplifting when we connect with someone and we realize that we already are making the world better, one bag of produce at a time.
OS: There is no typical day. We spend the day making sure we respond to our users if they have questions. We really want to know what’s on people’s minds. We have a daily team meeting strategizing, going through the calendar and seeing what the next thing is we have to do. We either have to go to a specific event, it could be going to give a presentation at the local high school or community college. Or we have a fruit picking adventure we’ll be leading. We link to those on our website. We take a bunch of people and harvest fruits trees in neighborhoods.
Any plans to expand to Sacramento?
KP: I’m proud to say, we got our first trees in Sacramento registered yesterday [last week, as of press time], and apparently they’re ready right now.
OR: We are nationwide. The idea was to cover the Bay Area in year one. But it’s an internet business. It’s just exploded on us. We’re counting on our users to expand the site. Our public tree map, anyone can contribute content. But predominantly our user base is in the Bay Area. We’re hoping to expand across the West Coast first.
Do you think the down economy has had something to do with your success? Or the “eat local” movement?
KP: I think that both have helped. There’s a lot of people out there who are increasingly alarmed by the conditions food is created in this country and want to eat something with a more tangible chain of custody, while simultaneously facing increasing economic constraints. This is one of the beautiful things about Neighborhood Fruit: it is a systemic solution that happens to provide hyper-local connections so it can serve these two seemingly contradictory needs.