Pomella Partners with Dispatch Goods for Reusable Takeout Containers

Updated: May 11

Mica, owner of Pomella, interviews Maia Tekle, COO of Dispatch Goods to answer all of your questions!

Mica: Good morning! Today is two days before Earth Day, so it's the perfect day to do this. We started using reusable containers here at Pomella a couple of months ago, and today we have the pleasure of having Maia with us, the CEO and Co-Founder of Dispatch Goods, our reusable container partner. So Maia help me out here, tell everyone a little bit about yourself, and a little bit about Dispatch Goods - in general, the greater mission, but also where the company is right now.

Maia: Hi, it's a pleasure to be joining Mica this morning and chatting and answering people's questions. Dispatch Goods has really come from - as takeout and delivery has increased over the past few years - my Co-Founder, Lindsay and I, really dreamed up a system that could help facilitate it without having such an impact on our planet and on our environment. And for us that's introducing reusable containers in an easy and delightful way. And I am really excited to answer a lot of your questions and because they are common questions, we're hoping that this is information that you will take with you and think about things in a different way, because it is a new system.

So we think about what we are building as the infrastructure for reuse. So the collection, the sorting, the sanitizing of not just takeout food containers, but anything that comes into your house that can and should be reused. We want to help facilitate that.

I'm going to take you on a little tour of our of our warehouse facility here in San Francisco. You'll see that we we process more than just containers here. And we hope to expand. Right now we are currently servicing the Bay Area as well as the Baltimore, DC and New York area. We're hoping to be a national player in the next few years to help communities large and small to introduce reusables instead of a throwaway culture.

Mica: You've mentioned to me in the past the whole concept of a fourth bin? Can you elaborate about that, and also elaborate a little bit about how the system will work? Sorry, let's go back. How long have you been doing this? When did you start?

Maia: We've been around for almost three years now. And our first pilot was in October of 2019. And I would say that the the pandemic really derailed our first our initial launch. And so we really relaunched in August of 2020. And it's been an enormous amount of growth ever since then. What we've been really encouraged by is restaurants like Pomella, but also our community and the larger Bay Area is really excited to have a new option. And so we've been creating this, what we call the "fourth bin system". So next to landfill, recycling and compost, we are creating a fourth bin for reuse. And we talked to our friends at Recology all the time about how much is getting processed through the recycling system, in San Francisco alone 500 tons a day are getting dropped off at their facility. And so it's an overwhelming amount. And it's a lot of things like glass, and polypropylene plastic that actually can be - if put through the right avenues - facilitated for reuse. And so we've just been encouraging people to think a little bit about what we are putting in other bins and ways that we can facilitate reuse in our in our system locally.

Mica: This is a question that we've gotten often: How does this make sense? Why is reusable better than compost or recycled? There's many facilities in the Bay Area that process recyclables and compostables and garbage. So if you can just tell us a little bit why is reusable better than just recycling or composting?

Maia: Yeah, I'll start probably with how we look at our systems holistically. So there's a term that we use in the industry called the "upstream" and the "downstream". So the upstream is before it gets to the restaurant, so what does that packaging go through even to get to the restaurant. And so even a compostable, it has some something that is grown and harvested somewhere else in the world. It gets shipped to another part of the world, and then gets shipped to a distribution center and THEN get sent to the restaurant. And that's in an ideal transport. And then it gets used for one meal. And so that single package travels around the world, even just to be used once. And then recycling, unfortunately, only about anywhere between 7%-20%, of what we send to recycling truly gets recycled. And so you can imagine that there are things that are much more likely to get recycled. Glass is one of those things. Aluminum is a forever-recycled item. And so those you can feel very confident that those are actually truly getting recycled, but a lot of plastics and a lot of other just junk that they have to sort through - we call it "wish-cycling" - prevents it from being actually truly recycled. Even then it goes to a sorting facility, and then another facility and then it gets sold and usually shipped elsewhere in the world to be then made into the exact same thing. We know that when we look again at the upstream but then also the downstream - the after the restaurant - reuse is best after the second use.

Mica: What about compostable? Because this was something that I found out a while ago and it really crushed me - was that I found out that a lot of our compostable 's are "wish compostables" they don't actually get composted. And so even though they're made out of - originally, as you mentioned - a natural material, they still might not be composted.

Maia: That's correct. There's not a lot of regulation when it comes to labeling something "compostable." What's great is that the state of California is now enforcing that it has to truly be compostable within the state. But if a local facility can't take a certain type of compost, it will just go to landfill. Anything that is plant fiber that it gets really soggy, that's usually actually pretty good. But again, it's still traveling around the world to get to us typically. Anything that has kind of that liner that is a little bit waxy, those can't be composted unless it is a really specific facility. It's just a lot of like, we call it "greenwashing." But it's usually just pre-landfill.

Mica: And what about those compostable deli containers - that clear material - that look like plastic?

Maia: If it looks and acts like plastic, they say it's compostable, but really, it's not compostable for like, dozens and dozens of years in a perfect situation. And so when we think about also the value of compost, we sell that back to farmers and so if it's filled with containers like that, the quality of the compost isn't actually able to be utilized for those farmers. So it does become a problem if it's just takeout containers that are filling up our compost streams.

My friends call me the sustainability police. And I'm like, that's not what it is. It's just the more people know the more that you can be informed and make good decisions. And when we think about who's responsible for this, it's on systems, it's on legislation. It's not on individual consumers because you don't really have a choice. It's not on individual restaurants, because you really haven't had an opportunity to make an informed choice.

Mica: I mean, we're doing our best. It's just a lot of decisions, and just not enough information out there. And a lot of incorrect information.

Maia: Exactly, yeah. And we always say that compostable is better. It's better than certain types of plastics. But if there are communities that actually don't have municipal compost, recyclable plastic is truly better. Because if it can't be composted, if you don't have the facilities to do it, then it's just gonna go to landfill.

Mica: I'm gonna read you a question from one of our customers. If you can just summarize in like one sentence, so it's really clear for everybody. Is Dispatch really going to come to my house and pick up my container, my one container? And how is this sustainable?

Maia: Yes, the answer is yes. The same way that people come to your house for recycling, or your trash. That's what we're building. When we say the "fourth bin system" is for re-use. And so we're not just coming to your house. Every neighborhood has their own collection day, exactly like recycling. And what's great about partnering with a restaurant like Pomella - the density that is created within just launch - we can hit between 10 and 15 houses an hour with our collection route. So it's very dense, and we're collecting upwards of, on average, 10 items per house. So it really does become a very efficient model. In addition to that, like what I talked about before is that those single-use containers are traveling around the world. And so when we think about, it would take us years of driving around Oakland in order to even get to that point where the mileage and the the carbon footprint is even. And so that your customers can feel really good about what we do, we've purchased carbon offsets for every mile that any of our collection drivers drive, as well as our vehicles to deliver containers.

Mica: And what is your financial model right now? How is this paid for? And what is the financial model moving forward?

Maia: The financial model right now is that the partner who is enabling the reusable - so a restaurant, or grocery store - are paying for the cost of the container. And in that cost of the container comes that collection costs. And again, with more partners, and with more volume, we can become more and more efficient for those partners, but there's not a cost to the consumer.

Mica: Awhile ago, we, before we started working with Dispatch, we put a packaging fee on all of our to-go orders. The reason we did that is because packaging costs have skyrocketed. And like you mentioned, some of the containers, the single-use containers that we use here at Pomella are made in the US, but even with those, the raw materials are coming from a different country, mostly from China. And due to COVID, and disruption of the supply chain, everything's either not available or if it's available, it's so expensive. The way a restaurant makes money - not even MAKES money - but the way we pay for our expenses is by charging our customers, but we didn't want to raise the charge of ALL of our food because some people eat here so what we did is a packaging fee for to-go orders. Some of our customers are confusing that with putting a deposit for the containers and thinking that when they return the container, they're gonna get that deposit back. So I wanted to use this time with you also to explain that we pay Dispatch per container when we get the container just as we do for single use containers. That money does not come back to us when when the containers are returned to Dispatch. Dispatch uses that money for the infrastructure for cleaning the containers and for buying more containers.

Maia: Yeah, that's a good clarification. And I would say that I've seen even non-Dispatch partners have been adding it to-go fee because of that incredible increase of single-use prices. It does cost anywhere between $1 or $2 per order for a restaurant, not in even our containers, to package it in a way that honors the food and the quality. Because I know Pomella thinks about how that transports from the indoor dining to the to the at-home consumer. And so all of our restaurants really think about that. And it costs money to do that. And so I would say that that's that's starting to be more and more prevalent, so people should be aware of that.

Mica: Yeah. And I think working with Dispatch is more of a rental fee.

Maia: Yeah, it's a rental fee.

Mica: We're basically renting. If anyone's ever had an event or wedding or an event that you have to rent like a bunch of tables and chairs and plates, and so forth. This is kind of how we restaurants work with Dispatch. We rent the containers from you, and the containers get back to you - whether you pick them up or whether people bring them here. Actually maybe this is a good time to stop for a minute and take a tour and see how you guys clean and sanitize everything in your facility.

Maia: So we're located here in Bayview where there's a lot of really amazing other companies that are using utilizing warehousing space. So you can see behind me, we actually process quite a lot of thermal bags, and these are for third party customers. So we've process a lot of other things besides containers. These are the freezer packs that we're going to be processing today. This is our dishwashing facility, our dishwashing area. And we're packing up some of the stuff that's drying; this has been drying overnight. There are about three different shifts a day that rotate through in terms of the processing of the dishwashing. This is where our inventory is stored and kept. And we're actually building up so that we can expand. What's great is that we're onboarding restaurants every week, and so

Mica: How many restaurants do you have now?

Maia: We have about 50 partners now? It's funny because when Lindsey and I started we were operating downtown with corporate offices. And a day that we collected 12 containers was a big day. And so I think about the fact that we are processing thousands and thousands of items a day now is incredible to think about how much we've grown. And we hope to do tons and tons more. And we are always listening to our partners and our customers to see what other items they want us to process. Actually the freezer packs we didn't even come up with it was just people started sending them to us. And because they were like, I have 10 I printed these, can you reuse these? And so we just started reaching out to the companies that send them out. And turns out we can and they should and they want to because they're really bad beccause they can only really go into landfill. And its reall bad. So we've been really excited to see how much we can divert. We just surpassed 700,000 items that we've processed. Pomella alone has done over 24,000 which is incredible!

Mica: This facility that you are showing us - how is it inspected? How do you make sure that the dishes are sanitized? How do we know what happens? What's our guarantee - these containers have been in someone's house, how do I know that my container's clean?

Maia: Of course, yeah. So we follow the health department guidelines, the same guidelines that restaurants are adhering to. We take that a step further and your containers get processed three times through that system. We also do third party lab testing that verifies the cleanliness. And we do that on a monthly basis for all of our containers that go through our process. We also partner with Ecolab, which is the nation's #1, in terms of standardization, they're the ones that produce are the standardization chemicals that we use as well as our actual machine. And so they are in our facilities at least every other week inspecting everything as well as guiding us on on the best practices because they are the leader in the in the industry in terms of standardization. So if people look up what Ecolab does, its hotels, its its campuses, its hospitals, they are the people that you should be talking to in terms of sanitizing. So that's how we verify and we are and we're always trying to push the needle in terms of like our own internal standards, and I am proud to say that we actually have never had any any negative feedback on our cleanliness.

Mica: I also want to say on the restaurant end of things, we get the containers from you. They're shipped in crates, the crates are steel, and they have a tag on them. The tag is not broken so we know that the crates have been sealed at your facility and then it only gets open at our facility.

Maia: That is correct. We hold ourselves to a very high standard and I would say that there's not the same standard held for single use.

Mica: I would say there's not that standard for manufacturing. When you make containers in a manufacturing facility, they don't have the same guidelines, or the same inspections or anything like you have in your facility.

Maia: Right.

Mica: No health inspector is going into a into a factory to check the boxes.

Maia: No. I don't know if people know that health departments adhere to local regulations. So it can actually vary from county to county, and country to country, state to state and so we're actually working with a contingency of other other companies to help get a federal regulation of the standard for reuse nationally, so that we can start to elevate what we're doing. But we're setting the bar very high.

Mica: You're literally changing the world.

Maia: Yeah, we set a standard that is very high so anyone can feel really safe, knowing that this reusable, regardless of where they get it from, has to adhere to a very high standard. And that to me is, is the key to making people feel really, really comfortable with with a new system.

Mica: Yeah. And also like, not sick.

Maia: Yeah, and not sick. I will also say that everyone that is a dishwasher is a food safety manager, I'm a food safety manager, Lindsey's a food safety manager, all of the warehouse managers are food safety managers, and then everyone has their food handlers card that works in our facility.

Mica: Yeah, so everyone understands. So I'm gonna ask you a couple of quick questions. A customer asked what happens if I don't return my container?

Maia: That's a bummer. That's a real bummer for us. We only work and we only operate because of when when people get the containers back to us. We monitor our return rate so that we can keep an eye on on the health of our business. But there's no penalty besides guilt and harming a small business. So I would say, that's on you but you're not going to be held to any sort of penalty.

Mica: And then what if today's Monday and my pickup day in my neighborhood is Thursday? What if I don't want to keep the containers in my house for this entire time?

Maia: Yeah. We also have also a return bin system, and we have about 50 Return bins located throughout the Bay Area. We're also looking to increase that number by about 50 additional ones. Increasing our return bin system allows for more flexibility for people to get the containers back to us in a way that is convenient. If you want to host a return van, you can reach out to us, we have a lot of actual individual customers that put it on their stoop, we service it on a weekly basis. And so that's another way to make it very convenient for yourself. But if you also work in an office, we've added more offices, just so that we can create a system that is as easy as possible. And in that same kind of vein, we practice what we call "planet-center design thinking". And I think people are more used to human-centered design. Business have optimized for people and we optimize to be for planet. And so sometimes parts of our system are a little bit less convenient than say an Amazon but we like to think that that's because we keep the planet at the center of our decision-making.

Mica: A couple of our customers complained that they don't want to give their information to a third party. So they're like, "I bought the food from you, and I already had to give my credit card information and all that to Square when I was processing the payment, and now there's a third party that I need to give my address to and I'm uncomfortable sharing my information." So if you can tell us a little bit about privacy and how you deal with information of our customers.

Maia: Yeah, so we have a privacy policy that you can find on our website, as well as our terms and conditions. We don't do anything with your information besides schedule collection. And I would say that we hear you and we are adjusting our collection. So it is actually just going to be a phone number and address, we don't tie it to a name. Beyond that, you don't have to add your email address either. So that's happening this week. Honestly, thank you for the feedback, because we just want this to make you feel really comfortable, it is just used for that. Again, if you don't feel comfortable with us having that information, then we have our return bins located on our website, so that you can just drop it off yourself. Those are the two avenues. But we are listening and we are changing our collection practices, and you can always opt out as well. So anytime that you get a text from us, you can hit "Stop" and you will be removed from our system.

Mica: You mean the text to remind you to return the container. So once you've shopped, you get a container, a couple days later, you get a text reminding you to return the container, you can opt out of that text. My only question is how do we get everyone else to join the program? How do we get other restaurants to use Dispatch Goods?

Maia: In Earth Week and Earth month, we've been wanting to hear from you about which other restaurants you want us to reach out to. Honestly, that's how we originally reached out to Pomella was because people were like, "Please get Pomella on board!" So DM us on Instagram, there's a form on our website too to contact us, tag us in your favorite restaurants most recent posts, and we will approach them. But I would say that we only want to work with the restaurants that you think would be a great fit and that you want to have. And so we are listening!

Mica: I want you to work with everyone. I want this to be the world that we live in. I want everyone to just use Dispatch Goods. And then taking out your reusables will make so much sense. Like if you shop from different restaurants throughout the week, and you have all these containers, you have a bin or a bag outside or however you collect your recycling, we can have the same system for reusables. And you get these containers all over wherever you shop. And then you have to stick it out once a week. That's just where we need to be.

Maia: That's our dream too. We've been working with more municipalities like the city of San Francisco, we've been working with different districts within Oakland too to help them facilitate the introductions to us to those restaurant owners. Also urging your local politicians to help create better laws that give us the green light to operate within your within your community. We've also found when there's advocacy within the communities, it just helps us grow that much more. And who doesn't want more restaurants in reusables?

Mica: Also a reminder, the containers don't have to be returned clean!

Maia: I would say in general Pomella customers are very good about cleaning their containers, but you don't have to return them clean.

Mica: I notice when they return them, they're clean, but I'm like, "You don't need to do anything!"

Maia: You don't need to do anything. You can rinse them, that's really nice, but treat them how you treat your recycling. You can just put it back in the bag. It's up to you how much you want to clean them. But we have to clean them anyway, we do it three times and then we do a manual inspection. So at this point, you're just helping us.

Mica: I just want people to understand how easy it is. I think when we when we put together a new system, when you introduce something new, that people are worried that this is going to be complicated or this is demanding something from them or that we're asking them to do another thing and they're already busy. If they weren't busy, maybe they'd be cooking! Oh, another question - what are the containers made of?

Maia: They're stainless steel with silicone lids.

Mica: And why stainless steel and silicone?

Maia: It's actually interesting. A lot of it was was what was available off the shelf. We wanted something that felt very sturdy, stainless steel also - in terms of the end of life - if they don't come back to us, we assume people are either using them or it's such a high recyclability that even if they get put into a waste stream, that they're going to be pulled out because stainless steel can be used indefinitely. And so we are always trying to kind of figure out as more studies come out about recyclability, as well as materiality, we're hoping to introduce other types of containers. I think that there's a lot of really interesting innovations that are coming out in terms of different material types that we've been keeping our eye on. But for right now, our own containers are stainless steel, silicone, and we use glass mason jars.

Mica: We as a commercial facility have a little bit of an issue with glass just because of safety. In terms of if the glass breaks on the line, my entire line is contaminated. So that's a material that's a little bit harder for us to use. Silicone's great. Stainless steel, I mean, I also think our food looks really good in there.

Maia: It's beautiful. It's beautiful. We've been working more and more with jar companies so if they are already setup to be processing glass that's where it really works well. But yeah, a restaurant, it's harder to have glass in the back of the house because if there's any sort of breakage it becomes a safety issue.

Mica: Yeah, and it's not stackable either. What I like about your stainless steel is they're stackable, so that saves me a lot of room. Well, thank you so much. I think I think we covered it all and then some!

Maia: I love it! I love working with you guys, it's been so fun and happy Earth Day and we're just so grateful to have a partner like you, just helping change the world. Honestly, it when I say when I say 24,000 items that's like three Salesforce towers. That's incredible!

Mica: Wow. It is incredible and our customers are incredible. I love your system, I a huge fan. I'm so happy to be on the ground floor of Dispatch that years from now I can say, "I was there!" When you guys I like so huge! And I'm like, "I knew them back then!"

Maia: And your customers should feel very proud too because they're the first ones doing it too.

Mica: They're leading the revolution.

Maia: You are! You really really are. We couldn't do it without partners like you. We couldn't do it without customers like yours, participating in the system and asking these really good questions helping to educate themselves and learn more about our world and about what the possibilities could be.

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