…Have we taken personal responsibility for outcomes? So often in organizations and when trying to solve complex problems, gaps appear between people and roles. If everyone in an organization commits to taking personal responsibility then gaps can be tightened quickly and desired outcomes can be discussed openly. Taking responsibility requires bravery in communication to have these often difficult conversations but, if done with a shared respect, responsiveness and realism, then those goals, outcomes and questions of “who does what” are so much faster to figure out.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Mittelstaedt. Chris is the founder and CEO of The FruitGuys. He founded The FruitGuys in 1998 as a way to bring fresh and healthy fruit to office breakrooms. Today the company is still a privately held, family business that serves thousands of companies from local hubs around the United States. The FruitGuys has two main charitable missions — first is to address hunger by donating 100% of their extra fruit to charity. The FruitGuys consistently donates well over a million servings a year to organizations around the United States that feed the hungry. The second mission is to support small farms with grants for sustainability projects through The FruitGuys Community Fund.org which Chris founded in 2012. Chris is on the board of Headsets.com and California Farmlink. Chris, along with his two partners in FruitGuys, advises a number of mission focused startups.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In 1997 I was in between jobs and I took some temp work in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel. I was working in the business services office and back then, faxes would come into the office for guests and I would have to run them up to guests rooms. I was newly married and my wife and I found ourselves expecting our son a bit earlier than we had planned. I had run a business when I was in college doing house painting and so I wasn’t afraid of starting something up. I had a friend who was pushing a coffee cart downtown at the time and I told him of the temp job and that the clock was ticking for me and then I asked what would be useful for folks in the offices he served and he said: “something healthy.” Thus The FruitGuys was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
There are many stories. One of the most impactful to me happened in 2001 as the dot com crash was taking place. We worked with Ebay when they were in early start up mode and one of their first sales people got to know our business a bit. He brought us into their office to deliver fruit. Ebay went public and this person did well. As the dot com crash was coming down around us and we were on the verge of bankruptsy, this person had heard that we were laying people off and having a difficult time. He showed up one day at our warehouse and asked me if he could help our cause. We didn’t have (and still don’t) investors but I was desperate and asked him if he wanted to make an investment in FruitGuys. He got out his checkbook and wrote me a 10,000 dollars check and told me that it was a gift. He thought we were doing good in the world and he was paying forward for the idea of what we could do in the future. That money bought us time to get things under control and save the company. I still get goosebumps thinking about that moment. I think he left and I sat at my desk in tears. To think that someone would believe in us and make that kind of gift was nearly too much to process. His gift later informed my thinking around why we believe it is important to make grants to small farmers. Sustainability on a farm is a combination of an environmental, social and economic balancing act. Helping farmers with funds that can allow them to take leaps forward toward their own sustainability goals without the pressure of paying back the capital to do this is something we believe deeply in as part of a movement to support small farms.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m not sure I felt it was funny but just before the dot com crash there was a company called WebVan that was the first internet grocery store. They spent nearly 1B dollars developing a robotic warehouse and buying delivery trucks to grow their soon to be failed business. Right before their demise, I got word that they were selling their trucks for very low prices. I ran over to Oakland and bought 5 trucks — it was our first significant loan from a bank. 6 months later the dot com crash hit and we lost many clients. The trucks we bought from webvan sat in our parking lot more than they were running and the debt nearly sunk us. For me I think the learning was in the idea of not getting too far out over our skis — that growth should be paced and that we didn’t want to be over burdened by debt if we could avoid it.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Outside of delivering fruit to offices to help people at work eat and stay healthy, we have two main mission driven programs that we put into the world. The first is to reduce hunger by donating 100% of our extra fruit to organizations that feed the hungry. The second is to provide grants to small farms and agricultural non-profits in the United States through thefruitguyscommunityfund.org. Since our inception we’ve donated over 14 million pieces of fruit to charity and we’ve given away over a quarter of a million dollars to farms across the United States for sustainability projects. The farm projects often combine environmental solutions that also may have social and economic positive benefits for the farm and the surrounding community.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?
I’m proud of the fact that tens of thousands of people each week get a piece of fruit on their plate through our charitable partners because of our donations. On the farm side, one of the most dramatic and heart wrenching stories happened to “From the Ground Up Farm” which is a series of community gardens in and around the Chico area. In 2018 the Camp Fire burned through their region and one of our grants had gone to helping a garden add some irrigation and other infrastructure. The adult daughter of the founder of the farm found herself caught in the middle of the fire and headed to the garden. She put the hose on the roof of her car, climbed in the front seat and ran water over the vehicle as the fire burned around her. It took them three days to evacuate her but she was alive. In 2019 we added a special grant to help them rebuild their community farm. There are examples of things like planted hedgerows helping a specific farm and also impacting the general farming region with an increase in pollinators. Or the construction of Owl boxes on farms to add natural rodent control to an orchard. Solar pumps, Swails, water catchment systems are also projets that we have funded through The FruitGuys Community Fund.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
In broad strokes I’d look at two areas for improvement. Attitude and Creativity+Detail.
First is attitude. Helping people in need toward their success — be it someone who is hungry or someone who is farming — is admirable because it is a path toward greater self-sufficiency and health. Having a positive attitude toward being in service to helping others, and the patience to stick with it as they navigate their challenges, seems like an important, long term approach to me.
Second is creativity + detail — we find with our grant making program that, because farmers are often great inventors and problem solvers, it doesn’t take a lot of money to make a big impact. We have a saying — small grants, big impacts — and we believe that it requires creativity and detailed thinking around your commitment to helping others to truly support success.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I am an advocate of being “in-service” as a core tenant of great leadership. Being able to be clear about where you are going and having a vision is key but being able to gather steam to move something forward requires leaders to own the responsibility for not just outcomes they drive but for the success of the people they are leading, coaching or supporting. Being honest about roles, responsibilities and skills and thinking about the interests of those who are working with you can be overlooked when moving fast or driving to some specific goal. To integrate the journey and the people who walk that path seems to me the greatest skill to strive for and one that I think about and try to improve upon in my daily work. It is and will be a life-long learning.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
It’s funny that you called out 5 things. Because this relates to a concept I came up with in 1999 called our “5Rs”. When I started the business I had this assumption that everyone thought about customer service and the customer experience in the same way that I do. About a year into the business, I got a call one day from a woman who was really upset with us. She said that our driver had “given her the finger” when making the delivery. When the driver got back to our warehouse I asked him what had happened and he said that he was running late and was stressed out. When we got to the client, his normal contact wasn’t there and a woman was hurriedly asking him to put the fruit not in the kitchen but somewhere else. He put the fruit down on the table in the kitchen and said he “threw his hands up” in frustration. I asked him why he didn’t follow the client’s instructions and just put the fruit where she wanted it. He said: “My dad taught me that if someone disrespected you then you had to disrespect them back. This was the only way to “earn respect.” I realized in that moment that not everyone had the same perspective on service or an-approach-to-others that I may have grown up with. Out of this came the 5Rs: these 5 questions that we now ask ourselves to check that we have been thoughtful about being in service to others in our work. This would have been helpful to have been handed from someone before I started the business. Those rules are:
- Have we been Respectful at all times? We define this not as something that you earn, but something you give to others regardless of whether respect has been given to you.
- Have we been Responsive rather than reactive? We talk about being responsive as a skill that requires listening, understanding and removal of judgement for the others perspective where being reactive is often instinctual and unthinking and can often come from a place of being defensive.
- Have we been Realistic about what we can or can’t do and what we will and won’t do? Being respectful and responsive shouldn’t imply that we always can or will do something. In a service situation our goal is to help people, however if we are faced with a situation in which, in good faith, we truly cannot comply or help someone, it is important to turn into this and be honest about it as well as put context to it if necessary. It is also important to be realistic about options if we can be. If we don’t do this detailed thinking, then we aren’t going deep enough to truly check ourselves around what we can or can’t or will or won’t do for someone else.
- Have we taken personal Responsibility for outcomes? So often in organizations and when trying to solve complex problems, gaps appear between people and roles. If everyone in an organization commits to taking personal responsibility then gaps can be tightened quickly and desired outcomes can be discussed openly. Taking responsibility requires bravery in communication to have these often difficult conversations but, if done with a shared respect, responsiveness and realism, then those goals, outcomes and questions of “who does what” are so much faster to figure out.
- Finally, if all else fails, asking the question: Have we been Remembered positively, allows us to double check how we acted in a scenario and what we could have done differently or not.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Our 5Rs concept is something I’m working on putting into a book and I’d like to be able to share. I feel that we need a conscious and easy-to-understand system for reminding us how to be in the world right now. It seems that we are in a time of much reaction, anger, blame and hate that I feel it is important to grow a movement of people who are dedicated to exercising thoughtful and kind approaches to the way we exist together in the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m a journal writer. It helps me process what is going on around me. During the first dot com crash in 2001 when I thought we’d lose the business that I found myself writing in my journal: “You have to be your own savior.” It was a tough moment because, in order to save the business, I had to take actions that terrified me and that I really didn’t want to take. There was no one to “save us” so to speak from what was this very difficult moment. I had to lay off half of the staff — which made me physically ill during the process — and I had to switch my mindset from thinking of myself as growing a business to just working in the business to help it survive. It felt like a huge set back and one that I wasn’t sure I’d ever recover from. There were of course moments of luck and support from others that helped us but tightening up and doing all we could to survive was the first step. Today I still have the belief that everyone in the business has to be willing to do any job and be adaptive. This DIY attitude is important to our approach in business and to the way we view the work we do around hunger mitigation and small farm support.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
One of my favorite poets is Wendell Berry. He creates this amazing alchemy between the natural, agricultural and existential. I’d love to have breakfast or lunch with him and thank him for his poem: “The Peace of Wild Things.”
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’ll be honest — I don’t post much on social media personally. I’m still looking for a format that I feel gives me the time and depth to be thoughtful. I have a personal site that I’m keeping private for now and my goal is to try and shape this over the next year to put something out that allows me to tap into this a bit more. In the meantime I’d suggest keeping in touch with us through fruitguys.com and thefruitguyscommunityfund.org and our social media posts on facebook, twitter and instagram. I’ll make sure to announce any personal stuff there first.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you for your interest in what we are doing at FruitGuys. It’s much appreciated.