Today we have a really exciting interview with Stephanie Bernstein, founder of To-Go Ware. You may have seen these adorable packaged bamboo utensil sets in Whole Foods or REI, today we get the full scoop! I love meeting people who are making a difference in the sustainable food system, and while it’s not food, To-Go Ware is definitely making a difference. I got to chat with Stephanie on a rare rainy morning in San Diego about her inspiration for the company and how they’ve grown over the years. Stephanie is a mover and shaker in the natural products world and also happens to be my neighbor. Read on for an amazing story and a chance to win one of her utensil sets for yourself!
Tell us where the idea for To-Go Ware Came From
When I was a student at University of Michigan, I went out to ice cream with my sister and they gave us the ice cream in plastic. I asked my sister, did we say to-go? I didn’t understand why we were getting our food in plastic when we were eating in. It was 1997, just when disposables got more prevalent. On campus we had these coffee mugs that we would carry around and get a discount, and I thought – why don’t we carry everything, everywhere and call it To-Go ware? I thought about that idea for seven years. It was a strong lightning bolt moment at the time, but I was a theater major and just had other things going on at the time.
How did you go from Theater Major to Business Owner?
After college I moved to New York to pursue acting and also started paying a lot of attention to food and wellness. It was a strong intuitive thing. I did a yoga teacher training, I was a raw foodist for a while, I went to Maui to study- I was really enveloped in that. I met the founders of the yerba mate company (Guayaki) who quickly became mentors to me and led me into the natural products world. At that time I was eating organic and thinking a lot about whole foods, but I wanted to extend the idea of sustainability beyond food.
I moved to San Francisco to have a more balanced life, taught yoga there and wound up running a café that served all natural products, called Urban Forage. It helped me connect with the environmental community, as well as the natural businesses in the area. At the time PLA plastics (a biodegradable plant-based plastic) came into the market, which was annoying me because it was a step, but it wasn’t solving the problem. I kept thinking about To-Go Ware.
I accidently started my business by finding things piece-meal. The original utensil holders were made by a Burmese women’s co-operative that I found at a festival. I started selling them at some festivals, food co-ops and out of the back of my car. I wound up gaining a lot of experience and insight by working for a fair-trade import company, called World of Good, for a couple years in Boulder as I was growing my own business. The company was high-growth, mission-driven and the woman who ran the company was a genius and very inspiring. I learned a lot from doing that and ended up launching the business full time in 2007 when I moved back to San Francisco.
Any amazing surprises along the way?
In 2009 we were featured on Oprah, which was insane. We were one of the featured products on their zero-waste Earth Day show. They had a ton of products on a table, barely said the name of any product, but at the end of the show they announced that To-Go Ware was offering a discount- and from that we got orders for months. We couldn’t even keep the website up, it was a crazy awesome thing. We were buried. It was amazing.
Any upcoming exciting projects?
We just launched a kids-version of our utensils and bamboo plates. We’re also trying to partner with more cause-based organizations like Teens Turning Green, Heifer International and Women’s Earth Alliance. One thing we love about the utensil sets is that they’re a very tangible concept for someone trying to offset their carbon footprint. Especially as a student you eat out a lot, so it’s an easy way to make a difference.
What would tell someone who’s trying to be more sustainable?
One of my favorite quotes is: “The best time to plant a tree was 30 years ago. The next best time is now.” People think that we’re screwed. Just start. Just pick one thing. People get overwhelmed with what to do because it’s such a big problem. But just start with something, it doesn’t have to be everything. Start with the things you do every day- is it taking a shorter shower, is it going meatless on Monday, just doing things that have direct impact, because even small things have a direct impact. Also make it your routine and be constantly aware, develop a consciousness around it. Where did this come from? What is my impact? Those are two great questions that will ruin your life and also enhance it in a million ways.
What’s your favorite meal to cook?
I love cooking. I make these big Asian vegetable stews that I’m a big fan of. That or either some sort of raw treat with cashews and fruits.
5 things you cant live without?
My kids. A fine mesh strainer is really important to me. NPR. A bathtub. My yoga mat.
Looking to incorporate some more sustainable practices to your eating habits? Enter below for a chance to win a To-Go Ware bamboo utensil set!
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