Waste Not: The Ugly Apple fights food waste

A bartering food cart founder finds a mission
Waste Not: The Ugly Apple fights food waste
Photo by Kathy Brozyna
Laurel Burleson in front of her food cart, The Ugly Apple.

On a recent morning, I am at University Research Park on Madison’s west side standing in line six or seven customers deep at the Ugly Apple Food Cart. I am waiting for my turn to order breakfast, hoping for a chance to speak with owner and chef Laurel Burleson about her off-beat food cart and to find out exactly what is “ugly” about the food she serves.

When it’s my turn, I order the biscuit, egg and cheddar cheese sandwich with ham; the Veggie Hash with spicy sweet potatoes, green onion, asparagus, arugula, pickled kohlrabi, cheddar cheese and a sunny side egg on top; and a peck (six) of her fritters–current flavor at the time is strawberry-rhubarb. This is a lot of food, but this is for research, and I’m a professional.

Waiting at a nearby picnic table for my order to be ready, I notice the perfect blue sky overhead and the pleasant breeze wafting the scent of freshly brewed coffee and bacon, and I think it’s so good to be able to eat breakfast outdoors on a day like today. It almost feels as if I’m on vacation. One look around at the other guests dressed business-casual chatting in line, and I am brought back. The reality is I’m still home in Madison, and if the good smells coming from the generator-humming food cart in front of me are any indication, I’m about to have a darn fine breakfast.

The food cart itself looks like it was cobbled together from parts lying around an old barn somewhere. Tied to an apple-red Chevy pick-up truck, it’s both wacky and charming at the same time. The apple mascot on top is pieced together with coppery rust-colored square sheets of scrap metal. The apple’s lop-sided smiling face–made of wrenches, metal gears for eyes, a horse-shoe cut in half for eyebrows–is completely lovable. The cart itself is built from recovered wood and, if you look closely, the door handle is an antique apple peeler. It’s a whimsical, woodsy shack, and it’s perfect.

Soon the line fades, and Burleson graciously brings me my food and has a moment to sit and chat about her mission to fight food waste and her love of breakfast food–the quick and easy kind; the grab and go.

Burleson, 32, has been cooking since high school. “That’s all I’ve wanted to do,” she says. She’s worked for a major convention hotel as well as fine dining in Chicago and a country club here in town. In all three of these different venues, she says she’s witnessed, for various reasons, so much food waste.

“At the hotel you do events for 1,000 people,” she explains. “You can cut it close, but there’s still going to be a lot of waste. Especially on a buffet line. You think about hungry people.

“Big elaborate buffets, whatever staff couldn’t take home would go to waste. And in fine dining, everything has to be cut into a perfect cube.”

Then she watched an episode about food waste on Last Week Tonight with host John Oliver and learned that when there is one bunch of kale remaining at a market stand, the chances of that produce being bought are slim. Customers may wonder, “Why is that bunch still here?” or “What’s wrong with it that it’s been picked over all day?” Burleson says she learned from this segment that, “If you put out 12 bunches, you’ll sell four. If you put out just the one, people won’t buy it. It’s psychological. Especially if it’s something like kale that you’ll pick and sell new tomorrow–you’d [growers] rather sell the fresher bunch.”

And that’s what solidified the idea that Burleson could use that leftover bunch of kale. “I could help farmers,” she says.

Burleson collaborates among growers at the farmers’ markets as well as with her fellow food producers of which she shares kitchen space at Slide Kitchen on Madison’s east side. Sometimes she’ll buy leftovers at the end of the day or an item that they have too much of. Other times, it’s a barter deal; leftover arugula today she’ll make into pesto in exchange for breakfast for the grower at her food cart tomorrow.

This past fall she acquired a bunch of honey-nut squash that split its skin from a local grower who couldn’t sell it. Burleson roasted, pureed and froze it, creating what she refers to as “pumpkin-esque” muffins that she was then able to offer her customers throughout the winter. Her cart rolled out for the first time this past November and stayed open throughout the snowy months, in order to work out the kinks, she says.

In the meantime, an over-abundance of local berries and over-wintered apples become her fritters and applesauce; mustard greens get pureed with a little olive oil and are frozen to be used at a later date; that ephemeral asparagus might be pickled, adding a bit of zing perhaps to fall’s veggie hash. The heels of tomatoes from a fellow food producer at Slide who needs only perfect slices for sandwiches becomes Burleson’s tomato jam.

What does she do with the Ugly Apple’s waste? “Most of my donations are oatmeal to the River Food Pantry. Otherwise, I try and use my leftovers to trade for favors among people I work with. To pay ahead when they give me stuff,” she says.

Today it seems like a perfect plan for the Ugly Apple as a small-scale operation where Burleson does all the work–chopping, slicing, pickling, rolling her homemade Southern-style biscuit dough by hand. Looking ahead, she’s hoping the timing works out for her to get a spot at the proposed Madison Public Market, a community space of artisan food and craft vending to be located along First Street near the intersections of East Washington Avenue and Johnson Street, expected to be built by 2019.

She hopes to have a cafe stand at the public market offering breakfast and lunch. “Soups and salads are a great way to use up a variety of things,” she says. More canning is also in her future plans.

Those are dreams for tomorrow. For today, Burleson is hoping that the weather continues to hold up so she can catch an afternoon ride on her motorcycle–something she hasn’t been able to do in quite a while.

Look for Burleson and her Ugly Apple Food Cart serving breakfast six mornings a week, throughout Madison, not only at University Research Park where I found her, but downtown on the 100 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and at the Monroe Street Farmers’ Market as well as at events and festivals. Be sure to check her website and Instagram and Facebook pages for updates on locations and the menu.

A bit of bonus information: Burleson posts a trivia question on her Facebook page encouraging customers to come to breakfast with a personal story or two to share with her, like this recent one, “Thursday morning [is] Frida Kahlo’s birthday! Favorite painters/paintings for free fritters!” Sometimes instead of an historical fact, she’ll ask for a vote on flavors she’s currently considering such as “chocolate and raspberry or chocolate and peanut butter?”
On any given day, participating customers are rewarded for their part of the Ugly Apple conversation–which is community-building–with no less than two of Burleson’s delicious, seasonal fritters.

“Sometimes I’ll reward more for creativity.”

P.S. Burleson rewards a good joke.
P.S.S. There’s even a couple of free fritters for a really bad joke, too.