VerTerra: Q&A With CEO & Founder Michael Dwork

Picture We continue to be excited about the “single-service” side of hospitality tabletop and one of the companies that has us most excited is VerTerra.

VerTerra’s CEO & Founder is Michael Dwork, who is a passionate entrepreneur and completely crazy about bringing the best in eco-friendly, fun  – and functional – tableware and carry-out products to the hospitality industry. Picture PictureVerTerra CEO & Founder Michael Dwork Q: Tell us about your experience in India that made you decide to start Verterra with the Fallen Leaves idea? How long ago was that? 
A: While in business school I wanted to work in India to round out my international experience since I had previously spent two years in China.  I went to India, fairly clueless of the on the ground reality; when I arrived I saw so much untapped potential that it was exciting to be around.  During my internship I joined a work colleague to dinner in his village. There, I came across the rural version of what soon became VerTerra. A woman who was a street vendor on the side of the road was soaking palm leaves in water and then pressing them into a waffle iron of sorts. She then served her food on these now dried and harden “plates”.  I didn’t see it for what it was but rather what it could be; the future of disposables. I spent the next months following rumors of factories that were manufacturing these palm leaf plates, but none existed. 

It was then I realized that if I wanted this to be something amazing I would need to make it happen myself.  I came back to the US, raised a bit of money, and spent my second year in business school going to India and Israel to work on the process and sterilization of the products.  A year later we were done, a factory was erected, and after some testing and final approvals VerTerra was born. 

That was nearly 8 years ago.  
Q: Where are the majority of your products produced? What can you tell us about how they are produced?
A: There are three different VerTerra lines: 1) Dinnerware from Fallen Leaves, 2) Compostable Wooden Cutlery, and our third and newest which is the Trays + To-Go line. 

The dinnerware from fallen leaves is made in our factories in India where the leaves are indigenous. We are one of the few vertically integrated companies which means we are the direct manufacturer of the palm leaf plates, we own the process and designs, and we hire fair wage workers and practice sanitization standards above what India requires. For 5 months out of the year we collect millions of palm fronds (leaves) that fall to the ground to dry and store them. We bring them into the factory on an as needed basis where they are washed and steamed and then sat for some time to soften enough to be malleable.  Once they’re ready they are heated in convection ovens and then go through a multistep process to get them to take on their new shape and are dried to finish. After they are fully dry, the edges are buffed and the plates are sterilized in our clean room before getting packed and shipped. It has been really exciting making not only an environmentally friendly product line but one that has created hundreds of jobs for women in rural India as the factory is primarily made up of female employees. 

The VerTerra cutlery and To-Go lines are made through similar processes. Each takes lathed wood that goes through proprietary processes and is then formed to exacting specifications. I love that every one of our products takes what would have been waste and converts it into usable products.
Picture Q: How does a guy with an economics undergraduate degree…who studied in China….has an MBA from Columbia and investment banking background….decide to sell tableware made from fallen leaves?
A: No part of that makes any sense, does it?  I didn’t wake up one day thinking I would start a dinnerware company.  Originally, I was going to use the material to make something else but after I read an article on the chemicals used in plastics and the issues of leaching in food it frightened me. Sometime later, I then saw pictures of the garbage patch in the oceans, collections of plastic the size of Texas floating and killing millions of fish and birds. It made me pose the question, “what can we do about it?” People “handling these issues” seemed focused on the “pound of cure” and not the “ounce of prevention”.  

By using the abundance of natural materials that we use at VerTerra, we’ve now become part of the solution.  

Q: Did the fact that growth in off-premise – or carryout – dining is double the growth of traditional restaurant dining influence you decision to start VerTerra?
A: I wish I had been that well informed at the onset.  The creation of the company started with passion; as the logic developed, the current trends became wind in our sails.  We have since re-engineered the lines to focus around the needs of off-premise / fast casual / carry-out establishments.  The number of people looking for good food that is easily and quickly accessible just keeps growing so our new line of trays + to-go line is specifically designed to fit their needs.  

Q: Who are some of the customers who are currently using Verterra products?
A: Verterra has had the privilege of working with some of the top organizations in food such as Food & Wine Magazine, StarChefs.com, Saveur Magazine, Eater.com, Edible Magazine, and the Culinary Institute of America. Most recently (after years of partnership) we were given the title of Official House Purveyor of the James Beard Foundation and participated in the JBF Awards Gala and Chef’s Night Out. We’re also fortunate to partner with unbelievable events like Aspen Food & Wine Festival, NY Food & Wine Festival, South Beach Food & Wine Festival, Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival, and hundreds of other tasting/food events. You can also see us in use daily at some really cool places like ‘wichcraft and Untamed Sandwiches
Picture PictureVerTerra: upscale and earth-friendly, even in carry-out. Q: What trends do you see emerging in disposable and single-service tabletop? Carryout? 
A: For the past two years, most of our product development conversations have been around the grab and go, box lunch, and in-room dining arena.  Fast Casual and hotel operators are looking for upgraded carry out experiences for their customers and high-end restaurants are looking for a way to create that same level of the restaurant experience for guests at their homes.  Operators across the landscape have been stressing the fact that packaging is an important part of their brands and needs to be a bigger part of the conversation. 

The question they came to us with was: “How can we create a dining experience for the customer that takes their meal outside of our walls and isn’t just having a logo on a bag?”  It is about reinventing the experience. 

On the hotel side, in-room dining isn’t the private dining experience that it was created to be years ago.  Its main clientele now is the late night diner or the single business traveler.  The whole trolley experience is antiquated and worst of all the rest of the hotel guests suffer with a hallway occupied by the remnants of their neighbor’s meal. Half of a pizza, the bones from the chicken wings, who wants to see that? It’s just unsightly. A few Food & Beverage manager expressed a desire to migrate to containers but the look of many current products on the market made them feel that it is déclassé for a nicer property to use something like that. So, they asked us to develop something and thus our new line of trays + to-go was born.  

Many of our partners have cited the beauty, style and design of our lines as the reason for selecting them as they realize the plate is a critical element of the presentation. You always say table top matters and others are starting to realize it.  

One chef referred to the plate the foundation of his meal. I always loved that.   

Q: What types of new products should we expect to see from VerTerra at the upcoming NRA Show?
A: Our full line of VerTerra dinnerware from fallen leaves will be on display as well as our compostable wooden cutlery. We will be launching our series of trays + to-gos as the upgraded option for food & beverage professionals.  We’re very excited about the new line since it’s an ideal solution for to-go meals, drop off catering, poolside/outdoor and in-room dining.
Q: What other areas of tabletop will VerTerra be looking at in the future?
A: We’re always doing our best to listen to our clients and help service a need to make their jobs easier. We’ve got a few interesting ideas in the pipeline but you’ll have to stay tuned to see those come to fruition.  

My guiding principle in any new product is that it 1) must meet the needs of a chef, 2) should be superior in performance to anything on the market and 3) always be mindful that you eat with your eyes first, your nose second and your mouth third.  

If our product doesn’t enhance a dining experience there is no reason to make it.

You can learn more about VerTerra and their very cool, very earth-friendly line of single-service dinnerware, trays, and carry-out containers by going here:    http://www.verterra.com/

You can also find VerTerra at the upcoming NRA Show in Chicago at Booth # 378

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