Curtis Wong and Trendi want you to stop wasting so much food
At times Amazing Race and at times romantic comedy, my week with Trendi’s partnership director at the Swiss Tech Experience opened my eyes to food waste.
“Let’s see how we do as Amazing Race partners,” Curtis Wong says to me with a wry smile. It’s just after noon in Switzerland’s busiest airport, but my body clock reads just after 1:00 a.m. My lanky knees have gone through a ten-hour battle with the back of an economy Edelweiss Air seat. The airport gives way to a mall, mixed with restaurants, mixed with a transit hub, known as The Circle. It’s appropriately named as my head is spinning.
But here I am, Amazing Race partners with a dude I have known for roughly four hours, on a train bound for Zurich. Two weeks before, a serendipitous text-turned-email chain landed me on the guest list of the Swiss Tech Experience. The Experience, put on by Switzerland Global Enterprise in partnership with Switzerland Tourism, organized a contest for foreign tech executives. The winners were invited on a trip to Switzerland to discover more about the local innovation ecosystem, and the country as a tourist destination. Those winning tech execs? They would be paired with a journalist or influencer from their country. I was shoulder-tapped. I guess my 700-odd Twitter followers were influencer-y enough.
Wong was the lone Vancouverite also on the invite list. He was sent by his company Trendi — where Wong works as partnership director — to represent the squad. I felt like a somewhat last-minute callup to this operation. So, I thought it better to at least give him warning that I would be tagging along. A LinkedIn connection request led to a few texts and phone calls between us. I physically met Wong for the first time at about 4:45 p.m. on a Friday evening over a beer at the Vancouver Tech Industry Drinks Social.
That meeting had poetic timing. It was a clean 24 hours before our Zurich-bound flight was set to depart YVR. Wong, as big a food fan as they come, left Yaletown Brewing for Commercial Drive. He and some friends were at a restaurant opening until the wee hours of Saturday morning. I, on the other hand, returned home, takeout burrito in hand, around 6:00 p.m. and was asleep by nine. (The ideal bedtime is 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. Don’t @ me). Our polar opposite Friday nights marked my first inkling that despite our difference in generation, Wong is a far more energetic and lively human than me.
My second inkling came the next morning at YVR. I, a childless man in my mid-20s, become a 50-year-old-father-of-four when travelling — an anxious ball of punctuality that insists on a half-day grace period. This meant I was a tad on the early side (the check-in desk hadn’t even opened yet). When Wong first arrives at YVR — at a more appropriate four hours early — he’s hauling a bag to be checked and headphones draped around his neck. Despite his myriad luggage and minimal sleep, there were no bags under his eyes. Wong breaks my solitude with a welcomed conversation: basketball.
Saturday, June 25. 12:46 p.m. Vancouver International Airport
The Golden State Warriors recently claimed its fourth championship in seven years. But a debutant player, a new addition to the Warriors juggernaut, was a key driver of that 2022 victory. Canadian Andrew Wiggins was drafted to much fanfare as the first-overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft by the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers. The newly minted billionaire Lebron James had just made a triumphant return to his hometown Cavaliers earlier that summer. James wanted a ready-made all-star on the roster, meaning Wiggins was immediately traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves to acquire one. Wiggins struggled in Minnesota, perhaps unable to lead a young team on his own. Fast forward to last season, and now with Golden State, Wiggins flourished. Not required to carry the load, he found his own alongside Finals MVP Stephen Curry.
So, as we pondered the winding journey Wiggins took to find his place in the NBA, Wong became reflective. “I’ve told all my bosses I’m a better number two,” he says. But Wong is needed in the spotlight on this day, playing the Steph Curry role usually tasked to Trendi’s co-founders Carissa Campeotto and Craig McIntosh. The pair founded Trendi to solve food waste. As its website says, “we imagine a world where food isn’t wasted, where it’s sustainably produced, appreciated, and accessible to all. Our team of misfits is here to stand up for every left-behind food and build a system that sustains life.”
The company works to turn this dream into reality through robotics, using a unit known as BioTrim. Say you’re a farmer. If your apples or corn or onions are less than ideal, you would ordinarily toss them in the garbage. Instead, Trendi will deliver to you a BioTrim unit, which is an industrial-strength food processor housed in a container, to turn that otherwise-wasted food into a shelf-stable ingredient known as BioFlakes. BioFlakes can be used in everything from smoothies or fortified foods to construction materials and t-shirts. The best part? Trendi will even pay you for the “trouble.”
It’s all for good reason. Campeotto and McIntosh each have an opening line to their LinkedIn bio that reads like a smack in the face: “it’s not every day we waste half of our food… oh wait, yes it is.” Trendi promises that it is here to change that. The investment community has taken notice. On June 9, the company announced a $6.2 million seed raise, co-led by WGG Capital Canada.
“Trendi continues to impress and excite me with their forethought for the future in solving a huge global problem: food waste,” says Herbert Madan who’s an executive with WGG — a firm that made a previous investment in Trendi, too. "My conviction is that the problem has only gotten worse. At the same time, parts of the world are going through dire food supply issues. Not only does Trendi's BioTrim solve the problem of food waste, but they are also helping to build solutions and sustainability in food security."
Now there’s international acclaim to pair with this influx of capital. A few weeks after Wong and I land in Zurich, Trendi team members are going to Spain and Italy. “This Swiss Tech Experience trip kicked the door in,” Wong explains. “We knew it was unlocked but we didn’t know how to open it.”
Sunday, June 26. 5:27 p.m. Sternen Grill restaurant, Zurich
Our first day in Zurich felt a far cry from when we emerged jetlagged in The Circle a few hours prior. We bounced around different patios in view of Lake Zurich, a crystal clear, multi-kilometre-long ribbon of teal that made you question if you were in a city or a beachfront all-inclusive…until we got our bills. Those first few hours also made for a great introduction to Wong’s love of food. A culinary passion is present in Trendi’s DNA, perhaps on par, even, with the drive to power sustainability. For Wong, this love was honed in Vancouver’s Chinatown. He came of age in the neighbourhood, recalling a time when the spots that are now home to nightclubs housed restaurants where he and his family would share dim sum.
His first food memory is of The Cannery, a seafood restaurant at the Port of Vancouver that was shuttered in 2010. “Decades before the city garnered praise from the New York Times and Condé Nast Traveler, Vancouver’s culinary scene was decidedly less worldly (some might even say boring). The real star then was our excellent seafood, and few did it better than The Cannery,” wrote Krista Eide in BC Living. It was the special-occasion restaurant for Wong’s family, who would then return home for a Bon Ton Bakery cake. “Still my favourite cake ever,” he swoons.
The timing of our conversation seems appropriate. Our flight left Vancouver on June 25, known — as far as Instagram is concerned — as Bourdain Day. Chef and dear friend Eric Ripert established the date to memorialize Anthony Bourdain on what would have been his 62nd birthday in 2019. I remind Wong of our proximity to this holy day for the disciples of the famed chef, writer, and broadcaster. “Maybe my second-favourite chef,” he rebuts in classic Wong snark (Thomas Keller tops his power rankings, if you’re curious).
After the last currywurst of the evening was consumed (a delicacy in this neck of the woods, featuring a bratwurst eaten with toothpicks out of a curry, and usually inhaled after a night of drinking), I got to see Wong’s food brain – not just his food heart – in full force. As I studied communications at SFU, I was often warned of my impending annoyance. Lectures on the intricacies of TV shows or advertising gave me a critical eye that wasn’t always welcomed. I learned in real-time that an equivalent in the food world is grocery shopping. For Wong, prices, portion sizes, and packaging were all topics to be debated.
But, I was forewarned. Jamil Karim, director of communications for the Canadian Food Innovation Network and a mutual friend of Wong and I, learned of our impending trip and offered this: “Curtis is the man. He knows a tonne about food. You'll leave with a Ph.D.” Reaching the section of the supermarket that contained dry goods, Wong was a kid in a candy store — if you replace sour keys and fuzzy peaches with powdered bechamel or curry sauces.
After the dispatches were sent back to Trendi HQ, internally called the House of Trendi, we retreated back to our hotel. I turned in for the night while Wong tried to get into a nearby 50 Cent concert, to no avail. My geriatric sleep schedule was again no match for Wong’s adventurous nature. He, unable to get In Da Club, toured a few bars on the way back to our hotel. We were reunited over breakfast the next morning, sharing a mutual appreciation of a hard-to-place yet delicious collection of fruits in a juice called (something along the lines of) vitaminschaft.
Monday, June 27. 8:32 a.m. Kraftwerk, Zurich
The Experience kicked off at Kraftwerk, a former power station located near the city’s transit hub, a Waterfront-Station-on-steroids known as Zurich HB. Our opening building provides space for the city’s tech community to converge and collaborate. Put another way, “Kraftwerk is fueling Swiss innovation and collaboration,” an obvious nod to the building’s history. In lieu of a trophy for winning this Experience, Wong was handed a pair of On Running shoes, a company created by the Swiss equivalents of Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman. But, instead of a waffle maker, Olivier Bernhard, David Allemann, and Caspar Coppetti turned to garden hoses for initial prototypes of what would become the Cloud line. Shoes in hand, Wong then held court on Trendi’s behalf to the crowd at Kraftwerk. The usual bits were shared: food waste, “at the farm level,” sustainability… But what I came to learn over the next few days after this initial introduction was that Trendi is equal parts philosophy and company. That philosophical bent comes from the top down.
McIntosh is Trendi’s co-founder and CEO, and a self-appointed food waste rescuer. He writes on his LinkedIn that this vision first appeared at age 12. Shortly after, he started to work in restaurants before embarking on a career that has spanned stops as international chef, consultant, serial entrepreneur, and now co-founder and CEO of Trendi. But, perhaps above all else, McIntosh is a dude who deeply cares about waste reduction and sustainability. Wong told me he once attended a Chinese banquet family-style meal with McIntosh. As is customary, each course came with a new, freshly dishwashed side plate. It all happened a tad fast after the first course: a soiled plate whisked out from his place setting. He was prepared for the second course, though. McIntosh protected his plate like a defensive lineman on a fumbled football, saving it from the rigours of what he thought was a waste of water to wash it in. “I’m a big fan of Craig,” Wong says. “He’s crazy, but in an ‘I want to help the world’ way. So, obviously, I’m okay with that.”
Campeotto is Trendi’s co-founder and CMO. Her day-to-day includes a reminder to “pinch herself” over her opportunity to work with a team that is equally passionate about the need to stop food waste. Campeotto details that her inflection point towards Trendi started in 2015. She left a live events role with Donnelly Group that year to become a partner with Commodity Juicery, a cold-pressed juice bar on Fraser Street in East Vancouver. When the margins got tight and Commodity was affected by changing food prices, the team started buying what she terms “misfit produce”, aka “the carrots with three legs.” Campeotto describes that she burnt out in 2018, but food waste maintained a spot in her mind. To refocus, she co-founded Trendi that same year.
The company’s Meet the Team page displays Campeotto, McIntosh, and then Wong across the top. So, how did Wong’s role originate? “When I was talking to Craig and Carissa about this job, I did ask, “why are you hiring me? I can get you better people,’” Wong recalls. “And they said ‘hey, maybe we don’t want you doing the grant writing but we want you to build the team that does the grant writing. So, now I have no way out.” When I asked if this was what made Trendi appealing, he acknowledged that it was, in part. But the company appealed to the way he sees the world now. “Well, I’ve always liked Carissa,” Wong says. “But what happens, man, is you get older and you start to care about the planet. You care about the food system. I’m sure that if I grew up in Alberta I’d care about fuel and oil and gas. I happened to be born [in Vancouver]. Then, my life became food and Trendi is food.”
Tuesday, June 28. 7:58 p.m. Restaurant Krafft, Basel
Wong is again holding court as our Swiss Tech Experience troupe dines near the Rhine river in Basel, hosted by Urs Eberhard, vice director of Switzerland Tourism. This time, instead of introducing our group to Trendi, he is regaling us with his CV. Luckily, dessert has just been served because his work history is a doozy. Campeotto and Wong, for example, have worked together previously, crossing paths at Donnelly Group. This concept, that Wong and a colleague go way back professionally, is something that could be said of about half of Vancouver’s workforce. “I first wanted to be a concierge,” Wong starts off. His earliest job was at the Pan Pacific Hotel. He hoped to be “the cool guy who knows all the restaurants,” but spent more time telling people where Grouse Mountain was than planning nights out.
This sent Wong on a professional journey as winding as the Rhine itself. He initially stayed in hotels, jumping to the Wedgewood and then Metropolitan. Afterwards, he leaped to another travel-based operation, working with Tourism Vancouver for four years. Then, Wong tested the waters of fashion (Holt Renfrew) and arts (Vancouver Theatresports and Ballet BC). The draw of food was too strong to ignore, though, and Wong danced between consulting and mystery dining to founding or director roles with Dine Out Vancouver, Daily Catch Seafood, and Tractor Digital, the “grab and go” arm of the local healthy foods proprietor. That role leads nicely into Wong at the stage I had the pleasure of meeting him: tech and business. Contracts at Small Business BC and Innovate BC predate his current role with Trendi.
He estimates the full collection totals 44 jobs or contracts — nearly matching his years on the planet. Eberhard, mouth agape, offers: “that must be some sort of record.” It’s a far cry from one member of our Experience group, Giovanni Antonio Zappatore. The 31-year-old founder and CEO BionIT Labs, a healthtech company based in his Italian hometown, has held just one job in his life: founder and CEO of BionIT Labs. For Wong, all of his experiences have a worthy place in where he is today, despite how winding it was. “I look at it now and can joke about it,” Wong acknowledges.
“But it’s a lot. Food and tourism can take you anywhere. Food or music or art…these are all things that bring people together and break down borders.”
Wednesday, June 29. 1:04 p.m. La Péniche restaurant, Biel
Throughout the duration of my week in Switzerland, I planned to find someone from the judging panel that selected the companies to attend the Experience. I wanted to ask what made Trendi stand out. But, I’m easily distracted by coffee or chocolate or beer, all of which were plentiful, so my mission was adjusted accordingly. Luckily, here we were on our last day, dining with Domenic Goreky. Goreky is head of the Switzerland Innovation Park-based Swiss Smart Factory, a robotics and manufacturing hub that he lovingly referred to as “his baby.” More important for my mission, he was on the judging panel.
Goreky looked at me while I asked but then diverted his eyes to Lake Biel and gave a sigh that seemed to say “where do I start.” He pondered what made Trendi an enticing guest for the Swiss Tech Experience for a moment. When he was ready to answer, Goreky started with Trendi’s core focus. “It was the topic, which is highly relevant. We’re running into a food crisis, the scale of which we don’t even know. It’s also sustainable. Having modular, circular solutions. That’s also a big trend and important — we have to be more local again. And also they were very convincing in describing their idea,” Goreky explains.
I relayed this to Wong who was sitting at another table at our lunch with Goreky. Wong excitedly added some colour to what makes Campeotto and McIntosh such lively pitchers. He said the pair have great energy. A trademark Campeotto move is to put fun — “this is going to be fun!” is an often-used opener — and movement — telling the judging panel that now would be a good time to stretch — at the forefront. Oftentimes, Wong said, you can see recipients of the Campeotto and McIntosh charm noticeably move forward in their chairs, as if the younger cousin they are playing in Mario Kart is getting a little too excited.
Reflecting on these anecdotes on our walk back to the Biel/Benne train station, I couldn’t help but think of Wong’s energy, too. He had been a lifegiving travel companion, one that I joked brought out the rarely seen “Late Night James.” He brought others on the trip out of their shell with ease as well. He listened dutifully and often, showing genuine interest in food or robotics or Swiss culture. Early on during this, our last day together, I had come to find Wong in the hotel lobby. His laptop was flanked by juice (vitaminschaft) and coffee (indiscernible). He was reworking his job description at Trendi after some minor upheaval in the company org chart. Nothing new in startup life. Speaking of that org chart, Wong may not be on it as a founder. Yet, he is an entrepreneur – make no mistake about it. His employment track record — roles that match his age — pair nicely with his thriving consulting practice, too.
Our trip now less Amazing Race and more romantic comedy, we hugged it out on the train platform. He was off to Lausanne with the Swiss Tech Experience while I was taking a train back to Zurich before my return flight to Vancouver the next day. Like many of Wong’s evenings, his trip would be getting a nightcap: the last two days of the Experience and then a week holidaying across Europe. More time to explore new avenues for Trendi and make connections. Or better, more time to stare out the window of a train or a plane and ponder his journey through tourism, food, arts and – most recently – a tech company that seems to bring it all together.
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