Meet the Founders: Claire Schlemme and Caroline Cotto of Renewal Mill
Parents love to lecture about the sin of wasting food. Turns out, they’re on to something.
Renewal Mill transforms upcycled ingredients — nutritious byproducts often wasted in our food system — into delicious goodies. Their Dark Chocolate Brownie Mix, for example, is made with okara, the soybean pulp that’s often discarded in tofu production. The end result is gooey, fudgy, high in fiber, and a brilliant use of Mother Nature’s bounty.
It all started when Claire Schlemme, the founder of Boston’s first organic juice company, grew tired of watching perfectly good pulp go to waste. She then appointed former Michelle Obama U.N. World Food Programme staffer Caroline Cotto as her COO. Together, they’re baking a better future across America.
Recently, we caught up with Claire and Caroline to learn more about their journey and hear their advice for fellow entrepreneurs.
01 Why did you start Renewal Mill?
Claire: After founding Boston’s first organic juice company, I came face-to-face with food waste and the inefficiencies present in our food system. Looking at the piles of organic fruit and vegetable pulp at the end of each day, I felt there had to be a better way to utilize all of the things we grow. Throwing out the pulp (arguably the most nutritious part of the plant!) meant throwing out all the resources, like water and energy, that went into growing it. In turn, the little bit of remaining produce had to be sold at a high price point, so it wasn’t particularly accessible nutrition.
I then had a fortuitous conversation with the owner of a tofu company and bonded with him over our shared struggle with “byproducts.” Tofu production leaves an incredibly nutrient-dense pulp called okara. Since his company operated at such a high scale, there was a real opportunity to upcycle okara and feed people instead of throwing it out.
With that, Renewal Mill was born! Our mission is to find more opportunities like the tofu factory — places where delicious nutrition is needlessly wasted so we can transform it into novel superfood ingredients and premium plant-based pantry staples. Ultimately, our goal is to show that eating food that’s good for the planet can be delicious and fun!
02 What obstacles did you face along the way?
Caroline: One of the earliest challenges we faced was how to explain upcycled food to customers. Since our founding, there has been considerable growth in food waste awareness and the solutions we have to combat it, including upcycling!
To further advance our mission, we founded the Upcycled Food Association, a collective of like-minded companies to support and uplift this new food category. With our new Upcycled Certification, we now have a consistent, visible, and trustworthy way to let customers know that our upcycled flours, baking mixes, and cookies are measurably reducing food waste, a major driver of climate change.
03 What lessons do you have for other entrepreneurs?
Caroline: One of our favorite learnings has been how powerful partnerships and community can be. Food is a creative and passionate space and we’ve found so much joy and inspiration in collaborating with other food companies, chefs, and bakers. We learn so much from these partnerships and they help us amplify our mission of creating sustainable food systems.
We’ve also learned the importance of listening. Whether it’s a customer, mentor, or a fellow entrepreneur, every interaction allows us to tap into a wealth of experience. You can learn so much by listening to the experiences of others, without having to go through the trial-and-error process yourself.
04What’s on the horizon for Renewal Mill?
Caroline: We are so excited for everything on the horizon! For starters, we’re rolling out brand new products, including Pumpkin Spice Cookie Mix and Matcha Chip Cookie Mix. Meanwhile, we’re building even more food partnerships — a very popular ice cream company will be using our brownies in one of their flavors soon!
Claire: Beyond that, we’re exploring new byproducts to use in our recipes, such as the spent grains left over from beer brewing. It’s all about delivering concentrated nutrition through unique and nutrient-dense ingredients while simultaneously building a more sustainable food system.
05 How do you keep work/life balance? What drives/inspires you?
Claire: We respect weekends! It’s so important to clearly define time to recharge and re- energize. Time away from the business also allows us to have a fresh perspective when we start a new week. In turn, we’re able to generate new ideas and solutions for last week’s problems.
We also proudly offer flexible work hours and childcare policies to our employees. Prior to the pandemic, my son Arlo was a regular fixture at the office. Having him with me allowed me to enjoy life as a new Mom while also growing Renewal Mill.
Ultimately, we’re driven by the impact of our work. We recently surpassed over 250,000 pounds of nutrition diverted back into the food system — truly a celebratory moment in our journey!