GCRE represents We Don’t Waste in finding new 30,000 SF food recovery and distribution hub
Nonprofit focused on hunger takes step forward
The Denver Gazette
11 Nov 2023
BY JESSICA GIBBS
We Don’t Waste founder and executive director Arlan Preblud looks out at the warehouse from an adjacent conference room during a tour of the nonprofit’s new food recovery hub Wednesday in Denver.
When a Denver-based nonprofit known for keeping food out of landfills and diverting it to hungry families needed a bigger space to meet growing demand, its ability to move was fraught with a tough real estate market that saw cash buyers out competing with the organization for properties.
But now, We Don’t Waste is not only moving into a space nearly three times the size of its current facility, but it’s also positioning itself for an expansion statewide, as it looks to serve communities outside the Denver metro area in coming years.
The nonprofit receives donations of food from roughly 300 partners, such as food purveyors or catering companies with surplus supplies.
We Don’t Waste uses those donations to provide meals and groceries to more than 100 agencies and at its mobile food markets. Last year, the nonprofit reached 500,000 people.
Founder and executive director Arlan Preblud said the need for We Don’t Waste’s services has grown consistently from when he started the organization as a one-man operation in his Volvo roughly 14 years ago.
When the pandemic hit, it spurred “a major explosion for us, in multiple ways,” he said.
Not only were Denver-area residents in greater need of support, but businesses that donate food to the nonprofit suddenly had a much greater surplus. We Don’t Waste became inundated with donations, as shuttered restaurants and food suppliers had nowhere to sell their products.
As inflation and restrictions on SNAP benefits followed up the pandemic, the number of people relying on We Don’t Waste climbed more, Preblud said.
The organization hosts eight farmers market-style events a month so that people “can shop with dignity,” instead of being handed a sack of groceries with no choice in what they receive, he said. On average, the nonprofit is serving 320 families, with an average household size of six people, at each market.
“There is where we see the demand,” Preblud said of attendance at the markets. “From the beginning of last year to now, the increase in our food markets has been about 65%.”
The 11,000-square-foot facility that We Don’t Waste has occupied since 2017 officially became too small, preventing the organization from meeting the growing need, Preblud said. His search for a new space began in earnest last spring.
“At that time, the market was really hot. So, every time we looked at a property, by the time we went back, it was gone,” Preblud said, adding the nonprofit often got beat out by cash buyers.
Finally, in August 2022, We Don’t Waste bought its new 30,000-square-foot food recovery and distribution hub for $4.75 million.
A market report from CBRE noted the industrial market was chugging along in 2022.
The Denver metro area saw $2.2 billion in industrial property sales volume in 2022, according to a fourth-quarter report, which was down 16.3% from record levels in 2021, as investors weighed the risks posed by climbing interest rates. Still, industrial prices have been steadily rising in the past decade. The average price per square foot for owner/user sales was $172.39 in 2022, a 7.7% jump from the 2021 average, according to CBRE.
Earlier this month, CBRE Vice President Monica Wiley used the new We Don’t Waste site as a comparable sale when pricing another property. Wiley works closely with nonprofit organizations and specializes in property sales.
The owner-user market has sustained strong demand across sectors despite the pandemic, she said, and, even with higher interest rates, most buyers are cash buyers. Properties can sell “before a sign ever goes up,” and last year CBRE saw “several competing offers on listings.”
“If I were giving advice, I would tell any organization to start early. A lot of times, we will look at least a year out from when their lease might be up,” she said.
That’s exactly what Preblud did, said Russell Gruber, the broker who represented We Don’t Waste while it searched for its new location and helped the nonprofit find its previous lease. Preblud is a forward thinker and was in contact with him to gauge market conditions roughly a year before they found the new building, Gruber said.
When they seriously launched the search, the market was “a blast” for brokers but frustrating for buyers, who “really had to be ready to rock and roll,” he said.
“At the time, interest rates were at historic lows and everybody was coming off of COVID with a lot of extra capital, so it was extremely competitive,” he said. “You’d look at a building and it would be under contract before you finished your tour.”
Preblud was looking for what a lot of other buyers were — a space between 20,000 and 50,000 square feet, and amid supply constraints, he said.
Most developers are building industrial space at 100,000 square feet or more and finding space at 50,000 square feet is one of the sector’s biggest ongoing challenges, Gruber said.
We Don’t Waste made the right move by buying instead of finding a new lease, Gruber said. With the number of renovations the nonprofit needed, a lease did not make sense.
Gruber is also a supporter of We Don’t Waste’s mission, and he is eager to see how it can grow as an organization in the new building — which will look much different by the time We Don’t Waste’s renovations are done.
“I hope more and more people link up with them, donate, support in any way they can,” he said.
We Don’t Waste quietly launched a fundraising campaign in January to raise capital for moving costs. By the end of October, it had raised roughly $4.2 million and hopes to secure the final $1.8 million of its $6 million goal in the next year.
Renovations are underway and will likely ring in between $2.5 million and $3 million once finished, but the gleaming new hub at 6090 E. 39th Ave. is nearly complete. We Don’t Waste expects to move in with all its 23 staff and operational equipment before the month’s end.
The renovation project has involved moving the building’s main entrance, blowing out the office space into an open concept, building the nonprofit staff’s first real breakroom — an upgrade from “an area” currently considered a breakroom at the old space, Preblud said with a laugh — and lockers for the volunteers who come and go.
Other renovations are geared toward appealing to new workforce trends and employees’ increasing desire for quality of life and work-life balance, Preblud said. A quiet room will support nursing staff and volunteers, or those who need a spot to rest, and the renovated bathrooms now have showers to accommodate employees who want to bike to work or take a lunchtime jog.
The new board room has a wall of windows overlooking the hub’s distribution floor so that board members and visitors can see the nonprofit in action.
The organization’s capacity to store and distribute food is expanding considerably.
We Don’t Waste is growing its freezer space from 420 square feet to 1,200 square feet. Cooler space is growing from 1,000 square feet to 1,500 square feet.
Instead of being forced to disseminate frozen foods when freezer space fills up, the organization will be able to hold more food and store it longer until the demand is there, Preblud said. The new center includes a dedicated classroom for the educational courses and school visits We Don’t Waste hosts and will one day include a prep kitchen.
For the first time, the organization has a climate-controlled garage, where it can park its four delivery trucks and load them without exposing staff to harsh weather conditions. There is a dock for 18-wheelers that cannot fit inside the garage, and an acre of undeveloped land adjacent to the center.
One day, if the nonprofit needs to expand its space again, it could build on that lot, Preblud said. Until then, the organization is considering running community gardens there and using them to educate neighboring residents about reducing food waste.
With the new space nearly complete, We Don’t Waste is also focusing on its long-term vision, which in a couple of years could include expanding beyond the Denver metro area, Preblud said. The nonprofit will be launching an app in the near future, too, that will connect donors with volunteers who can pick up their food.
Preblud, a retired attorney, started the nonprofit as a foodie looking to help restaurants reduce food waste. He never expected that one day he would employ nearly two dozen people and run the organization from a 30,000-square foot-building. But he’s not looking to slow down any time soon.
Two months ago, We Don’t Waste gave out its 200,000,000th serving, or about 70 million meals.
“That’s equal to 50,000 tons of food that we have kept out of a landfill,” he said. “Big number.”
PHOTOS BY TIMOTHY HURST, THE DENVER GAZETTE