Small-scale farmers and chefs have a common complaint: There just aren’t enough hours in the day. Chefs want to source food locally, but the farmer’s market isn’t the most convenient option, and contacting farmers individually eats up too much time. Farmers, meanwhile, want to sell directly to chefs and other wholesale buyers, but most don’t have the bandwidth to extensively market and distribute their products.
Environmental economist Christina McAlpin set out to create a new-school solution for this age-old problem. In 2013, she launched Direct Local Food, an online marketplace that makes it easy for wholesale buyers to find local food, place orders and schedule deliveries. After testing the platform in Boise, McAlpin is now working to build local networks nationally.
Entrepreneur spoke with McAlpin about how connecting farmers and foodies – and removing logistical barriers in the process – can bolster the food movement.
Entrepreneur: What inspired you to try to tackle the local food movement?
McAlpin: I’ve always interested in ways that business can benefit the environment and society, and the other way around. I was working on creating an indoor, year-round space for a farmer’s market, and through that I heard about the challenges wholesale buyers face in sourcing local food. Farmers work really long days and don’t have time to market their products. On the other side, chefs have to make 50 calls to check availability and place orders. It almost creates such a barrier that some chefs may be unlikely to buy local food. If they’re going to support local food, they need to do it in the least time-intensive way. The vision with Direct Local Food is to not only make it easier for people who are already buying local food but also make it so easy that more people will use more local food.
Entrepreneur: Why is traditional distribution not the best option for many farmers?
McAlpin: Food is traditionally distributed via distribution centers and large trucks. For example, before potatoes from Idaho to get into a chain grocery store in Idaho, they go to Salt Lake City to get distributed and then get trucked back up here. That means you need to pick sooner, need more sprays, there’s a bigger environmental impact. It also adds costs in the supply chain that aren’t beneficial to the farmer.
Entrepreneur: And the farmer’s market?
McAlpin: I love going to the farmers market. It’s a wonderful experience. Sometimes you don’t have time for an experience, especially if you’re a chef.
Entrepreneur: The local food market hasn’t exactly embraced e-commerce, in part because of the logistics of distributing fresh food. Why do you think this model can work?
McAlpin: I spent a lot of time talking with farmers and buyers about how they do business and how they could see this working. What I heard loud and clear was: ‘We really like our relationships. It’s why we do what we do. We love being connected.’ People love how food connects them and how doing business in food connects them. With that in mind, we built platform so there is full visibility of phone numbers. They can call if they have questions and even call to place an order. We had to change our whole business model [from fee-based to membership-based] in order to support that.
Entrepreneur: What other changes did you make?
McAlpin: We de-emphasized email links because chefs and farmers aren’t on their computers all day. People said it might be two or three days before they checked email. They’re more likely to be on their phones, so calling, texting and mobile apps are a better option. We’re working on apps for this coming summer.
Entrepreneur: Your beta in Boise was successful, but how will you roll this out nationally?
McAlpin: Because of the way we’re approaching the business model, not taking commission and offering free memberships to farmers, we’re connecting with people across the country who are volunteering to help us spread the word. Our customers want to be connected.
Entrepreneur: Given what you’ve learned about your customers, how have you personally changed how you communicate with them?
McAlpin: I think the best time to connect with someone is when they want to connect with you. That sounds flippant, but I mean it. I see customer support as my number one tool for staying connected, because that’s when they need to speak with me. That’s the number one thing when I’m organizing my work. When they contact me I get right back, and I always try to pick up the phone when it rings.