Reflecting

Every once in a while, something you read stops you in your tracks and makes you reflect and really think. Does this happen to you?

A long time customer, Idaho’s Bounty Cooperative, recently wrote a letter to their stakeholders that illustrates so much of what our movement is wrestling with as we try to take steps toward long term financial sustainability. I found the letter very refreshing to read, as it very honestly communicates the need to continually evolve and the sometimes painful, unpopular decisions required to grow and become profitable.

Undoubtedly, the conversations and decisions that preceded the letter were very difficult for staff, board, and producers. Big changes are often unpleasant in the short term. Adjusting your business model and streamlining supply are hard decisions when you know your customers and producers personally. Finding the right mix of having a diversity of sales channels while not spreading your resources too thin is a very difficult balance to find in local food. Although I certainly wish that Idaho’s Bounty (and others facing similar situations) weren’t forced to make these decisions, I find it incredibly hopeful that the conversations and decisions are happening. By moving beyond the exciting, charged startup phase of local food, we can find success.

We consider it a huge honor to support our customers on their journey from startup to mature business. As LFM has evolved the last 7+ years, we have continually shifted more of our resources to providing technology that helps our customers cultivate and maintain long term, profitable relationships with their customers and producers. Since releasing our brand new shopping interface with loads of new features this spring, we have turned our energy to improving the order process, invoices, payment collection, and cash flow. We’ve had several minor releases over the summer and look for another, more substantial one in the next couple of weeks.

Want to learn more? Contact us to setup a web meeting!

Version 4.0 – a completely updated customer shopping experience!

LFM turns 7 and releases a completely updated customer shopping experience!

As we celebrate turning 7, we are excited that LFM customer sites can implement our brand new customer shopping experience.  Here are some of the features:

  • Customer Weekly overview to see all available delivery days and all orders they have placed each week
  • Manage and edit their order throughout the ordering period
  • Edit their order from the mobile app or the web storefront
  • Promo codes
  • Single step order confirmation
  • Improved navigation with new filtering options

If you are interested in learning more, please contact us.

ShoppingHome

Customer Profile: Central Mass Locavore

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Photo Courtesy Central Mass Locavore

If you ask Jacki Hildreth about the genesis of her thriving business, she made the obvious analogy to a common kitchen staple. “It’s like peeling back the layers of an onion”. Jacki’s lifelong love of local food began working in her parent’s backyard garden and enjoying the bounty. In the early days of her relationship with her husband Tim, they often dreamt of one day owning their own food truck. Her husband’s two-time battle with cancer, now fully in remission, required that they put the best possible food on their family’s table. Their pursuit of healthy local food had them traveling all across Massachusetts just to pick up the best CSA box they could find. They also got plenty of encouragement from her brother in law, fresh off a once in a lifetime experience playing hockey in Switzerland, whom suggested they adopt some of the food practices he saw across Europe.

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Photo Courtesy Laura Theis-Local Food Marketplace

All of these “ingredients” combined to push Jacki and Tim towards planning and opening Central Mass Locavore; a local food home delivery service based in Westminster, Mass. They focus as much as possible on organic, local products, but also include some made with non-certified, sustainable methods. Keeping true to her roots, the storefront prominently features a weekly CSA style box, full of local, seasonal items. After speaking with a local developer who quoted them a hefty price tag to set up a shopping page, Jacki and Tim worked with our team at Local Food Marketplace to get their website and market up and running and have been working with us ever since. After beginning with nothing more than weekly boxes, they have since expanded to offer a la carte items such as eggs, prepared foods, cheeses, and meats. They offer home delivery to nearly all of their customers for the added personal touch.

When Jacki and Tim decided to jump into this venture Jacki explains that it was a “little like the blind leading the blind”. They had little to no business experience and her knowledge was based on her online research. She quickly found that between her busy family life, her career as a nurse, and the new business there wasn’t enough hours in the day to make everything happen. “Trying to get everything done in time and learning that you can’t fit 10 pounds of potatoes in a 5-pound bag was one of our first revelations”. Their biggest hurdles were finding out and working through the legal paperwork and as with most small startups, capital. There were the usual setbacks, and sometimes it felt like two steps forward and then one step back. Jacki is self admittedly the risk taker in her family, and while sometimes that can be cause for alarm, she says that in this instance it was a great thing that helped them take the leap of faith. If she could pass along one piece of advice for a home business she recommends checking zoning requirements.

After operating for a few months, the team was feeling as though they were getting busier and busier, but not working smoothly. They had already run into the small bumps in the road that any new business working with small local producers encounters. “Tim would get to the farm to pick up product only to find that it wasn’t available. This gave me sometimes a 1-2 hour window to find a replacement. We quickly learned which producers would be our core suppliers that could be counted on and who were the farmers flying by the seat of their pants.” They quickly learned that local agriculture is constantly shifting, and thinking on your feet to find supply solutions is a critical part of their operation. “Nobody is dying” quickly became a mantra that their team embraced. Even their packing team of retired Corrections Officers were learning on the fly. “These guys knew what a carrot and potato was, but everything else was complete guesswork for them. You should have seen the situation with the Broccoli Romanesco.”

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Photo Courtesy Central Mass Locavore

Jacki and Tim took time to re-evaluate what they were doing and at that time realized that they needed to not only add and expand their business, but use their time wiser. “You aren’t going to get more hours in the day, so you need to work smarter, not harder”. They took time to evaluate the parts of the business that were taking up a disproportionate amount of time and restructure the weeks workflow to fit them better. “We had a few customers in the beginning who were really excited, but because of our limitations, we were delivering their orders as late as 9pm. Those customers left and haven’t come back.” They reorganized their work week, added some new modules to their LFM set up, and asked for and received a lot of support from family and friends. Jacki is quick to point out that without this needed support she would have a hard time doing what they do. Today Central Mass Locavore is as busy as they have ever been and they are gearing up for a wild holiday season.

“Local Food Marketplace has been an invaluable tool for our business. We literally could not do what we do without it.” Jacki is quick to point out that LFM is not only a technology that helps her business operate, but acts as a mentor for her to ask questions and bounce ideas off of. “Working with LFM is a whole package, not just software. It is straightforward and easy to use, the personal support is there for me when I need it, no matter how small an issue is to them, they understand that it may be a big deal to us and offer help accordingly.” Jacki found the technology by looking at one of her flagship producers, Caroline Pam at the Kitchen Garden Farm, and loved how clean it looked and its ease of use from the customer side. “The price point is there, the support and tools are there, and the customer service can’t be beat.”

Jacki and Tim hope to continue to grow and add more delivery areas. They have explored wholesale sales, however it isn’t a priority right now as Jacki reiterates that their main mission is to “Bring healthy food to the people” and home delivery is where their heart is. They plan to add on to their work space over the next few months roughly doubling their storage and adding a walk in cooler. If all goes as planned, they hope to someday open a storefront and add the kitchen that they dreamt about when they were cooking together on their first few dates.

We asked Jacki for any advice she might offer to anyone who is currently planning or starting their own food business. At first she said “Remember, even when you have your doubts, keep going. Don’t give up” and then she remembered a phrase often uttered by superiors in her days as a nurse. “If you do the right thing by the customer, you can never be wrong”.

3.3_Mandrill

Announcing our newest release, Version 3.3!

We recently released our third update of 2015, Version 3.3. We are very excited to add new features to help our customers streamline processes during what is the typically the busiest time of the year. Here is a preview of the nearly three dozen feature updates:

Email Dashboard Integration

Our customers are now able to access all of their market email message history within LFM. Customers can easily see message sent status as well as whether the email has been opened for all emails sent through LFM.

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Push Message Dashboard

For our customers that use our white label mobile app, they are now able to search their push message history with information on date, number of targeted devices, and success rate.

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For current customers, if you have not received the release notes for version 3.3, check your dashboard or contact us.

Introduction to Pivot Tables

Food hubs provide a wide range of services, requiring different metrics to measure their success. Many food hubs also receive funding from private foundations, the USDA, and investors that demand measurability and accountability on a wide variety of factors. Long ago, we realized that we would never be able to create an out of the box report that provides information required for reporting to funders, summed the way they request. Instead, we provide comprehensive data exports that can be filtered and summarized with spreadsheet tools like Pivot Tables.

Pivot table

Often times, when we mention Pivot Tables, our customer’s eyes glaze over (at least that’s what we imagine on the other end of the phone!). We’re here to break it down for you and make them a bit less intimidating. While we can’t provide follow-up training and support for Pivot Tables and other spreadsheet functions, we are holding a webinar to introduce you to ways you might use your LFM data and Pivot Tables to gain insight for your food hub.

Join us for a short, customer-only webinar on an introduction on using Pivot Tables with LFM data, on Wednesday, May 27 at 10am PT. Space is limited, so sign up today!

Announcing our newest release, Version 3.1

We are excited to announce the release of our newest update, Version 3.1.  This release includes dozens of new features and enhancements to help LFM customers enter their busiest season equipped to maximize their sales!  As we often do in our spring release, we focused our efforts on the “little things” that make a big difference.

We did include a couple of “big” items too.  Version 3.1 features the commercial release of our Quickbooks Online API module that seamlessly exports sales from LFM into Quickbooks Online, broken down by Chart of Accounts.  We also incorporated enhancements to the newly released Production Planning module based on customer feedback – including an improved interface for faster entry of plans and management of pre-orders.

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LFM customers – please contact us to receive a link to our training webinar or to receive a copy of the Release Notes!

What food hubs can learn from farmers markets

If you are a local food geek like me, you probably read the LA Times article,  Has the Farmers Market Movement Peaked?, or the NPR piece, Are Farmers Market Sales Peaking? That Might Be Good For FarmersBoth of these pieces suggest that the rapid expansion of farmers markets has bubbled and sales at farmers markets are declining.

This begs the questions – what does this trend mean for the local food movement as a whole? And, what does this mean for food hubs?

Farmers markets sales trends and the local food movement

Many farmers markets across the country have experienced a noticeable decline in attendance and sales, yet more people than ever want local food .  Is this decline an indication that the local food movement “jumped the shark” or is there something else contributing to the decline? I assert, as have others, that the trend speaks more to the emergence of other models to make local food MORE available, accessible, and convenient to the more people.

Local food is indeed, growing up. Farmers markets will always have a place in the local food community. However, I’ve talked with many farmers, and while they enjoy working a market periodically, the labor and cost of attending them each and every week can be prohibitive.  Farmers markets offer a unique marketing experience that is difficult to duplicate, but they take producers away from what they are good at – farming. Thus, producers are exploring ways to grow and sustain profitable businesses.

While farmers markets have seen a leveling off of sales, intermediaries, such as food hubs and similar collaborative efforts, are growing in leaps and bounds. Local food is going mainstream!  From 2007 until 2012 the number of food hubs in the US has nearly tripled, and continues to grow today.

These trends suggest that food hubs have gained growth by taking sales from farmers markets, which is likely true to some extent, but food hub sales volume is largely being driven by grocers, co-ops, schools, and institutions.  The ability for these businesses to order from multiple producers, get one delivery, and a single invoice is making a difference in the operational effectiveness for producers and buyers alike. Food hubs have the staff, transportation, facilities and overall infrastructure to increase efficiency without increased cost.

 

So, what can food hubs learn from recent farmers market trends?

The growth that farmers markets saw over the last decade shares some characteristics with the tech bubble of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s (minus the billions of venture capital funding, of course!). There was unbridled growth; every city, town, and even some individual neighborhoods started their own market.   Not long ago, the USDA was issuing press releases about the dramatic growth of farmers markets.  So, what happened and how can food hubs avoid the same fate?

  •  Much of the growth was based on a “build it and they will come” strategy, without regard to a financially sustainable business model, or available supply.  Many markets were planned without consulting producers and were used as a way to gain foot traffic to nearby businesses.

Lesson learned:  Ensure that a food hub will fill a critical market demand and that it meets the needs of customers, producers, and other key stakeholders.  Many food hubs create feasibility studies and business plans to better understand and quantify the risks, competition, and required infrastructure to support long term growth.

  • Some markets (new and long standing) struggled to find enough producers to fill their stands.  In many cases, this is directly related to a lack of customers shopping at the market.  But some successful, long standing markets essentially outstripped their supply.

Lesson learned:  The emphasis on planning, particularly production planning, cannot be overstated when starting and operating a hub. Almost all food hubs suffer from a lack of supply and thus, maximizing the use and increasing supply is paramount.  Food hubs should not only be planning for the upcoming year at hand, but for the future. What kind of support or training do your producers require to reach future goals?

  • Farmers markets rely heavily on a fairly homogeneous core group of customers. While that group has diversified slowly over time, the over saturation of markets cannibalized each other without identifying and serving different customer segments.

Lesson learned:  Successful food hubs should look to diversify their sales channels. For example, a hub that relies heavily on restaurants, particularly high-end restaurants, risk their sales with economic downturns.  Similarly, a hub that focuses only on schools and other institutions are exposed to political and regulatory shifts. Diversification of your customer base can keep things steady with the evolving market and regulatory environment.

What this means for the future?

Taking a hard look at long term financial stability and prosperity is especially vital given the influx of funding and resources that have recently become available to food hubs and aggregators through USDA’s Local Food Promotion Program and other sources.   With this funding, food hubs have the opportunity to make tremendous gains for local food – but they can only do so if they are around to reach their mission.

 

 

LFM’s Mobile app: “As easy as ordering from a large scale distributor”

Chef Matt Louis of Moxy Restaurant in Portsmouth, NH inspects his produce.   Photo credit:  Emily Corwin, New Hampshire Public Radio

Chef Matt Louis of Moxy Restaurant in Portsmouth, NH inspects his produce.
Photo credit: Emily Corwin, New Hampshire Public Radio

This past winter, in between snowstorms in the Northeast, I managed to sneak in a visit with Andre Cantelmo of Heron Pond Farm and Josh Jennings of Meadow’s Mirth Farm.  They were in the process of putting together a producer cooperative, along with another farm, Kate Donald of Stout Oak Farm and were looking for a streamlined way for their customers (mostly restaurants) to place orders via mobile device.  They had been delivering individually to restaurants and knew how much chefs relied on their mobile phone to communicate with them.  Their goal was to streamline the order management process for their cooperative while making it convenient for their customers to order.

Fast forward about 7 months and their cooperative is up and running and serving dozens of restaurants in the Seacoast region.  New Hampshire Public Radio accompanied them on deliveries to several customers a few weeks ago and interviewed several chefs, including Chef Ryan LeBossiere of  Flatbread Company in Portsmouth, NH.  Ryan perfectly summed up why LFM provides custom ecommerce mobile apps for our customers:

 

“I can do this order while I’m walking down the stairs to get chicken from the freezer. The app makes sourcing locally as easy as buying from a large-scale distributor.”

 

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Several years ago when we began thinking about a mobile app, the primary target users were consumers.  But as we started talking to our customers, we heard story after story of chefs sending them texts to place or update their orders.  More than a year after we launched our first mobile app, it is clear that many chefs, like Ryan, appreciate the convenience of ordering from their mobile phone or tablet. The app helps LFM customers connect with chefs seeking locally-sourced food without the hassle of “juggling phone and email orders.”  Some food hubs that serve restaurants, like Three River and Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance, receive 30-40% of their orders via mobile app.

LFM currently has published 25 customized and branded mobile apps to the Google Play Store and Apple App Store.  The apps integrate seamlessly with the rest of LFM’s food hub management technology  including planning, order, and distribution management.