While the most hospitable territory for food startups is certainly California, New York is host to its own burgeoning food movement. We spoke with three startups, in different stages of warming up to the New York food scene, that combine their expertise in the digital space with a passion for food. Striving to make local and nutritious food more accessible, they are sparking consumer demand for local food in ways not seen in a century.
Collectively, Good Eggs, Farmigo and Urbavour aim to disrupt certain themes in American food production and consumption. In place of the current system, these startups propose:
- Full transparency in terms of where food comes from, who makes it and what is involved in its harvesting process;
- Mitigation of packaging and food waste, as Americans waste over 40 percent of edible food; and
- Reintegration of community and person-to-person interaction into patterns of food production, purchasing and consumption.
These are the shared values of the local food movement, but there are differences in the ways each company tackles and prioritizes them.
Farmigo: Democratization through decentralization
Farmigo democratizes food distribution by decentralizing it, empowering individuals to set up food communities in their neighborhoods where farmers drop off and consumers pick up. Farmigo’s mission has always been “to ensure that farmers who believed in sustainable agriculture could also have sustainable businesses,” explains co-founder Benzi Ronen. Originally, Farmigo tackled this goal by providing logistics management software and Internet marketing tools to sell directly to consumers.
Leveraging these relationships with growers, Farmigo shifted to a service that allows farmers to sell to pre-arranged food communities directly. These models allow farmers to cut down on waste: They know how many buyers they will have and thus how much food to harvest.
“We aim to replace the cold supermarket experience with community interactions around nutritious eating,” Ronen says. “And our story is really about people we call “champions,” those individuals who sign up to start food communities and who, in turn, earn 10 percent of their community’s sales. More and more, what Ronen calls “people-powered farmers markets” are popping up at offices, libraries, religious and community institutions, even stores and schools, bringing with them new relationships between neighbors.
Good Eggs: Not just the growers, but the makers, too
Also originally a tech company that supported farmers with management software, Good Eggs realized that there was an “opportunity to leverage our existing network of producers and put them on an online platform and help with distribution,” explains Josh Morgenthau, Brooklyn Community Lead. This innovative approach similarly facilitates community-building around food, but Good Eggs’ e-commerce platform serves a different priority: making convenient food that is made and grown in an environmentally conscious and safe way.
Adapting to local cuisines and food traditions, Good Eggs’ site showcases local food makers (from nutmilk makers to biscotti and quiche chefs) and food growers, whose wares can be ordered on a one-time or ongoing basis. Currently, Good Eggs has established markets in Brooklyn, the Bay Area, New Orleans and Los Angeles. The company decides to open in new markets based on “crowdsourcing,” said Morgenthau: “There’s a comment box on the website where users can add their own neighborhood or places where they would like to see Good Eggs operate.” Once there are enough requests to sustain orders, Good Eggs sets up shop in that region.
As opposed to Fresh Direct’s excessive packaging, Good Eggs delivers re-usable and returnable wrapping, so that when consumers receive a delivery they can return it to Good Eggs to pack their next order. Tackling the issue of food waste in one business model, farmers harvest all foods to order.
In a few months, Good Eggs Brooklyn will relocate from Williamsburg to the old Pfizer building in East Williamsburg, which Acumen Capital Partners has begun to lease space to local food businesses, creating a kind of incubator for collaboration across the industry.
Urbavour: The ethos of going local
Not yet in its beta version, Urbavour plans to capitalize on New Yorkers’ already-established eating habits: Although there exists a growing cooking culture, New Yorkers tend to eat out more than they eat in. To have the most impact on sourcing, Urbavour will target restaurants, hotels and other institutions to partner with local farmers, helping to elevate farmers’ earnings: According to co-founder Coleman Skeeter, farmers “earn only 25 cents per every dollar spent on their food.”
Skeeter says that Urbavour defines local as “anything within a 24-hour driving distance,” (a definition that Whole Foods also employs) while “hyper-local” food comes from within 100 miles. The major driver for consumers, Skeeter surmises, is local food’s ethos. “Even if it’s less convenient,” he says, “consumers want the sense that their food is made in a way that’s respectful to people and planet.” Working with third parties such as restaurants and hotels allows them to “pass along” this value proposition to consumers and begin to integrate the values of local food into their own brand identities.
Growing a sustainable future for local food
Challenges in the New York market revolve around seasonality: Our winters severely limit what can be grown and harvested. This obstacle incentivizes broadening the definition of “local” temporarily, including farmers further south that might not be eligible during the summer months when New York farmers have substantial harvests. Good Eggs and Urbavour have, to a certain extent, built their business models around these obstacles because they involve food makers, not just growers, but all three startups seek to be year-round services.
Businesses don’t like to tie their successes or failures to nature and its weather patterns, so companies like Bright Farms and Gotham Greens are introducing aquaponics and green houses to the mainstream, season-proofing for fresh, local food on a massive scale.
Perhaps the way around seasonality for startups such as Good Eggs, Farmigo and Urbavour is to partly source from sustainable farmers and partly source from aquaponic and greenhouse alternatives, instead of offering consumers no choice but to abandon the local food cause in the off season. As the young companies face their first northeast winter, their capabilities for innovation will be tested against consumer demand for fresh food a full twelve months of the year.