Buying locally has become an important trend in the foodservice world. The food comes straight from the farm, so it's fresher, and in season. But the biggest reason? Customers are now demanding it.
FarmersWeb is a new website that makes it easier for foodservice operators to get everything that's in season in the Tri-State area. The site brings farms and buyers together for a wide variety of crops and foods that are produced here, according to Jennifer Goggin, CEO and co-founder.
“We were fortunate to have started at a time when the trend was growing,” she says. “We thought the service would be useful and necessary but didn't realize it would become such a hot topic!”
FarmersWeb was formed in January of 2011 and customers were able to start purchasing about a year later.
“One of my other co-founders and I used to work at a local food distributor,” Goggin explains. “While we were there, we noticed there was no real way for farmers to connect directly with the end purchaser to get their products out to market. Most farms have their own truck, or can contract with a driver. They don't need a distributor who takes such a high mark-up. The demand was there for local products, but there was no way to get them to restaurants efficiently. We noticed the lack of connection and thought, we could build a tool to allow that to happen automatically and efficiently.”
FarmersWeb was born.
It's simple for buyers to take advantage of the website. “It's very straightforward,” she says. “Create an account on our site, click “Join,” give us your name, contact information and delivery address, and right from there, you can go shopping.”
Buyers can search for products, browse by category, and if they have a favorite farm, they can simply go to that profile and see what's available. Once you've found what you're looking for, you put it in your cart and checkout is easy.
“The system will automatically show delivery date options, and any order minimums,” Goggin says. “We've automated the whole checkout process. Once you place your order, the farm confirms the order, picks and packs it, then delivers it. It's like any e-commerce site for buyers but it's tailored to the wholesale buyer buying food in bulk.”
On the farm side, there's now a wait list. “We've had a lot of interest on the farm side,” she says. “There are currently 30-35 farms on our site and many more on the wait list. To join the wait list, farms have to tell us where they are and the product categories they sell,. When our demand exceeds the supply, we go to the wait list to find somebody else who has apples, let's say, and then that farm can join the system. All it takes is for them to fill out their profile, their inventory, their prices and how many of each are available and then their delivery setting. That's it.”
Once the information is all in the system, farmers become an active seller on the site and buyers can purchase from them.
“We have a full range of products that are grown, or produced in this area – meat providers, produce growers, dairy, eggs, pantry items like honey, maple syrup. We have everything you could want that's available here,” says Goggin.
The benefits for foodservice operators are many. “Creating a connection benefits the operator, and, as a buyer, it's a much easier way to discover new producers near you and what's in season,” she points out. “If you're not using FarmersWeb, you're either going to farmers' markets, which are a very small representation of all the producers available in this region, or searching on Google but a lot of farms aren't easily found that way. And a listing on Google can't always tell you if the farm's retail or wholesale. You have to essentially start calling around and that takes time. We're putting it all on one platform to make it a lot easier to find what you're looking for.”
Goggin says foodservice operators really like the one point-of-contact. “They are used to calling their distributor and saying, I want 50 different items, and the distributor takes care of it in one shot.”
Buyers really like buying from the farms, she adds. “The items are being picked and packed for them, and it's a much fresher product. It hasn't been sitting in a warehouse. The producer knows how to handle the items. The farmer who grew it is putting it on the truck. It's all going to be handled in a much better way.”
Producers benefit because it's an easier way to be discovered. “We highlight them on the site, and when we add a new item, we have our 'what's new' carousel to showcase it. They can more efficiently manage their business and it's an easier way for farms to publicize their availability list, to capture every order in one place and then easily pack the items from this one system. The record keeping is all taken care of for them, and at the same time, it's getting them new customers. A win-win.”
FarmersWeb takes commissions from the farms, though it will soon roll out a version of the software that will charge a monthly fee instead. “It doesn't cost anything to join. We just take a commission on the farm side for each sale,” she says. “It's all free for foodservice operators.”
Distribution is regional, mostly the tristate area, Goggin notes. “Most of our buyers are clustered in New York City and its suburbs – Westchester, New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut. We have a 250-mile radius for our farms. The hub is Manhattan.”
But there are plans to go national. “We’ll allow farms to link their Facebook page or link to their page on FarmersWeb so they can use it with their own customers anywhere in the nation,” she says. “That will help us get a national footprint going.”
FarmersWeb services restaurants, caterers, schools, retail stores and offices that have a cafeteria.
“This trend is being driven by consumer demand, as most things are. People are becoming more aware of what they're eating, what's in it, how it's grown, what it means to think about where your food comes from, stemming from health or environmental concerns, or even economic ones, from the community-building perspective. Shopping local makes sure the dollars stay in the community. That's become important to people,” Goggin says.
The fact that consumers show a willingness to vote with their dollars, to go to places that source responsibly and showcase the farms that they work with to get that direct connection, is what makes operators want to deal with FarmersWeb, she says. “The industry is responding. This is what diners want.”
Word-of-mouth has been the primary way FarmersWeb has been marketing itself. “We do some social media, mostly on the farm side,” Goggin says. “We had relationships with lots of farms before we started this. The farms would tell other farms, or we'd go to them and say we need a goat cheese producer, and they'd say, yes, there's one down the road. We grew it pretty organically.”
On the foodservice side, the whole team reached out, she says. “If we went out to eat, we talked to chefs. Once we got a critical mass going, it was all word-of-mouth. We've had little articles here and there. The world is starting to learn about us.”