Sunday, March 27, 2022

‘Forager’ for organic grocery store cultivates opportunities – The Washington Post

By Holly Prestidge, Richmond Times-Dispatch | AP,

RICHMOND, Va. — The smell of grassy, earthy spring onions wafted through the hoop house at Broadfork Farm earlier this month as Janet Aardema pulled the hearty bulbs out of the ground, jolting them awake from their winter slumber. She collected bunches at a time and bound them with rubber bands, then threw them into crates before washing them.

As she worked, Dan Lamprecht looked out over meticulous rows of leafy young turnips and radishes, colorful mixed lettuces and spinach, knowing some of these hearty goodies will be coming his way.

Lamprecht is the purchasing director at Ellwood Thompson’s, Richmond’s iconic organic grocery store. Unofficially, however, he’s known as the Ellwood Thompson’s “forager.”

Unlike national grocery stores where inventory largely comes to them from distributors and vendors, finding the unique, locally produced organic and certified naturally grown items that line Ellwood Thompson’s shelves or chill in its refrigerated cases often begins with a conversation, a chance meeting, maybe even a mention of someone making or growing something really special.

In other words, it starts with a relationship.

According to the USDA, small organic farms like Broadfork make up roughly 89% of all U.S. farms, but account for only 21% of overall agricultural production nationwide.

Organic food sales, however, have taken off. In 2020, according to the more recent data from the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic food rose more than 12% to reach $62 million that year, the highest sales in more than a decade. By comparison, overall U.S. food sales grew by about 5%.

Each sale starts somewhere. There are personalities and stories — real people — behind each head of broccoli, each container of salsa, each wedge of cheese Lamprecht finds. He searches them out and cultivates those relationships — pun intended — until products reach the store and, eventually, happy customers.

Lamprecht came to Virginia from Wisconsin seven years ago for the Ellwood job. Prior to arriving here, he worked as a purchasing director and then an organic produce category manager for larger chains. He admits, though, that the only times he ever came in contact with fresh fruits and vegetables in his previous job were in the salads he brought for lunch.

It was a desk job. He wanted to be where the wild things are.

For Lamprecht, foraging means getting out and making connections with farmers who often have never considered wholesale opportunities and have no idea where to start. Last year, for example, he worked with nearly 80 farms, ranchers and egg suppliers to bring the products to the store. But he worked with roughly 50 more, he said, who were in the early stages of thinking about wholesale.

Selling products in a grocery store is worlds apart from selling at farmers markets and farm stands, he explained as he walked Broadfork Farm, a 5-acre certified naturally grown farm located at 9501 Deer Range Road in the Moseley area of Chesterfield County. The farm produces roughly 40 to 50 items, from tomatoes and leafy salad greens, to microgreens, herbs and even some flowers. Aardema’s husband and co-owner, Dan Gagnon, also specializes in old-fashioned, hearth-baked bread.

At farmers markets, “you’ve got the story to tell,” he said, referring to the personal interactions among sellers and their customers. “People are almost there as entertainment — they’re not thinking about the money they’re spending.”

But “once they’re in a grocery store, they’re thinking about their budget, they’re thinking about their dinner … the errands they have to run right after,” Lamprecht said. “They’re in and out — they have a lot going on and there’s no time … to tell a story.”

Often, Lamprecht says he’s the first contact for growers and producers who want to sell their items at Ellwood Thompson’s. It’s his job to help those people get their products ready for an environment in which “now their product is up there against all these other products.”

That includes providing insight and help with product labels and pricing, then when agreements are reached, making sure Ellwood Thompson’s is set up for ordering, payments and more.

“What everyone wants to do is to be able to start somewhere,” Lamprecht said. “You can’t survive off a one-source business so we help them.”

It’s both gratifying and challenging, he said. Hearing people’s stories and seeing their efforts turn into real profit-making ventures is the best part. The vast majority of Ellwood Thompson’s inventory has been sourced within 100 miles of its doorstep.

“I’m out there looking all the time,” he said, noting that he happened to see an unfamiliar product while visiting Broadfork — a fermented kraut product that Aardema sells for someone else in her farm stand on the property — and it piqued his interest. And that’s how it happens, he said. He often gets ideas by talking with regulars to see what they’re doing, what’s new, and if they know anyone else they could recommend.

In his role, he also helps farmers and growers navigate the wholesale process, which can be a steep learning curve for small, independent entities that are only used to selling directly to customers at markets.

“The biggest hurdle is always the idea of wholesale pricing,” Lamprecht said. He and staff don’t try to negotiate down with local farmers and producers.

“We do that on purpose because we’re really trying to help them make a go of it,” he continued. But Ellwood Thompson’s is a business, too. They can’t buy goods at farm stand prices, he said, so working with farmers and producers to find that sweet spot that benefits everyone takes some finesse.

Where they’re used to selling on Saturdays at markets, or sporadically throughout the week at their farm stands, “the beauty of wholesale,” he said, “is that we got a farm stand that’s open 70 hours a week.”


For Aardema and Gagnon, this is their 12th year in business. They’ve been working with Ellwood Thompson’s since about 2014.

They met Lamprecht through Real Local RVA, an entity established by independent grocers — Ellwood Thompson’s, Good Foods Grocery and Libbie Market — as well as others as a way to bring independent producers together with stores, restaurants and others to lift up and strengthen economic and educational opportunities for all.

Gagnon recalls being intimidated at first by the idea of wholesale.

He remembered thinking, “We don’t know what we’re doing — we’re just starting,’” he said. They assumed that a wholesale opportunity was out for them, because they are farm stand-centric, meaning they sell most of what they grow directly to customers.

“We’re small, we’re inconsistent — we assumed they’d only work with people who’d been in the game,” Gagnon said.

That changed, however, after talking with Ellwood Thompson’s and realizing that people like Lamprecht are eager for their produce and are experienced in working with small farmers like them.

As Aardema pulled the spring onions, she said wholesale makes up about 5% of their overall revenue.

“It’s an important piece of the pie,” she said. “It’s a small one, but it’s an important one.”

There are some items — the salad greens, for example — that they produce in larger quantities because they want their customers to have them year-round and accessible from as many points as possible, she said. That’s where Ellwood Thompson’s comes in, she said.

It also helps to have a wholesale outlet when, for example, a hurricane — or a freak March snowstorm — comes rolling through and farmers markets are closed. They can quickly pivot by asking Ellwood Thompson’s if the store can handle the goods they can’t sell at the market.

“It is important that a farm like ours sells most of what we grow directly to the consumer — we’re a tiny farm so it makes sense to sell at that retail price,” Aardema said. “But there are certain crops and certain times when the right fit is with a small local grocery store.”

from WordPress

No comments:

Post a Comment