‘Forager’ for an organic grocery store cultivates opportunities | Economic news
HOLLY PRESTIDGE Richmond Times-Dispatch
RICHMOND – 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 from the ground, abruptly awakening them from their winter slumber. She collected bunches at a time and tied them with rubber bands, then threw them into crates before washing them.
As she worked, Dan Lamprecht gazed at meticulous rows of leafy baby turnips and radishes, colorful mixed lettuces and spinach, knowing that some of those hearty treats would come her way.
Lamprecht is the purchasing manager at Ellwood Thompson’s, Richmond’s signature organic grocery store. Unofficially, however, he is known as Ellwood Thompson’s “forager”.
Unlike national grocery stores where their inventory comes largely 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 starts with a conversation, a chance encounter, maybe even a mention of someone making or growing something really special.
People also read…
In other words, it starts with a relationship.
According to the USDA, small organic farms like Broadfork make up about 89% of all US farms, but only account for 21% of overall agricultural production nationwide.
Organic food sales, however, have taken off. In 2020, according to the most recent data from the Organic Trade Association, organic food sales rose more than 12% to $62 million that year, the highest sales in more than a year. decade. In comparison, overall food sales in the United States increased by about 5%.
Every sale starts somewhere. There are personalities and stories – real people – behind every head of broccoli, every container of salsa, every piece of cheese Lamprecht finds. He seeks them out and cultivates those relationships – pun intended – until the products hit the store and, eventually, happy customers.
Lamprecht came to Virginia from Wisconsin seven years ago for Ellwood’s job. Before coming here, he worked as a purchasing manager and later as a category manager of organic products for larger chains. He admits, however, that the only times he came into 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, searching for food means getting out and connecting with farmers who often have never considered wholesale opportunities and don’t know where to start. Last year, for example, he worked with nearly 80 farms, breeders and egg suppliers to bring produce to the store. But he worked with about 50 others, he said, who were in the early stages of wholesale thinking.
Selling produce at a grocery store is a world apart from selling at farmers’ markets and farm stands, he explained as he walked to 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 around 40-50 items, ranging from tomatoes and leafy salads to microgreens, herbs, and even some flowers. Aardema’s husband and co-owner, Dan Gagnon, also specializes in old-fashioned baked bread.
At farmers’ markets, “you have the story to tell,” he said, referring to the personal interactions between vendors and their customers. “People are almost there for entertainment – they don’t think about the money they spend.”
But “once they’re in a grocery store, they think about their budget, they think about their dinner…the groceries they have to run right after,” Lamprecht said. “They come and go – they have a lot to do and there’s no time…to tell a story.”
Often, Lamprecht says he is the first contact for growers and producers who want to sell their wares at Ellwood Thompson. It is his job to help these people prepare their products for an environment in which “now their product is on par with all these other products”.
This includes providing information and assistance with product labels and pricing, then, when agreements are made, ensuring Ellwood Thompson is set up for orders, payments and more.
“What everyone wants to do is be able to start somewhere,” Lamprecht said. “You can’t survive with a single-source business, so we’re helping them.”
It’s both rewarding and challenging, he says. Hearing people’s stories and seeing their efforts turn into real money-making businesses is the best part. The vast majority of Ellwood Thompson’s inventory comes from within a 100 mile radius of its doorstep.
“I’m out there looking all the time,” he said, noting that he had seen an unknown product during his visit to Broadfork – a fermented kraut product that Aardema is selling for someone. else in his farm stand on the property – and that piqued his interest. And that’s how it goes, he says. He often comes up with ideas by talking to regulars to see what they’re up to, what’s new, and if they know anyone else they could recommend.
In his role, he also helps farmers and producers navigate the wholesaling process, which can be a steep learning curve for small independent entities that are only used to selling directly to customers in markets. .
“The biggest hurdle is always the idea of a wholesale price,” Lamprecht said. He and the staff do not try to negotiate with local farmers and producers.
“We do it on purpose because we’re really trying to help them succeed,” he continued. But Ellwood Thompson’s is also a business. They can’t buy goods at farm gate prices, he said, so working with farmers and growers to find that sweet spot that benefits everyone takes some finesse.
Where they usually sell on Saturdays at markets, or sporadically throughout the week at their farm stalls, “the beauty of wholesaling,” he said, “is that we have a stand at the farm which is open 70 hours a week”.
For Aardema and Gagnon, this is their 12th year in business. They have been working with Ellwood Thompson since around 2014.
They met Lamprecht through Real Local RVA, an entity created 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 shops, restaurants and others to uplift and strengthen the economy and educational opportunities for all.
Gagnon remembers being initially intimidated by the idea of wholesale.
He remembers thinking, “We don’t know what we’re doing, we’re just getting started,” he said. They assumed there was a wholesale opportunity because they are farm-focused, which means they sell most of what they grow directly to customers.
“We’re small, we’re inconsistent – we assumed they would only work with people who had been in the game,” Gagnon said.
That changed, however, after talking with Ellwood Thompson and realizing that people like Lamprecht are hungry for their produce and used to working with small farmers like them.
While Aardema pulls spring onions, they said wholesale accounts for around 5% of their overall revenue.
“It’s a big piece of the pie,” she said. “It’s small, but it’s important.”
There are certain items – green salads, for example – that they produce in larger quantities because they want their customers to have them all year round and be accessible from as many points as possible, a- she declared. That’s where Ellwood Thompson comes in, she says.
It’s also useful to have a wholesale outlet when, say, a hurricane – or freak snowstorm in March – hits and farmers’ markets are closed. They can quickly pivot asking Ellwood Thompson’s if the store can handle the goods they can’t sell at the market.
“It’s important that a farm like ours sells most of what we grow directly to the consumer – we’re a small farm, so it makes sense to sell at this retail price,” Aardema said. “But there are certain cultures and certain times when the right fit is with a small, local grocery store.”