Tech Startup Brings Transparency to Food System with Online Tools to Track Food from Farm to Table
December 23, 2011 | Jessica Vernabe
Select any item on Jacksonville, Fla.-based Bistro AIX’s online menu and you can trace which farm or producer the ingredients came from. With a few more clicks on the food source’s profile, you can even learn more about what the grower does and the practices used in raising the animal or crop.
This service is provided to Bistro Aix and more than 60 other restaurants across the nation by Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Real Time Farms, an online food guide that gives consumers the tools they need to track their food from farm to table. The goal is to bring transparency to a food system that can often mystify consumers with vague terminology such as “farm fresh” and “all-natural,” said Cara Rosaen, who founded the company this year with her husband, Karl Rosaen.
“What does that mean? That’s just a word,” said Cara, whose title is co-founder and director of vegetable outreach. “With Real Time Farms, you know what that means because you can follow every ingredient back and learn all the information that you want to know. It’s really just a story-telling tool.”
While the Real Time Farms’ paying customer base is in the restaurant sector—allowing the restaurants to offer Real Time Farms’ online, interactive menu sourcing directly through their own Web sites—the company also offers a massive online database, which is free for the public. It currently has information logged for about 3,200 farms, 1,600 artisans and 6,900 farmers markets, along with 64 restaurants, according to Karl.
A consumer simply has to enter a zip code on Real Time Farms’ Web site to find entries from each category in his or her area. The entries include information such as the entity’s name and address, descriptions of its products, background information, product photos and other entities it is associated with. The Web site currently has about 32,000 photos and 11,000 menu items posted, Karl said.
Dave Eagleton, owner of Immerfrost Farm in Stephenson, Mich., said he heard about Real Time Farms about a year ago and that he found it to be a valuable marketing tool for farmers.
“Perhaps (farmers) are too small to have their own Web site. Perhaps they’re not even Web-enabled,” Eagleton said. “The crowd-sourcing feature of their photos allow anyone to take a picture of them, whether it’s at the farmers market or … at their farm.”
Eagleton, who is in a rural area in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, said he believes his Real Time Farms profile helps spread the word about his farm, particularly to city dwellers who pass through the area when heading to weekend cabin trips. Real Time Farms also served as a research tool when he was considering joining a local farmers market, he said.
“I could tell what their other vendors specialized in and I was a perfect fit for their market,” he said.
On the restaurant end, clients say Real Time Farms helps them be more transparent with their customers. Sarah Marie Johnston, marketing director and restaurant partner for Bistro Aix, said the French-Mediterranean-inspired restaurant is able to highlight fact that it currently gets about 70 percent of its ingredients from farms in its local area.
“We know what our sourcing is, but the hardest part is getting that information to the interested consumer,” Johnston said. “They (Real Time Farms) have created a very useful tool (and) a very powerful tool that allows us to share that information that we’re excited about in a really dynamic way.”
On its Web site, Real Time Farms touts a vision to “collectively document the whole food system.” The Rosaens admit that it’s a big job for a small startup—the company consists of a core team of six employees and a large team of interns—but they’re ready to take on the challenge. They said they’re approaching the goal slowly and incorporating various partners, such as agriculture and farmers market organizations, to spread the word about what they do.
Karl and Cara Rosaen, who have been married for six years, say they never thought they would be running a business together. Karl, 31, graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in computer engineering and landed a job at Google in Mountain View, Calif. Cara, 30, graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in holistic and atomistic approaches to health. She went on to graduate school for a few years to become a phsychotherapist, but she decided to pursue other interests. She ended up starting two companies selling jewelry and used books online.
However, the Rosaens said that books they were reading made them realize there was a problem with the current food system and how food was being sourced. Karl was reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, and Cara was reading “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver.
Karl said he wanted to establish his own tech startup and originally considered starting one that would help farms sell their product to the rest of the food system. However, he soon realized the logistics were much too overwhelming for a small startup. That’s when he came up with another idea.
“By talking to a lot of people, it became apparent how many great options there already are available, whether it’s through CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture groups) or restaurants that are really doing a great job of carefully getting (food) directly from farmers,” Karl said. “I thought, ‘What if we could just shine a light on what’s already going well in the food system, making it easier for consumers to sort through all this great information.”
After narrowing down the business idea from the end of 2010 through early 2011, the business formally launched in April 2011. Karl said he and Cara used to get up at 6 a.m. on Saturday mornings and would visit about five or six farmers market by the end of the day. At each market, they would talk to about 20 and 30 vendors, taking photos of their products, he said. Next, the couple started reaching out to restaurants, building up a clientele base of 10 restaurants in different parts of the country by May.
This summer, the company partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to swap information from their databases so both sides could have more complete data. That brought Real Time Farms’ nationwide farmers market count from about 3,185 to about 6,000, Karl said.
As for other partnerships, Real Time Farms has teamed with groups such as American Farmland Trust. The company has offered discount packages for group members and fundraiser winners to promote its services.
Real Time Farms eventually added other staff members, with one of them having been with the company almost since the beginning, the Rosaens said. They also started the company’s Food Warriors program, which is an educational program that recruits interns in various cities throughout the United States to visit farms and food producers. The interns document the food producers’ products and methods through writing, photos and videos.
Cara and Karl say they hope to expand their paying customer base into other sectors, such as dining services for universities, hospitals, residential facilities and other outlets. As for restaurants, the company hopes to have at least 200 of them on their client list by mid-2012. However, Karl said that could happen sooner if the company is able to secure some larger partnerships. That would help the company, which is just starting to break even financially, become more profitable.
“We just want to make enough to have these six people (our employees) make a really good living and just continue to be able to do what we’re doing,” Cara said.