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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Produce Delivery Service Aggregates Farmers Market Online for Urban Consumers

November 5, 2012 |

Meet the future of retail grocery shopping: SPUD, which stands for Sustainable Produce Urban Delivery. The company provides you with a means to buy organic, locally sourced, guaranteed-tasty, weekly groceries, without adding a microgram to your carbon footprint.

It’s like your local Farmers Market pulls up stakes and sets up camp on your front lawn, except that you only have to glance at your computer to make your selections, and everything might cost a little bit less. No drive to a crowded market, no aimless search for that elusive parking spot, no struggle to keep a toddler in his stroller or worry about a suddenly-missing six-year-old, no trudging up three flights of stairs three hours later, laden with reusable grocery bags and said toddler.

SPUD was launched in 1997 with the goal, CEO Peter van Stolk says, of getting the freshest possible organic produce, meats, dairy products and baked goods to his customers’ doors, without any contribution on their part to further pollution of the planet through driving, parking or disposal of retail grocery packaging materials.

“I believe this is the next step in the evolution of everyday grocery shopping,” van Stolk said. “You get better food that is organic and more healthful, it’s better for the environment, and it gives the consumer more time free from shopping.”

SPUD first launched in Vancouver and its market success led the company to open additional branches throughout Canada, and then expand southward to Seattle, San Francisco and L.A.

“When you go to a traditional grocery store, like a Vons or a Kroger’s, everything there has a shelf life of 30 days, van Stolk said. “Even Whole Foods’ can only guarantee 18 days. With us, everything you receive is at your table no more than nine days after it was picked.”

The virtual grocery store operates strictly online. Customers sign in, fill out an order form and accept a weekly or bi-weekly delivery. You can select a Fresh Harvest Box filled with the week’s best field offerings or customize your delivery. SPUD also offers organic and sustainably farmed local meats, dairy products and baked goods.

Just about everything in SPUD-Los Angeles’ inventory, for example, comes from local farmers, from Oceanside to Salinas (the exception would be organic bananas that come from a Fair Trade farmer in Peru). Local, sustainably farmed poultry might come from a farm in Ventura. Baked goods are delivered daily to SPUD’s Carson, California warehouse from a popular local bakery.

And how does an international company, with operations in cities up and down the coast, aggregate vendors, maintain a warehouse inventory of 100 different items and manage the online technical demands to accommodate such a thriving business?

“One, we have excellent IT people,” van Stolk said. “I love the technology behind assembling harvest boxes for a thousand customers. There’s a lot of code to write and manage. We get 24-hour turn around from our farmers. And two, we have very capable local buyers who know the local farmers and suppliers. It’s their negotiations that make sure we keep getting the freshest produce. A vendor for us is only as useful as the quality of his last delivery.”

In fact, a district’s local SPUD buyer is given a lot of leeway to find and negotiate best prices with vendors – some 50 different farmers in L.A. – and customers are always told where their harvest is sourced. This insures quality product and timely deliveries. Many of the vendors are found at weekly Farmers Markets, which is fine with van Stolk.

“We love Farmers Markets and don’t view them as competition,” van Stolk said. “If you have the time and means for that type of shopping experience, it’s cool. But that means driving, parking and use of your time, and it increases your carbon footprint. We want to move away from that. Our niche is to aggregate a Farmers Market for you online.”

Van Stolk says that when you (the consumer) take into account that SPUD doesn’t charge for delivery, you don’t pay for gas or parking and the time you free up can be used more productively, costs for shopping with SPUD are lower than at Farmers Markets. He said one of the bigger challenges is getting past customers’ skepticism of buying produce that they haven’t physically selected themselves.

“But people buy shoes online from Zappos without trying them on,” he said.

“It’s just a matter of changing norms. Whatever you get from us is guaranteed 100 percent to your liking. Our QC people know that it’s got to be good enough for Grandma.”

SPUD’s business model is profitable enough for van Stolk to see ongoing future expansion.

“I sort of see the SPUD model making healthy, local food the norm in everyday shopping,” van Stolk said. “Food is the next frontier. The cheap crap we’re eating now is killing us with obesity and heart disease. SPUD can generate a conversation about organic and local food. But it’s also a huge convenience for the consumer.”

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