Startup Seeks to Build Better Farmers Market By Providing Year Round Online Access to Food
July 15, 2013 | Melonie Magruder
What if you had access to a fresh farmers market seven days a week, knew exactly what they would be offering so that you can plan your meals, were able to contact your preferred vendors with a shopping list and could pay for everything in advance, with your fresh veggies being delivered directly to your door?
That’s exactly what Antony Lee, founder and CEO of Fresh Nation, has put together.
“The idea was to build a network of farmers markets across the country so that it’s a win for the vendors and a win for the customers,” Lee said. “We don’t necessarily need more farmers markets, we need better farmers markets.”
In another step toward an internet-driven shopping experience for people wanting to buy their food fresh and locally, Fresh Nation launched an internet platform that connects shoppers with burgeoning numbers of markets within a community (you simply need to input your zip code to find a list of every farmers market within 10 miles of your home).
At the same time, vendors are given a free page for their business profile (Fresh Nation only charges the 3.5% transaction fee that goes to the credit card companies for purchases). Customers can shop and pay online, then pick up their produce at the market without waiting or have them delivered directly (for a flat $5.95 fee). Farmers can virtually meet their customers and customers can troll the list of vendors to find the best price for organic arugula or track down duck eggs from a free-range ranch.
“My original thought was to open a chain of farmers markets in shopping centers,” Lee said. “People who shop at farmers markets are usually better educated about their food so the difficulty wasn’t in converting customers. It was in making a system appropriate for vendors and markets that helped their business increase and foster a better market experience.”
With a strong technology background, Lee figured he was the one to create it. Originally from London, Lee calls himself a “confirmed Americaphile” and gained his U.S. citizenship in 1997. He’s been involved in E-commerce since the mid 90s, but left the tech world in early 2011 when he realized he was just “fed up with numbers and had a passion for” the fresh and local experience. He operates Fresh Nation from his base in Stamford, Connecticut, but has set up a network of some 2,000 farmers markets and 4,000 vendors across the country.
The platform is simple because, as Lee said, farmers have better things to do than spend time in front of a computer. Fresh Nation gives you the online presence and virtual shopping cart for customers to make purchases, vendors to update their weekly and seasonal offerings and Fresh Nation promotes their business to local restaurants as well as individual shoppers.
In fact, one of the next revenue-generating options will feature local restaurants that tout their fresh and local suppliers. They establish a page on the Fresh Nation site and, with one click, the restaurants connect with a host of new customers who care about where their food comes from.
As vendors find new customers, thanks to the ease of clicking on the Fresh Nation site, Lee sees his company expanding its revenue streams and its brand. And branding is what Lee believes will make Fresh Nation a viable national entity.
“One of our first deals was with Sears’ ‘Shop Your Way’ program,” Lee said. “They have two million visitors to their website each month. We partnered with them to offer reward points for purchases made on Fresh Nation. The customer gets great fresh food and points for other purchases.”
Lee doesn’t shy away from a bigger image for Fresh Nation. He envisions signing up “sustainability sponsors” for local farmers markets, noting that those entities don’t really make any profit. He wants to change that paradigm so that local farmers markets can operate as profitable businesses.
“There’s never been one group or organization to represent farmers markets,” Lee said. “They sort of operate individually, without any economy of scale. But let’s say we get corporate sponsors for farmers markets, companies that are identified with a healthful or sustainable life style. Maybe Toyota Prius or Chevy Volt.”
Vendors are finding the ease of connectivity with their consumers to be a boon for their business. Ox Hollow Farm is a family-run farm in Litchfield, Connecticut. For more than 30 years, they have raised free-range, grass-fed cattle, pigs, sheep and chickens.
Traditionally, they marketed their products through area farmers markets and CSA’s or directly to local restaurants. Stephanie O’Donnell, spokeswoman for Ox Hollow, said the convenience of Fresh Nation’s shopping site that incorporates 21st century tools has only helped them expand their reach.
“Customers become aware of what we can offer seasonally, so they end up trying something they’ve never had before,” O’Donnell said. “We just pack up the order, deliver it to Fresh Nation and they get it to the customer. They can get eggs laid yesterday or lamb shanks that were just processed.”
For the future, Lee sees there are still 6,000 farmers markets in the U.S. to sign up.
“We’re using a communications system to bring people to environmentally responsible shopping,” Lee said. “It’s the model for a nation.