At Urban Rural Nexus, Food Distributor in Colorado Makes Connections that Grow the Local Food Marketplace
September 24, 2013 | Melonie Magruder
To Elizabeth Mozer, owner/operator of Loco Foods distribution in Ft. Collins, Colorado, it’s all about connections.
Back when she was running the Lyric Cinema Café, she made a conscious choice to make sure her café was stocked with the same kinds of foods she would pack for her children’s lunches – something fresh, healthful and, most importantly, local.
“We were sort of a glorified concession stand,” Mozer said. “But we believe in supporting our local farmers. And where we’re located, somewhere between urban and rural, you can find a lot of farms.”
Not that it was easy. Mozer would have to pack on some mileage to locate everything they needed. Finally, after years of running around to assemble favorite local products, she thought she saw a business opportunity. Whereas individual consumers could visit local farmers markets, independent businesses – small grocers, restaurants, schools – didn’t have the wherewithal to devote to that kind of shopping.
So in 2011, she bought a van, started canvassing local business owners and set up a distribution service from farmers directly to wholesale consumers. The idea caught on in the tri-county area.
“We started with non-perishables like grains and beans, all from local farmers and producers,” Mozer said. “Then we added cheeses and produce and meats. People thought it was a great idea.”
As an economic engine for change, the business model is very neighborhood-friendly. Mozer figures her distribution circle encompasses about 400 miles. And for each dollar she spends, it is re-spent about seven times within the local economy. Some suppliers deliver directly to her, some products she picks up.
Produce, in this elevated location is “icing on our year-round cake,” Mozer said – some grown in greenhouses. So she focuses on food items that range from pastured chicken to organic applesauce – all featured in a catalogue that includes some 2500 products.
Mozer and team found new suppliers through the Colorado Market Maker, launched by the state’s Department of Agriculture. Though she tries to attract as much organic product as she can, she says the goal is to stay local.
“Our Western slope has phenomenal peaches,” Mozer said. “We’re also known for black beans and pinto beans. There is a growing consciousness, from rural areas to the big cities on not just what we eat, but where it comes from. Food purchased within the community benefits the community.”
Not that she doesn’t run into glitches. That would be most days, she says cheerfully, and it trains the team for some advance planning. Logistics include how to enforce minimum orders with smaller vendors and making sure that deliveries meet morning cut-off deadlines for chain grocers.
“We’re into our third year now,” Mozer said. “We joke that we’re going to be brilliant soon because we learn so much everyday.”
Loco Foods maintains a team of “Food Specialists” to run outreach efforts – local managers with a wide range of accounts (restaurants, grocers, schools, hospitals, universities, etc) who set up regular deliveries of Loco Foods. Vendors who buy into the idea of changing the food dialogue in the country can find a lot they like: gluten free and certified organic options, local processing and packaging, freshly dressed meats and poultry, fair trade products (for items like coffee and tea that just don’t grow in Colorado) and pledges for conservation easement. These products come from farms and ranches that voluntarily agree to keep their land from being developed by giving up their valuable development rights.
Rogue Edwards is the owner of Bolder Beans, near Boulder, Colorado. He buys from local farmers during the season and sources from “U.S. only” suppliers out of season. He also does all his packaging and processing locally. He said that his 18-month business relationship with Loco Foods has only enhanced his bottom line.
“Before, I was doing deliveries myself all over the region,” Edwards said. “If I had a client an hour-and-a-half drive away, I had to figure in three hours a day that this one client would take from me for deliveries. With Loco Foods, I can give them my deliveries, then spend the next three hours looking for new accounts.”
Edwards estimates that before he started working with Loco Foods, he serviced perhaps 25 to 30 accounts. Now, he supplies more than 140.
Mozer believes this is the kind of symbiotic relationship that will keep Loco Foods financially viable.
“We’re very close to being profitable,” she said. “It’s a volume game. But with our consistent margins and people’s growing desire to eat locally, we’re ready to go!”
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