It's 6:45 on a cool September morning, and in a family garage in North Raleigh, a group of stay-at-home moms sort through hundreds of boxes labeled "EAT YOUR VEGGIES!" from the back of a mover's truck. The boxes contain plenty of produce aisle mainstays—apples and eggplants—plus offbeat fare, such as tiny personal-size watermelons, hydroponic lettuce and tubs of fresh-churned butter. By the time their kids head for school, they'll have triple-checked every box for quality and accuracy, before delivering them to homes throughout the Triangle.
The women are part of The Produce Box, an organization of more than 200 stay-at-home moms who provide home-delivered produce year-round in the Triangle, Triad and Wilmington. It's one of several companies that specialize in direct delivery from local farms to subscribers, eliminating the middlemen of grocery stores and farmers markets.
"We're going from the farmer to the table," says Bobby Hilburn, owner of Raleigh's DoorStep Produce, which he started after leaving his position as executive director of the LGBT Center in Raleigh. "A lot of people really like the convenience of it, and that we're trying to support our local community. And some people just like the idea that if a box comes, they will eat it, which tends to cause them to make healthier choices. One woman said she had three children under 7 who got excited each week as they tried to figure out what salad they were going to make out of the box."
Like a Netflix for food, these services require customers to sign up for a plan online, sometimes picking themed boxes for salads, baking and the like. Every week, new local products, ranging from produce to meat and poultry, dairy and even pastas, pastries and breads, are posted online, allowing customers to customize their deliveries. The boxes are then brought to your home or workplace.
The process requires a considerable amount of coordination for the business owners, who must work to meet customer requests, even when their vendors are trying to move an excess crop. "Every Friday when we're building our boxes, we're looking at what the farmers need to harvest and what we know the members want," says Courtney Tellefsen, The Produce Box's owner and founder.
Tellefsen started The Produce Box because as a mother of two children under age 5, "the reality of taking two young children to the farmers market was much different than I had envisioned." She set up a customer base through a Yahoo group for her neighborhood and contacted vendors through the farmers market.
"We're serving two masters, in that we're not completely customer-driven, we're farm-centered as well," Tellefsen says. "It's always a juggling act, advocating for the farmers versus advocating for what the customers might want."
The services offer farmers opportunities to reach a new customer base. Brian Richardson, owner and operator of Stone Ridge Farm Market in Zebulon, has worked with The Produce Box for about two years. He regularly sells through them such produce as squash, zucchini, bell peppers, cabbage, collard greens, green beans, cantaloupes and tomatoes. Last year, he sold 200,000 sweet onions through the delivery service. He calls them "a great group of people to work with."
Stone Ridge Farm Market continues to use roadside stands and farmers markets, but Richardson says the quality of vegetables and fruits of The Produce Box is comparable to those venues.
"It's basically as fresh as if you got it at a roadside market or a farmers market," he says. "If you ship it to the food chains, it can sit in a warehouse and sit there for four or five days, and it can be like eight days before it reaches the shelf. We just want our product to look good and arrive to the consumer as quickly as we can get it there."
"The idea is really to fill the void between going to the farmers market or purchasing directly from a farmer or CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) group, where individuals buy a share of a farm's seasonal harvest," says Rob Meyer of the Cary-based Papa Spud's, who was inspired to create his business after working with Ecuadorian street-produce vendors during his time in the Peace Corps.
"Generally, in that model, you're going to get what the farmer has. If he has turnips and rutabagas and beets, you're going to get turnips and rutabagas and beets," Meyer says. "Some people love that, and some people don't. Some might have kids, for example, and want something that's more kid-friendly."
On a recent Friday morning, the women of Produce Box are trying to determine how to parcel out some unpopular Scuppernong grapes. Customers complain about them even when they're put in boxes for free. Often subscribers are displeased with free squash. "People are sometimes more specific about what they don't want in their boxes," Hilburn says. "Some people just won't eat beets, no matter how often we try to get them in their boxes."
Since the produce comes directly from the field, it doesn't resemble the photos of ripe, bright fruits and vegetables in advertisements. This morning, the Produce Box workers are particularly proud of a crop of red-wine-colored heirloom tomatoes, few of which are perfectly round. Meyer calls this challenge "bridging customer expectations with the reality of agriculture."
"When the focus is on local agriculture with farmers small-to-medium size who don't necessarily do things the way a massive farming operation out of California would do things, you're going to see a difference between their product and the produce you find in a grocery store, which is usually from those giant farming centers," Meyer says. "A local farmer is focused more on proper ripeness, maybe less focused on aesthetics."
Tellefsen is just as blunt: "You're letting us pick your produce. People might have their idea of what a perfect apple looks like, but do they understand that that apple was grown on a tree in Henderson and there was a windstorm three weeks ago? There's definitely some education for members on what their expectations should be."
But the difficulties have paid off. The Produce Box received a $25,000 Big Break for Small Businesses award from American Express and Facebook in 2012, and has given away 2,000 boxes programs that support low-income families, along with $20,000 in cash to help farmers cover capital expenses.
And as The Produce Box's truck heads out into the chilly morning, Tellefsen reflects on how much the business has grown in just five years: "I thought I'd just deliver produce to my friends and neighbors and keep a box for myself. But the bigger this has gotten, the more I've realized we can really be a voice in the community and make a difference."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Knock, knock."