Even the most cynical in our food culture — say the inventors of Jack in the Box's Exploding Cheesy Chicken Munchie Meal — have to concede that Americans care more about where their ingredients come from now than they did 20 years ago. Look at farmers markets: They've seen the kind of exponential, up-and-to-the-right growth that makes startup founders salivate. In 1994, there were about 1,700 farmers markets in the country, according to the USDA; today, there are more than 8,000. But this abundance has its limitations. Farmers markets require both farmers and shoppers to plan ahead and physically show up at a specific date and time, an increasingly onerous proposition in our on-demand world. And then there's the catch-22 that the more farmers markets there are in the city, the lower the attendance is at each one, making showing up a hard sell for farmers whose time is already stretched thin.
Over the past few years, a handful of tech-savvy food lovers have looked for ways to scale the farmers market model and develop what the USDA calls “food hubs,” aggregators of several small producers in one easy web portal. Some companies, like S.F.'s Good Eggs, replicate the supermarket online by offering a wide variety of local products — milk, cheese, produce, bread, baby food, fresh flowers — that are then delivered to customers' doors from a central warehouse. Others, like Luke's Local, are more focused on meals, offering boxes of ingredients organized by recipe to make dinnertime easier, or selling value-added products like marinated chicken breasts designed to appeal to busy families and professionals.
On the surface, AgLocal, which moved into the San Francisco market in 2013 after bumping around New York and Kansas City, looks like just another online food delivery website. It focuses on sustainably grown meat from a handful of farmers that the company has vetted via strict standards around the diet, medical treatment, and overall well-being of the animals. The meat is then delivered monthly to customers in a 5- to 14-pound subscription box.
A meat-specific riff on community-supported agriculture is nothing new. But if the company achieves its ultimate goal, it could present an intriguing model for online grocery stores: a way for big food-delivery companies like Walmart and Amazon to offer high-quality meat at scale without having to build the infrastructure themselves — and, importantly, allowing the corporations to offer customers an alternative to factory-farmed foods.
AgLocal founder Naithan Jones didn't start out with the idea of creating a “transparent API for meat,” as he describes his vision. (You know how Facebook “powers” comments on a lot of websites? That same functionality would apply here, except instead of comments, AgLocal would be “powering” a meat store on other, bigger food sites). At first, his company was business-to-business, focusing on sales to restaurants. That didn't work out, though, and last year AgLocal pivoted to focus on direct consumer sales. It just finished its second month of home delivery.
Initial offerings are limited to four monthly packages centered around how people will use the meat. The Grill Master package might deliver an assortment of frozen steaks, ground beef, kebabs, chicken breasts, and sausages; the Farmer's Pick package offers offal and other unusual cuts. The meat in the boxes comes from about a dozen local farms specializing in everything from grass-fed beef to free-range chickens. The farmers bring their frozen meat to AgLocal's cold-storage warehouse in S.F., where the boxes are assembled and shipped to customers.
The company has ambitious goals. Jones hopes to expand into a la carte inventory in the next few months, meaning that you could order one or two steaks or chickens at a time instead of a whole meatbox. As his business grows, Jones wants to form partnerships with big food delivery companies — the Walmarts and Amazons of the world — to provide a store-within-a-store that only sells sustainably raised meat.
Eventually, if all goes according to plan, the AgLocal stamp of approval on a farmer's business and animal-raising practices could mean something, like “organic” or “free-range.” And e-commerce retailers could boast about supporting the little guy without having to do any of the work required to do so.
Food hubs are great for discerning eaters because they offer a critical mass of local food in one place, but they're also great for farmers, who find some of the more bureaucratic tasks at odds with their mission to raise animals. “I never wanted to be a meat distributor. I wanted to be a farmer,” says Mark Pasternak of Devil's Gulch Ranch, a Marin farm that provides pork and rabbit to some of the Bay Area's best restaurants and sells at farmers markets. A hub like AgLocal helps small businessmen like Pasternak take some of the marketing and distribution off their plates.
Though he's been approached by other food hubs in the past, Pasternak says AgLocal is the first online business he's thrown his lot in with. He says that he was attracted by the company's values, which line up neatly with his own. His meat is pasture-raised and free of GMOs, hormones, antibiotics, and steroids. These attributes, and others like “family farm” and “heritage breeds,” are prominently displayed on his page on the AgLocal website, and he says the company personally came to his farm and verified that it was upholding the production values it claims to.
The high standards that AgLocal uses to source its meat are also what appealed to Matt Byrne, one of the family ranchers at SunFed Ranch. The Byrne family has been ranching its plot of land near Mount Shasta since its wagon train stopped there five generations ago, and in 2011 partnered with two other ranching families near Sacramento to create a collective to sell their grass-fed beef. SunFed works directly with small grocery stores and restaurants; this is also its first foray online. Byrne says he's happy to have his products in the box next to the other high-quality items. He's also happy to let AgLocal help him find customers who appreciate (and are willing to pay more for) his meat.
“It's nice to find people that are equally committed to the things that drive us day by day,” he says. “We can help grow their business, and vice versa, by reaching out to the right kind of customer. In a conventional market, the hit percentage might not be very high.”
AgLocal has a few major hurdles to clear before it becomes a plug-and-play meat source for the big online retailers. The company is in early days, and though Jones says that they have subscribers in eight states and their growth rate exceeds their churn rate, he's quick to acknowledge that the big growth — and tests that come with it — are still to come. It's possible that a big corporation like Amazon or Walmart could build a similar platform on its own. More than that, the company's initial subscription offering might be at odds with its base in San Francisco, a city where people live in cramped quarters, often share freezer space with roommates, and have daily access to excellent butcher shops in nearly every neighborhood.
But there's something to the idea of a network, like AgLocal or S.F.'s other food hubs, to help small farmers connect with customers that are looking for ingredients outside of the farm-industrial complex of the supermarket. This kind of shopping may be second nature in the Bay Area, but the real proof of concept will be when these companies scale outside of California, and reach places where the ideas of sustainability might have caught on, but where people don't necessarily have as much access to local family farms. Technology brings about a lot of developments that we haven't seen before, but this could be a first: resurrecting an older order of food production that could even — dare we say it — make the world a better place.