Christina McAlpin looked at the $5 billion national market for locally grown food and saw an opportunity. More small and medium-sized farms are producing food. More restaurants and other businesses want to buy it. But there was no platform to help them connect.
McAlpin, 36, set out to fill that niche last year by creating the Boise tech startup Direct Local Food. The company website, directlocalfood.com, provides an online platform for both growers and buyers to find business partners nearby.
The business, which McAlpin co-owns with Garrett Goldberg, has two employees and has grown from 100 customers in November 2013 to 2,600 today, including about 100 in and near the Treasure Valley. Local grower members including Homestead Natural Foods in Meridian and Rollingstone Chevre in Parma. Boise buyers include Locavore restaurant and Ridley's Family Markets.
So far, the site has provided its service for free. Starting this month, customers must pay a $28-per-month subscription to continue using some of the most attractive features, such as making payments online. McAlpin said she expects half of her members to become paid subscribers and for the company to continue expanding its customer list in the Valley and beyond.
Q: There's a story behind the creation of every company. What's yours?
A: I was working with a local food nonprofit in Boise. I heard stories of farmers trying to get their products in groceries and restaurants. I starting talking with chefs and grocery buyers that had to make 50 phone calls a week to source local food.
Q: What are the nuts and bolts of the business plan?
A: We plan to build Direct Local Food into the dominant online market for chefs and grocers to order local food. Farmers keep 100 percent of the revenue from sales through Direct Local Food. Instead, we offer free and premium versions of the site.
Q: How broad is your farmer and buyer network?
A: Our buyers are primarily restaurant owners and chefs, along with a small number of grocery buyers. Our farmers sell to local chefs and groceries and do their own deliveries. We hope to expand to have more grocery, plus school and hospital buyers. Our platform can also serve all-sized distributors and food hubs.
Q: What demand does your service fill?
A: The process of ordering local food is time intensive and complicated for the wholesale buyer. Farmers have limited time and resources for sales and marketing yet need to increase revenues from wholesale channels. We make ordering local food easy for chefs, grocers and other institutional buyers. This saves farmers time on marketing and sales, and frees them to concentrate on the hard work of farming or serving the end consumer.
Q: What's your background?
A: I grew up on a cattle farm in Virginia. I have a bachelor's in economics and a master's degree in public policy. I've always been interested in the intersection of the environment and the economy. After 15 years working on sustainability issues, Direct Local Food is the culmination of experience and passion for both sustainable agriculture and conservation.
Q: What do your growers and buyers have in common?
A: Both our farmer members and restaurant buyers are some of the hardest working people I've met. They inspire me to work hard not only by example, but because I feel a responsibility to provide a service that makes their jobs easier. We are striving to do that every day with product development and sales to create the marketplace.
Q: How did the trial run for the business work? What market factors were you looking at? What convinced you the business could be viable?
A: We launched our beta product in June 2013. We spent days and days walking around in 100-plus degrees at Boise farmers markets trying to convince farmers to sign up. Lee Rice (owner of Rice Family Farms in Meridian), a very well-respected farmer and great guy, finally agreed to sign up because, he said, "You guys are trying so hard, I'll help you out and give it a shot."
Once we got him and a few other leaders onboard, the sign-ups started flowing.
Edited for length and clarity.
Zach Kyle: 377-6464, Twitter: @IDS_zachkyle