As a New Yorker, I rarely attend events in parts of New York that are not-Manhattan, but when Farmigo invited us to come see their new offices, attend the #FoodHackers meetup that they were hosting – then provided transportation to and from Manhattan – ok, that last part did tip the balance.
Farmigo is a farm-to-table food delivery service based on group purchasing:
Farmigo users are grouped together by neighborhood, with everyone ordering online and picking up their freshly-harvested orders at a designated community pick-up point each week – which is a win for both local food producers as well as customers.
Speaking of Manhattan, sorry, guys, but we’re not Farmigo’s target customer base. It’s not that we’re excluded. It’s just that green markets, farmers markets and organic produce markets are more ubiquitous in Manhattan than they are elsewhere.
“We’re community makers,” said Benzi Ronen, the company’s founder and CEO. “As an entrepreneur, you always want to have a huge impact. We want to bring local food to the mass market, and build communities We’re first and foremost a company that brings together communities.”
And nothing brings communities together like food. Especially when it’s cheaper, all locally grown and all fresh, he added.
Every great idea starts with a personal story, and Ronen’s is no different. Farmigo started life as a cloud-based software for CSAs, replacing the usual paperwork and ledgers farmers had to deal with. That part of the business never changed, but when Ronen moved to Park Slope, where he knew no one and least of all, his neighbors, he opened a new arm of the business – the farm-to-table delivery service – and it was a game-changer for him and his family, personally, and neighbors in the New York and San Francisco area who also subscribe to Farmigo.
“We started a Farmigo community – now we know everyone.”
Not only did he connect farmers to neighbors: he connected neighbors to each other and everyone to a better way to eat. When neighbors would gather to pick up their orders from the designated coordinator, it became a social occasion: Farmigoans began share recipes, exchange dishes – and got to know each other. Community became – communities..
“When Point Lookout was hit by (Hurricane) Sandy one woman started a farmigo community. Paula Lightfood in Westchester told me that her husband does poker on Wednesdays. She does Farmigo.‘”
While local New York crops may be seasonal, Farmigo is not.
“We get produce from year-round hot houses, flash freezing. We also work with fishermen, bakers…it’s not all fruits and vegetables,” Ronen pointed out. “One of our farmers sends his people to Florida, where he has a farm there. As long as we can source directly from the farms. We have to expand off-season. The more local, the better.”
It’s a model that’s better suited to the suburbs and areas where you don’t have ready or easy access to fresh food, Ronen suggested.
“It’s a new kind of economy,” Ronan continued. “A sharing economy, based on collaborative consumption. Live aggregated buying power has economic impact. And it’s the next phase of group assembly.“
From the perspective of someone who was very much on terra incognita in Gowanis, Brooklyn does qualify as a suburb of Manhattan.
The new office opened in May, a five thousand foot space two miles from the company’s warehouse in Red Hook, where the farmers bring their produce each week. And as Jay Lee, Farmigo’s Head of Community noted, now that he lives and works in Brooklyn, he rarely gets into the city anymore.
Ronen himself was born and ‘raised’ in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village – and Tel Aviv, Michigan, Seattle, San Francisco and Palo Alto. It’s no wonder that, now that he has a family of his own, he literally wants to put down roots.
Farmigo is not Ronen’s first startup. That was Octago, which he co-founded in 2000 and which was a recruitment management system. Of course, that was around the time when the first tech bubble burst and not a lot of companies were hiring.
What entrepreneur doesn’t face adversity, which was the theme of #FoodHackers (Through the Fire), which Farmigo hosted, inviting four local food entrepreneurs to share their stories and experiences about working in the New York City food world and discuss how their personal trials by fire, and what they learned from it.
Brian Leventhal Co-Founder and CEO of Brooklyn Winery
Favorite Foods: Bagels with a schmeer. All Jewish foods, including gefilte fish, “the hot dog of fish”
Talk about trial by fire, Leventhal was living in Brooklyn and walking to the winery one morning when he noticed fire trucks there – and 30-40 firemen on ladders going straight up to his roof.
“One of the scariest things for a business owner is watching them unravel the fire hose, suited up and tearing down your walls.”
Well, one wall, anyway. The insulation in a wall adjoining the winery had caught fire.
Not good when hosting events accounts for 75% of the income for your business, not to mention the fact that they’d just started hosting weddings, too, which became their largest demographic (“the first time we were asked if we hosted weddings, I said sure, figuring that we’d figure it out”).
“We were hosing a wedding that evening,” he added.
The fire department left at 11 and with the bride arriving at 4, there was nothing to do but head to Home Depot for power tools and dry wall.
“The firemen tear down, but they don’t rebuild.”
With everyone pitching in, the wall went back up (“it looked pretty damn good!”) and inspired Leventhal to believe that he could get through any adversity.
Guess he figured it out after all.
Erin Fairbanks Executive Director at Heritage Radio Networks
Favorite Food: Fairbanks, who grew up in Michigan, still puffs twice, rubs the apple on her thigh to polish it, then puffs again before eating it.
When you grow up in Michigan – at least in Fairbanks’s case – you dream of having an exciting life, and that means moving to New York City, where she wanted to work in the restaurant business. Of course, the only job she was qualified for was coat check, and that wasn’t quite what she had in mind. “I’ll peel carrots! I’ll do anything!” she begged. It worked. Before too long, Fairbanks was a line cook at the renowned Manhattan restaurant, Gramercy Tavern. From there, she went on to become Director of the Farm Camp at the Flying Pigs Farm in Upstate NY. Tale of woe: she was invited to a cassoulet cook off among a group of renowned chefs and thought it was her moment to shine. And take the culinary world by storm. It was one of those times when everything that could go wrong, did go wrong in the preparation stage (farm grown peas, cooked to perfection – then refrigerated too quickly; they fermented. And that was just for starters). Sometimes, best to focus on your work rather than your visions of grandeur. She did turn up to the competition – and claimed to be as clueless as everyone else as to why the cook from Flying Pigs Farm was a no-show. She did, however, find her place in the food world: she’s the Executive Director at Heritage Radio Networks, committed to archiving, protecting, and advancing America’s food culture.
Alison Cayne (Speaker); Founder and Owner of Haven’s Kitchen
Favorite Food: “Bread other people think is cardboard, tempura sauce, avocado on anything, sesame seeds on anything. Kombucha is gross”
Cayne never planned on being an entrepreneur. She married young, had lots of babies, she liked cooking. And wasn’t everyone cooking? If not, why weren’t they? Cayne realized that it was because they were scared. They didn’t know the name of that purple root thing, much less know what to do with it. Ok, since she’d always dreamt of a food community where people could learn about, prepare, and share delicious food that sustains people, our environment, and our local economy, she decided to start her own cooking school, right in the heart of New York City. A bit starry-eyed, maybe, and building a business is hard enough. Building out a building, especially in NYC, where everything is regulated beyond belief – is a challenge unto itself.
“I rented a 6,000 square foot space, for a cooking school and café,” she said. A few people signed up here and there, but it was a rather large space. In Manhattan. And all she saw was the small amount coming in.
“If you aren’t making money, you’re losing money,” she advised. “I didn’t know that.
The toilet broke, and the guy who came to fix it installed something, including a garden hose. And I paid him to do it! Basically, the landlord fucked me – because they can.”
After being hit with more regulators and inspectors and workmen and a challenge that seemed almost insurmountable, like any determined entrepreneur, she channeled her Inner Millenial. And started saying No.
“If you don’t use your gut, it goes flabby. If you don’t use your instincts, you lose them. I lost my guts, but they came back yesterday. That’s a great lesson in how to be an entrepreneur. Learn to say ‘Fuck you.’”
Josh Hix, Co-Founder of Plated
Favorite Foods: Beer and ice cream “Doesn’t matter if it’s light beer and Carvel – it’s all delicious.”
Plated delivers everything you need to start cooking chef-designed recipes straight to your door, with a new menu every week featuring fresh, ready-to-cook foods. From co-founding ZeeWise, a software tool for retail businesses, to co-founding PlusScrn, a media ad building platform for mobile, Hix is an old hand in the tech industry. So you’d think that he knows the ropes. But with every venture comes its own special challenges and pains…
“I’m an engineer and an entrepreneur,” Hix began. “which means I think I can do anything. Let me tell you about the first time Plated almost died…”
He and co-founder Nick Taranto were literally packing the first Plated subscriptions in a Manhattan living room and decided they needed a dedicated space. The problem was that landlords wanted to see five years of rent and a balance sheet, and it was still early days for the service.
“We convinced a guy to rent to us on a month to month basis.”
It was an underdeveloped warehouse space, and the pair decided that they were going to build in their own refrigeration unit, since buying and putting in a proper unit was way out of their price range. At the time, they were only shipping ten subscription boxes a week. But if you want to get big, you’ve got to think big, no?
Sometimes, not so much.
“I’m a software engineer,” Hix reminded the crowd. “I can build anything.”
Their solution: buy giant ACs and put them into the wall. It was going to be great!
And then they turned them on. Or, Taranto did, anyway. It was 6 am when he called Hix: the backs of the units were dripping water. (The solution, of course: buckets.) The temperature on one side of the warehouse got down to 65 degrees (it needed to be 45 degrees) while the other side was 105 degrees – and Taranto came down with pneumonia.
Not to mention that the electric meter was spiraling out of control. There was no way to salvage the situation. Although entrepreneurs are a scrappy lot and always manage to find another solution.
“We decided to use a refrigerated trailer,” said Hix.
That was nearly washed away by Hurricane Sandy.
Speaking of trials by fire, water counts, too.