By Becca Jablonski
This article is the third in a series highlighting distributors of New York State farm-grown products. For our third spotlight, I spoke to Marlo Capoccia, the Owner of Garden Gate Delivery, located in Ithaca, New York. I wanted to feature Garden Gate as they recently made the decision to shift their business model to focus on providing freight services for the growing Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms throughout the Tompkins County region. Whereas many CSAs purchase their own vehicles, out sourcing this delivery function can be more cost effective and enable farmers to focus their attention on farming. Thus the service that Marlo and Garden Gate provide farms can be an important part of improved farm profitability.
Q: When you started Garden Gate Delivery in 2008, what was your initial vision and model for the company?
A: I wanted to bring as many local products to families as possible. It was a ‘milkman model’ that I had in mind. I thought that if I went out to various farms to get yogurt and meat for my own family, that I could also do it for other families too. So I bought a truck and got in touch with 10-15 local suppliers. I did my best to get an assortment of meat, bread, fruits, vegetables, and dairy. Next, I set up a website to ensure that everything was as convenient for the would-be customers as possible. I was trying to reach people who were interested in local foods, but my real goal was to try to convert people who were buying at the grocery store to buying local. I knew that the key would be convenience. The website enabled customers to pay online (90% of our sales are credit card based), and thus not worry about writing checks or leaving cash. The home delivery portion of the business was also really just to make it simple.
As we went along, much of the function of the business became more about education. People do not just want to buy stuff. For example, as we started offering CSA shares, we saw that people might drop off in the second season. People would get broccoli rabe or kohlrabies as part of their share and not know what to do with it. So we implemented an educational piece through the website and started writing a weekly newsletter. We also did a series of cooking classes one summer a few years ago, and they were very well attended, but it is a lot of work with just me running the business. I have received many requests to start the cooking classes again. And, as much as I love the education piece, it isn’t really what makes Garden Gate money. So I need to figure out how to make the business successful so that I can do the educational piece, which I love, or find a way for the educational piece to financially support itself.
Q: How has that vision and model changed over the years?
A: Last year when I sat back to really look at the finances of the business, I realized that we were much more efficient when we were doing the CSA deliveries rather than our own deliveries. When we handled everything in-house there was more room for error and mistakes – packing, repacking, sorting, labeling, etc. Doing just the CSA deliveries cut down on our costs, and particularly the need for labor, which meant we could reduce our delivery fee. It has been really appealing to work with The Full Plate Farm Collective (see: http://fullplatefarms.webs.com for more information). The Full Plate Farm Collective CSA started with some fruit and vegetable CSAs working together to increase the diversity of their offerings. But then they added ‘spoke’ farms so that they could offer expanded shares of other types of products – meat, dairy, baked goods, etc. This kind of model works great with Garden Gate’s new business strategy as we can help coordinate pick-ups and deliveries from the various farms and customers are happy because they have expanded options.
Q: How many growers or CSAs do you work with?
A: We have 10 CSAs we work with, and that includes two Community Supported Kitchens (for more information, see: http://crookedcarrotcsk.com.
Q: What type of response do you get from the CSAs for whom you do deliveries?
A: Mostly they are relieved not to do the delivery themselves. It is my goal to take as much of the work off their plate as possible. So at some point we may offer to take all of the CSA orders through our website and just give farms the total number of orders. Right now we do routing, and are starting to do some marketing – and of course the delivery. This takes about 10+ hours of work per week away from the CSA farms. Plus, it makes them look good, since they can expand offerings to their CSA members through increasing access to the other CSA share options.
Q: Is there demand from other CSAs to increase the availability of distribution services?
A: Yes! We are trying to figure out how to grow our business to meet the demand.
Q: What are the challenges you face working with the CSAs?
A: Working with multiple CSAs is difficult in terms of timing – certain product has to get to businesses or specific places at certain times. For example, the bakery doesn’t finish baking until 10:30am, but I want to start deliveries at 8:30am. So managing the timing issues is tough. Also, sometimes the CSAs have made commitments to deliver to certain businesses at certain times and managing those scheduling issues is a challenge. I also need to make sure that the delivery routes make sense for my business.
Q: Are you looking for additional CSAs to work with?
A: Yes, but not immediately. We are still tweaking the model, and once we have it right we will certainly start looking for more CSAs.
Q: If farmers are interested in working with Garden Gate Delivery who should they contact?
A: I am happy to be a resource for anybody looking for ideas about how to start a distribution company, but I am not capable of delivering outside of Tompkins County at this point. If farms are looking for delivery within Tompkins County, they should email me at: email@example.com. Also, I encourage everyone to check out our website: http://www.gardengatedelivery.com
Becca Jablonski is a PhD student at Cornell University conducting food systems research. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org Thanks to the following funders for their support of local food distribution research: the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future, NESARE, and the Cornell Small Farms Program.