February 2010

The hardest part of change is the moment when we know only what we are losing and nothing of what we’ll gain. We’re accustomed to our old ways, even if they are ruinous.  In the case of food, the large companies of the old system are big revenue generators in our economy.  We need this livelihood, but their products harm our health and the environment.  What then does the strong and successful food company of the future look like?

Continued below

Basis Foods Retail Store Coming to Downtown Manhattan-Spring 2010

Enter Bion Bartning and his expanding business, Basis Foods.  Started in 2008, Basis has three primary revenue streams:  1) Farm-to-Chef, a service that distributes farm produce to New York City restaurants 2) an upcoming retail store and 3) Good Food to You, a home/office delivery service that’s the sweet spot between Fresh Direct and your local CSA.  Basis is rooted in the tenet that their food is local and 100% traceable.  It’s also imperative to Bartning that it’s affordable.

“We started this company with a single hypothesis:  It is a false choice to say that you can have cheap food or good food.  We have affordable food that you want to eat.  If you can’t make good food affordable, than you can’t address the big issues.  Let’s make this accessible to everyone.”

When asked to frame the big issues in his words, Bartning brings up food security, among many other things.  “I’m not talking in the bioterrorism sense,” he explains, “We have a threat to our food security due to the concentration of large companies producing our food.  We are experiencing a rapid loss of genetic diversity.  What would happen if something went wrong with one of these companies?  To use the financial language–when Monsanto, for example, becomes too big to fail, this makes our system vulnerable.  We should have a system in which thousands of farmers are self-reliant.”

Basis’ products come from a network of about 70 farms that are sure to grow to meet the burgeoning Basis demand.  In the weeks leading up to the launch of Good Food for You, the company received over 500 inquiries from people wanting deliveries.  In building this arm of the business, they retained one important characteristic of a CSA; like a CSA community drop-off site, they will deliver to a building once five or more customers have signed up at that location.  Unlike Fresh Direct, the deliveries will come in bags, not boxes, and reusable bags will soon be a part of this service.

The thinking and the energy behind Basis is powerful.  When I recently visited their new offices in the Meatpacking District, Bartning was proud to show off a piece of small business resourcefulness.

“See these desks?  We made each one – and it only cost us about $30 a desk,” he said.

The spirit in the room was of people who enjoy each other’s company and who believe in the company they are building.  Imagine where they will be in a few short years–after New York, it’s easy to picture Basis in other U.S. cities and likely in the world at large.  Why?  Here’s a simple vignette to explain:

While Bartning and I were in line for coffee, he picked up a bag of granola for sale near the register.  He mentioned that he’s looking for a local granola source for a regular breakfast client and he asked a café employee if the granola was made in-house.  When she replied that it was not, he set it back down.  He resolved to keep looking.  “I wouldn’t sell anything that wasn’t 100% traceable,” he said.

In these services–and in this conviction–we have one of the new, great food companies of the future.

In the trailer from Vanishing of the Bees, one of the experts says that the Chinese character for “crisis” includes the characters for both “danger” and “opportunity.”  What a precise metaphor for our economic climate today.

In the global groundswell to change the way food is produced and distributed, entrepreneurs are opening to the opportunity.  I hear spirited stories from New York often and will bring you local updates soon.  In the meantime, enjoy these kindred businesses from distant lands.

SoupCycle in Action on the Streets of Portland, OR

This comes from Groundswell West, a.k.a. my sister Lindsay and her friend Elizabeth Moore in Portland, Oregon:  SoupCycle.  Started by two “soup lovers and avid bicycle advocates,” the company delivers freshly-prepared soup by bike to your home or office in the Portland area.  The standard order starts at $18 for a quart of soup, a salad, and rustic bread with the delivery fee included.  A meal this size is estimated to feed 1-2 people.  In New York, our density makes bicycle delivery standard (albeit ruthless to pedestrians), but imagine the carbon benefit of this model in our wide and vastly-paved cities.  They could create a franchise for every few neighborhoods.  Customers could also bike over to the franchise to pick up their soups, rather than get in a car nightly for fast food via a drive thru.  [Note:  The drive thru example falls under my category of “Confessions of a Midwestern Childhood.”]

Beautiful utility: Unpackaged in London

The mention of this next business is dedicated to the first environmentalist I ever knew: Joan Landewe.  I went to high school with her kids and was in their kitchen one day when she returned fired up from the grocery store.  The store had not let her use her own bags to carry out her groceries.  They claimed that all bags leaving the store needed to be printed with the store name.  In those days, reusing a bag was simply not done.

Many years later, there’s a store in London called Unpackaged.  It is BYOE – Bring Your Own Everything, except the food you purchase.  They have that part.  They sell it in bulk and customers bring their own containers to take it home.  If you think you have a particularly heavy container, they will weigh it first and then deduct the weight from the final price.  Otherwise, they will offer their discount for any container that customers bring–including for the person who brings plastic bottles for lentils.  And yes, they let you bring your own bags, too.

Have you experienced a new food business in your corner of the world?  If so, I’d love to hear about it.  Opportunity — here we come!

I look forward to seeing this documentary when it comes out, and in the meantime, let’s help them rally to finish it.  Don’t worry about the RSVP date, but please do RSVP if you plan to attend.  Click here to learn more.  Many thanks!

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