Since its founding in 2009, the Local Food Hub has grown a broad, stable and self-sustaining customer base of local farmers whose crops support a wholesale distribution network for their locally produced fruits, vegetables, meats and eggs.
Alan Moore, the food hub’s director of distribution, said people and food are at the heart of the hub’s business model.
“What we’ve found is that produce, like any kind of sales, is very people oriented and it’s a lot about relationships that you build and communication,” Moore said. “So we spend a lot of time on the phone with our growers just getting to know them.”
Operating out of a 3,100-square-foot warehouse in Ivy, about a dozen full- and part-time workers manage the dis-tribution of fresh, locally grown produce and meat to about 150 regular local customers. The food comes from about 75 local farms.
The food hub essentially provides the back-end sales, planning, marketing, delivery services and expertise that farmers may not have or choose not to get involved in.
“We look at what we do as economic development work,” Moore said. “By investing directly in our growers, we see that returned back and them continuing to invest in their farm business.”
In contrast to selling straight from the farm, from a table at a farmer’s market or a community-supported agricul-ture model, the food hub’s focus is on other businesses and institutions that typically have more volume, such as restaurants and schools.
Moore and Emily Manley, the food hub’s outreach and development director, said they occupy a niche market in between the big-box store chains and boutique grocery stores that serve individual households and very large dis-tributors such as Sysco.
For a farmer looking to establish a spot in the wholesale market, “it’s much easier for a farmer to come here and drop off 40 boxes of beets than to drive around to make 40 different deliveries of one box of beets,” Manley ex-plained. “We’re trying to make an economy of scale.”
Their model is clearly working. In 2010, the food hub generated about $375,000 in sales; in 2011 that grew to about $670,000, and this year, the organization is on track to reach $800,000 in sales, Manley said. Overall, the organization has purchased about $1.2 million in local food.
Manley said the post-recession economy has a silver lining in that people seem more interested in where their money is going, regardless of where they’re at in the consumer chain.
“People are much more interested in keeping their money local in supporting local businesses and doing whatever they can to bolster Charlottesville and Central Virginia rather than big chain grocery stores and seeing their money leave the community,” she said.
Whitney Critzer, owner ofCritzer Family Farm on the Albemarle-Nelson County line, is one of the local farmers who does business with the food hub. He’s been with the organization since the beginning. Critzer said his relation-ship with the food hub has allowed him to nearly double how much he grows.
“We take the time to stress the quality, stress the freshness,” Critzer said. “We tell folks we’re not selling food to keep [from spoiling]; we’re selling food to eat.”
Nathan Yoder of Shady Lane Family Farm also has been with the food hub since its founding.
“We like the food hub model because of the quantity that they purchase,” Yoder said. “They have consistently paid a fair price, and also they’re supporting the local economy — and I enjoy supporting the local economy.”
“We’re trying to tap into these markets that we know purchase a lot of food but for whatever reason, aren’t serving it right now,” Manley said. “We’re trying to keep the food local, we’re trying to keep the money local, we’re trying to keep the farms in business and we’re trying to support what the small businesses and business leaders are doing here in Charlottesville to support local food.”
Tom Cervelloni is the director of food and beverage at Abbott Center at the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia. At the height of the growing season, Cervelloni said his kitchen serves about 60 percent locally grown food sourced from the food hub and other area farms. The food is used to prepare as many as 1,000 meals a day.
Cervelloni said he believes the food hub has a bright future.
“I think they’re going to be around for a long time,” he said.