Coronavirus forces food aggregator to adapt quickly
SPARKS, Md. — During the week of March 7, Chesapeake Farm to Table, a popular farm aggregator north of Baltimore, had 15 orders of meat and produce set for delivery to restaurants across the region. It was an average week.
Then the coronavirus arrived and blew the average week away.
“Oh my God, you should see my head spin off my shoulders,” said Beckie Gurley, manager and owner of the aggregator, which sells products from more than 25 farms across the region.
Last week, Gurley was managing the aggregator’s orders — all 150 of them. And they’re not restaurants either, but regular household customers. For the most part, Gurley said, the restaurants have vanished from her business.
In a stunningly brief amount of time, the aggregator’s operation has been turned upside down, and Gurley, who also owns Calvert’s Gift Farm with her husband Jack in Sparks, has had to adapt on the fly.
The aggregator has become a case study in the way technology has helped farmers operate without the assistance of major distributors — even during a viral disaster that threatens to send the national economy into its first depression in nearly a century. She went from one employee — her — to six in about a week’s time after the coronavirus confined Marylanders to their homes and the food orders began pouring in.
“Hiring them was really easy because they’re people who are out of work because of the pandemic,” Gurley said.
They use three vans to make deliveries. To be as efficient as possible, Gurley said she bought route management software that allows her to input the addresses of a day’s worth of orders and develop a delivery order for drivers that saves time, gas and other costs.
“We were doing it on the back of an envelope a couple weeks ago,” she said.
New e-commerce software she recently purchased by Local Food Marketplace, a Eugene, Ore., company, allows customers to select food on Chesapeake Farm to Table’s website. Those orders are sent to the individual farmers who have listed their products, and those farmers bring the orders twice a week to the aggregator for delivery.
“It’s very simple, and, of course, I am over 50 and my IT skills leave a little to be desired, but it’s very intuitive for the customers,” Gurley said.
In addition to delivering to homes, the aggregator also uses two drop-off locations: one at Well Crafted Pizza, one of the aggregator’s clients, and another at Motzi Bread, both in Baltimore.
“We’re just adapting hour to hour and day to day with all this nonsense,” Gurley said.
She began the aggregator in 2015, not with the goal of turning a profit, but to streamline the relationship between regional farmers and restaurants, which were often buying from multiple farmers.
Until recently, she said, Chesapeake Farm to Table was barely breaking even, but the coronavirus may change that. To manage the new residential deliveries, Gurley imposed a new delivery fee that’s helped cover the cost of new employees. Customers are ordering lots of meat, arugula, spring mixes, potatoes and carrots, she said. Her farmers are seeing more business.
“We as farmers can’t stop what we’re doing,” she said. “We have to plan for June, for August, for November now. We’ve got transplants. We’ve got seeds in the ground. We can’t stop. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
And there’s one more benefit to selling to residents, she said. Chesapeake Farm to Table promises to pay its farmers immediately, which can get tense when restaurants, occasionally slow to pay, are the primary customer. Single customers order their food, and the money comes instantly.
“That makes it a little less scary,” she said, chuckling.
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