Gubenko trades in stocks to draw interest to locally grown food
HIGHTSTOWN — Moving from trading stocks to local food, a second career has worked out for Oliver Gubenko in a big way.
Unlike some of the state’s smaller farmers and food producers, Gubenko was doing very well financially, making about $200,000 a year, just a few years out of college.
But the work he was doing was not spiritually fulfilling.
Raised in Teaneck, near the George Washington Bridge, Gubenko majored in finance at Rutgers University.
He graduated from the New Brunswick campus in 2009.
“I graduated in 2009, the worst time in history to graduate with a finance degree,” he said one recent afternoon at his office in Hightstown, referring to the Great Recession.
“I got very lucky and found a job with a small fund firm,” Gubenko said. “I started as an assistant trader in lower Manhattan. I was really into it and had a great time. I was promoted after eight months to a full trader and had my own account and managed my own positions. I did that for just over two years.”
“I loved trading and buying and selling and all of that stuff, however, even now — if you ask any financial trader in the world what do you do — the only thing they can say is they ‘bring liquidity to the market.’
“A trader will tell you we allow transactions to happen at a tighter margin and a lot quicker than they normally would,” he said, noting the person who needs to buy 100 shares of Apple computer stock doesn’t really care if he buys it now or in the next four minutes.
“And, there’s actually very little value in that for the customer. It’s not so much that it was boring, it was just unfulfilling for me. You feel like you’re buying and selling air,” he said.
So, on June 1, 2015 from his home in Morristown, Gubenko launched Harvest Drop, a small brokerage of sorts for locally-grown food, after he’d first conferred with a number of Morristown and New Brunswick-area chefs.
“I’d never been in a restaurant kitchen before, I’d never been on a farm in my life before, my background was in finance. While I was still working full-time, I knew I needed a change of pace,” he said. He began walking door-to-door, talking to restaurant chefs to gauge the level of interest in his ideas.
“I got my first few customers, quit my job and the rest is history,” he said. Three years later, Harvest Drop now works with about 55 farm and meat producers in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania.
They include everything from “people who make jams and jellies to Italian cold cut producers.”
“My entire business model revolves around one central idea: We do not take any inventory on fresh food. We have some shelf-stable stuff in our warehouse,” he said, noting it’s about the size of a one-car garage and adjoins his offices at Harvest Drop.
“It forces us to get our customers fresh food. Everything they receive was harvested the day before. All of my customers right now see us two days a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If a customer sees us on Tuesday, that means their produce was harvested the day before, everything in their order was harvested the day before. That ensures they get the best quality produce possible. Also, they’re able to use a full case of lettuce or chicken, whatever the product is. They’re able to use everything.”
While his business was based in the Somerset section of Franklin Township for a short time, he relocated to Hightstown less than a mile down the street from the Tri-County Farmers’ Cooperative. He credited former cooperative general manager Bill Dea for helping him continue to grow his business.
“Now, I’m a food trader and I sit here on the phone all day and I buy and sell food. It’s a tangible item I’m buying and selling, and I get to talk to the people who grow it and I can taste it too,” he said.
He estimated this year, he’ll spend $1.5 million on food in the wholesale market. All of the restaurant owners and chefs he deals with understand the seasonal nature of fresh produce and know their timelines. He said he started the business with $3,000, taking all orders and making all deliveries himself. Soon after that, he bought a refrigerated truck and things just took off from there.
“And I’ve never sold anything outside of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It’s been 100 percent local. That’s because if I get you something that’s in-season, say, a tomato, it’s in-season, and it’s going to be a good tomato.”
He credits all his farmers and food producers for much of his success and he’s built strong relationships with all of them.
“This is a for-profit entity and (food quality) drives me to be very successful at what I do,” Gubenko related.
Gubenko has no partners in Harvest Drop but has four full-time employees.
“I didn’t pay myself for the first 18 months,” he said, “and I buy the best equipment I can. We have the best refrigerator units on those trucks, even on our hand carts. I spend almost 500 dollars per hand cart because I want my drivers to be safe, to be efficient and to be able to do the best possible job.”
Gubenko said he loves the dual roles he and his associates play, being buyers on one end from farmers and places like Tri-County Cooperative, and on the other end, selling to chefs and restaurant owners.
“I have producers that treat me like I’m their biggest buyer, and I do look for people that are coachable and I can motivate,” he said, “nothing irritates me more than a producer who just doesn’t care. Then, there’s nothing to talk about. I have producers that work harder for me than anybody else, and those are the producers that we work the best with, sell the most food with, and they’re the ones who make Harvest Drop shine.”
On the restaurant side, Gubenko said his small firm now services about 150 Garden State restaurants.
“We’re just known for exceptional quality,” he said, noting half of it is the product he sells and the other half of it is service.
“If I tell you my truck is going to be there at noon, the truck is there at noon, and if you’re in a pinch, we can always figure out a way to help you out. My drivers come in with a smile on their faces, build their own relationships with you, and if you’re in a pinch, we can help you out,” he said.
Gubenko said both of his parents were small business owners, and the entrepreneurial drive rubbed off on him.
His older brother is a chef, and in recent years he’s developed an interest in farming, cooking and yoga. He admitted, as a kid, he always had it in the back of his mind it would be nice to own his own business.
With the evolution of Harvest Drop in the last three years, “I feel like I’m very good with people. I’m not the most charming person or can’t make you laugh. I just have a certain sense of empathy and understanding when people say ‘no,’ and understanding people’s needs makes me good at what I do.”
For the future with Harvest Drop, Gubenko said he doesn’t want to get big enough to compete with big food distributors with huge fleets of refrigerated trucks. It all goes back to the vision he had for Harvest Drop and why he left his good paying-yet-spiritually unfulfilling job in hedge funds.
“The idea that what I do gives people food to eat and gives chefs really strong ingredients to work with, that’s very fulfilling to me.”
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