Montreal-based online farm-to-fork marketplace eyes Pioneer Valley

Daily Hampshire Gazette. September 1, 2014. By Richie Davis.

Getting food from local farms onto more local menus is an idea that’s been on everyone’s plate for a while. Farms and restaurants need a matchmaker, and beyond that, someone who will play the time-consuming role of coordinator, and then deliver the goods.

Enter Provender, a Montreal-based online farm-to-fork marketplace that also launched in Toronto earlier this month and is gearing up for an entrance in the Pioneer Valley in the coming year.

The year-old startup, which is preparing to serve the Minneapolis area as well as all of Vermont, is the brainchild of three entrepreneurs — one of whom has settled in Royalston and is working with the Slow Money Pioneer Valley Working Group to foster grass-roots investment.

“There are a lot of farms here and restaurants here, and there’s a wide diversity of things being grown in this area,” said Kyra Kristof, who co-founded the tech firm Pollin8r six years ago in eastern Maryland to promote local food systems.

“I became very excited about the possibility that food was this joyful place where we could actually make changes that were important, that affected a vast array of issues,” said Kristof, 37, who had been working for a decade before that in using new media to involve people in environmental issues.

She and Pollin8r co-founder Jeff Aldrich met Montreal chef Caithrin Rintoul, who was involved in creation of Montreal’s rooftop Lufa Farms greenhouse and after leaving his cooking career kept his hand as matchmaker between chefs and farmers.

“He felt there was an opportunity to sell these kinds of things that don’t fit in long (supply) chains, because they’re highly perishable, and are often very locally appropriate and seasonal,” said Kristof, who was poised to either buy a retail storefront, a warehouse, or refrigerated trucks, but realized there had to be an online alternative to having buildings and equipment that would compromise freshness.

Provender has raised more than $1 million in capital to date and so far works with 650 growers and customers among its Toronto, Montreal and Minneapolis centers, with a staff of 12 to 15 spread in those locations.

The “soft” test Vermont launch, with 16 buyers and 15 vendors, took place this summer, like the launch in Minneapolis in conjunction with that city’s Linden Hills Marketplace.

Restaurants, as well as institutions, grocers or small-scale food producers can log into the Provender database and find roughly 1,700 products, from alfalfa and amaranth to yogurt bufala and zucchini, with each farm listing how much is available or when it will become available.

“When we brought everything together, the ground rules were these foods are highly perishable and we want to have as little waste as possible,” says Kristof, who recently completed permaculture design training in Vermont.

Another of the Provender’s assumptions is that a lot of the growers will be arranging for their own delivery, although the new business has also found itself in the role of helping some of those deliveries happen.

“Part of our challenge is logistical, and just being sensitive to the idea that we can’t serve everybody everywhere,” Kristof says. “We need to make sure, especially if we have farmers making deliveries, that it makes sense within the context of what they’re already doing. We have chefs who are working with other chefs, or chefs working with farmers who are working with different restaurants, and that’s been really interesting to see what those patterns look like within different communities. It looks very different in Montreal, where there’s a city surrounded by a green belt, than it does in Vermont. There are some approaches that work really well in one location that don’t at others.”

CISA conversations

Margaret Christie of Deerfield-based Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, who has had preliminary conversations with Kristof, sees it as a positive sign that Provender has adapted its model to its different markets and sees the value of having people “on the ground.”

“There have been a lot of efforts to start online ordering and distribution systems. Often, they start in one place but have aspirations to operate in many different places. There have been some (that have been) successes and others that have not,” Christie said, pointing to Foodex, which sought as Organic Renaissance to set up a planned hub in Athol and then failed in Boston and New Bedford.

“There’s a perception that technology will make this possible in a new way, but if you’re going to do the actual distribution piece, you have to figure out how you’re going to move all the trucks down the road from all the farms to all the different places that need food, which are all spread out. It’s tricky.”

Beyond that caveat, Provender tries to work with various networks already on the ground, such as CISA, which has an existing database of farms and their products.

Kristof has begun conversations with some of those networks in Vermont about who the farmers are, what they’ve been growing, and how they can work with restaurants to coordinate what they’re planting in the spring for the next growing season. Conversations with Pioneer Valley growers could also begin over the next year, and with potential customers as well.

The net effect, she said, to help farmers find a reliable customer base for a more diverse set of products and to quickly track down a ready customer for an extra supply they may have for a crop — all while whetting the public appetite for local foods they did not know existed.

“We have stories from some of our chefs, like the one about the people who are so excited about these amazing mashed potatoes that were actually mashed turnips,” she said. “Maybe there are some things people aren’t familiar with, but they actually do grow well locally and can benefit from being part of the local foodshed.”