High Tech Meets Fresh Food

    One of the great throwback traditions of shopping for food is the local farmers’ market. This is the place where they still have prices memorized, the signage is written by hand, and the food comes from a place someone at the market knows personally. If you’re looking for “high tech,” you won’t find it here.

    “We don’t like it!” Dan Mitchell, one of the owners of Kirkwood Farmers’ Market operator Summit Produce said. “We don’t like it but we know we’re gonna have to join in. Change comes hard for us.”

    He is quick to acknowledge that, ready or not, that change is coming.

    “We know the future,” he said. “We know, no doubt, we’re gonna have to do delivery, curbside pickup, something that is ordered online, people don’t even want to pick up a phone anymore.”

    A glimpse at what he soon might be partnering with, or even competing with, was on display at an Ag-Tech conferences at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center that same day. Marcia Woods has founded a company called Freshspoke. The firm, currently operating in Canada and the Great Lakes region of the United States, allows a wholesale purchaser like Mitchell, or a restauranteur, to use an app to browse the wares of farmers in their area, place their orders directly, and get them delivered directly.

    “We tap into the excess capacity that already exists in the commercial delivery system,” Woods said. “So think, Uber, but for commercial delivery for food.”

    A trucker who has extra space and time, much like an Uber driver, heads to the farm, picks up the order, and makes the delivery. Freshspoke claims it will cut costs, promote fresher food, and help farmers.

    “Imported foods into northern United States and Canada, it can go through up to thirty hands before it reaches us,” Woods told us. “And each of those thirty hands needs to get paid and rightfully so. The other issue is by the time the trickle down of profit reaches that farmer, that farmer is only getting about 1.8 cents on the dollar.”

    She also sees the possibility of her technology being used by companies delivering produce directly to consumers. This could cut out stores and markets altogether. Woods sees that as something another business might step in and try.

    “Where we see the benefit of our technology and what we’ve developed is the application of that technology to other companies that want to get into that market and distribute the food that we have,” she said.

    Back at the farmers’ market, Mitchell says he understands Freshspoke’s pitch of “fresh,” but fears this high-tech approach will put consumers back in the position of never quite knowing what they’re getting.

    “I think dealing straight with the farmer and then bringing their truck here or us going to the farmer is the best way to go,” he explains. “A phone call or a text. Of course if you told me 15 years ago I’d be ordering produce by text, I’d be saying, what’s a text?”

    Of course, the big supermarket chains are already onto all of this, and doing what they can to stay ahead of shoppers and their smartphones. Schnucks stores are among those now offering home delivery and store pickup online. They’re also using apps to deliver rewards designed to bring customers in. They are doing all this on a much larger scale, with about 100 stores.

    “It is complex,” Schnucks Director of Digital Marketing Chace MacMullan, said. “But again we do it for the benefit of our customers, so we have a lot of items in our stores and whether it’s getting the items from our store to their house through Schnucks delivers or changing the whole experience of how people shop in our stores, it’s worth it for us and our customers.”

    They see the challenge of the future as anticipating which emerging technology will be the next one the customer demands.

    “We do have a pretty strong innovation pipeline of knowing what our customers are looking for and we try to anticipate their needs, not only next week and next month but in the years to come,” MacMullan said.

    It all goes back to that word, “change.” It’s something the technology world is trying to force, and a word folks back at the Kirkwood Farmers’ Market still aren’t sure they want to hear.

    “We’re talking about changing behaviors,” Freshspoke’s Woods said. “They’ve been doing the same thing for twenty years. They sit down and make a list. They basically call someone on the phone and drop them an email. So that’s the part that’s tricky.”

    “We like to stay as old school as possible,” Woods counters. “But we know in the future that’s going to have to happen. Our hand is being forced to do it. We don’t want to do it. I don’t personally even like Facebook.”

    He chuckles as he makes that last comment. It’s the laugh of a man who knows his personally opinion isn’t likely to slow what’s coming.