One of the reasons — OK, the main reason — I love living in Brooklyn is that it’s a food-retail wonderland. With the will, my wallet and a granny cart, I can hit Whole Foods for Gotham Greens’ rooftop lettuce, Mermaid’s Garden for summer flounder, Bklyn Larder for White Mustache wild cherry Persian yogurt, Fleisher’s for dry-aged grass-fed beef, the Greenmarket for Flying Pigs pastured chorizo and the Flea for Bushwick-made Fine & Raw chocolate.
Now, thanks to a new food delivery business called Good Eggs, I can get all of that, and more, without the schlepp. But with an artisan answer to Fresh Direct, would living in Brooklyn suddenly become more convenient but less interesting?
Turns out that Good Eggs wants to do more than save us all a trip to the store. The California-based startup’s goal is to help farmers and other producers expand their markets by solving one of the most vexing questions facing the new generation of food producers: How do you efficiently market and distribute your small-batch, artisanal products? The solution pairs old farming and culinary traditions with new tech solutions.
Good Egg’s founders, Rob Spiro and Alon Salant, are Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. (Spiro sold his first company, a social-search service called Aardvark, to Google for $50 million.) And while Spiro and Salant found the tech scene invigorating, both wanted to do something more meaningful than develop the next version of Angry Birds.
“Part of the culture out here is a belief that technology is really powerful,” Spiro told me when I visited Good Eggs’ headquarters in San Francisco last spring. “When you are inside one of these big companies, you see that this change you make is not trivial. You are changing how people spend hours of their day or how they spend time with their family or how they shop. Then there’s a little bit of a backlash where you think, ‘Wow, given that that is the case, why are people working on such bullshit things?’”
Spiro and Salant leveraged their easy access to capital—“it’s kind of shocking how easy it is to raise $2 million,” says Spiro (who has raised far more than that) — and do something “that actually has a positive impact on social issues and environmental issues that we care about.”
Originally, the idea was to create an Etsy-style marketplace for food producers; Good Eggs would provide the software and farmers would fulfill orders and make deliveries. But it soon became clear that customers didn’t want to receive one delivery of strawberries, another of milk, a third of steak. (There’s a reason supermarkets are ubiquitous.) So, despite concerns about the thin margins in the food-distribution business, last summer Good Eggs christened a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in San Francisco to aggregate customer orders and take them the last mile.
On the website, customers order artisan ingredients at their regular retail price — and delivery is free. Once a week, butchers, bakers and sheep-cheese-makers drop their goods at the Good Eggs warehouse, where staff sort orders and then make deliveries, taking 25 percent of the retail price. But the trick is that Good Eggs never buys or holds product — and therefore doesn’t have money tied up in inventory or a gargantuan warehouse. Small producers sell more of what they grow, raise, catch and bake, without having to handle e-commerce or make deliveries. And customers get the quality and ecology of the farmers market with the convenience of Amazon.
When Good Eggs expanded to Brooklyn last November Spiro knew just whom he wanted to run the new operation: his buddy Josh Morgenthau. Spiro had spent a summer during college with Morgenthau at his family’s Fishkill Farms in the Hudson Valley. (Yes, Morgenthau is the son of former New York district attorney Robert and grandson to Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Treasury Henry — but try prying that out of him.) After college, Morgenthau dedicated himself to revitalizing the 100-year-old farm, expanding the orchards, planting 30 acres of vegetables, adding 1,000 pastured hens and selling through the Greenmarket. He knows what small producers need in a changing marketplace.
Online retail of artisan food is an increasingly crowded (and well-funded) field. Fresh Direct has made home delivery the new normal, and several startups offer that convenience with the craft quality of specialty shops like Greene Grape or Stinky.
Most similar to Good Eggs is Farmigo, also out of the Bay Area, which started as an online CSA and now lets shoppers customize orders before socializing at a weekly pickup site. Brooklyn-based Quinciple delivers a weekly box with items curated from small farms across the country: Your Long Island clams and Hudson Valley lettuce might arrive alongside Carolina heirloom rice and morels from Michigan.
Farm To People offers pantry items from pasta to pickles, but no produce, while Blue Apron delivers pre-measured ingredients to cook a prescribed meal. Good Eggs and these competitors are to trying to crack a logistics puzzle: The best way to deliver small quantities of hundreds of different products, from chevre to cherries, to customers who want value and values — delivered.
I visited Good Eggs’ new Brooklyn headquarters — a 4,000-square-foot depot in the old Pfizer building, where dozens of food startups — including HeartBeet Juicery and Mama-O’s Kimchi — bake, freeze and ferment. It was midday, and the employees were sitting down for lunch. The roast chicken, slender carrots with pomegranate seeds and green salad served on mismatched plates looked like staff meal at Chez Panisse, and indeed the company’s cook used to work there. Good Eggs doesn’t really need to provide lunch — you can’t go hungry in the Pfizer building. But the meal has become a daily ritual where the marketers sit down with the delivery guys and the logistics experts can feed suggestions to the “community care” team, which makes sure that every Good Eggs customer gets a personal follow-up after his first order and a gift and handwritten note after his third.
The key, says Morgenthau, Good Egg’s New York City lead, is finding ever more ways to be efficient.
“The industrial food system thrives on the economics of cheaply made food. But it’s extremely wasteful in its consumption of fossil fuel, and inherent spoilage,” says Morgenthau. “Our challenge is to find every efficiency we can to get food from farm to table.” For example, this spring, the delivery guys on bikes tracked the time it took to move through different neighborhoods at different times of day. In some scenarios, a van was faster and cheaper.
There are other kinks to work out, too. For a farmer like Bennett Haynes, in Mendham, New Jersey, it’s hard to justify delivering to Good Eggs’ Brooklyn warehouse if only a few people have placed an order. (Good Eggs can pick up products made in the city, to save those makers a trip.) And while Peter Shelsky is thrilled to reach more customers than the ones he can draw to his Carroll Gardens store, his profits will dwindle if regulars order his smoked fish and bagels online and he loses 25 percent of every sale. Still, Shelsky says that in this day and age small producers have to take every opportunity — and “Good Eggs makes everything easy.”
A growing number of people apparently agree. Morgenthau says the site is growing by 5 percent a week. And Good Eggs is looking for a new 20,000-square-foot warehouse so it can expand delivery into Manhattan by the end of the year.
A larger space will also allow Good Eggs to add ever more new, intriguing products. Customers can hopscotch around Brooklyn and Manhattan to visit the latest stores, meet the makers, taste and talk.
Or not. Turns out, it’s nice to have the option.
Photo credit: Alan Gastelum