Ooooby in North America

By Pete Russell

My recent trip to the United States felt like being in a slipstream. After years of developing Ooooby at a slow and steady pace it was refreshing to feel an acceleration in the land of opportunity. Touching down in San Francisco I spent the afternoon with Andreas Weigend, former Chief Scientist at Amazon, musing on the future of big data and the concept of ‘transparency is the new privacy’. As we enter a radically different world over the next 7 — 10 years it will pay to be mindful of how big data is playing a significant part in the changes that are coming.

Jim Cochran

Bidding farewell to Andreas I joined Jim Cochran on a road trip to his farm on Highway 1 just north of Santa Cruz. Jim is the visionary co-founder of The Food Commons and owner of the iconic Swanton Berry Farm.

Jim and I spent the next 2 days together discussing everything from gophers in his strawberry fields through to imagineering the future of local food systems the world over. Jim is an exemplary farmer producing high taste organic strawberries in a fair and sustainable way both ecologically and financially. Jim’s roadside oasis offers the quintessential farm stand experience of days gone by.

Pop the $10's, $20's and big bills into the slot and collect your own change.

The honour till collects more than $10,000 per week relying entirely on his customers trustworthy nature as they conduct their own transactions and collect their own change. It just goes to show that people are still primarily trustworthy, especially when given the chance to demonstrate it.

From Jim’s farm we took the 3 hour drive out to Fresno to meet with a cast of around 30 leaders in the local food space at the first ever Food Commons convocation. This event fell nothing short of blowing my hair back. The passion, knowledge and clarity of purpose that emerged from those few short days together gives me hope for our food future. We had so many valuable conversations, too many to share the details here, suffice to say that we are forming a strong international organisation with the purpose of imagining, designing and building local food systems that restore the social and ecological wellbeing of the communities we operate in.

And to top it all off, 11th Hour Project (Eric Schmidt’s family foundation) provisionally offered financial support to see the launch of the first Ooooby Hub in California which initiated an agreement among the Fresno core team to start delivering Ooooby boxes in Fresno in the first week of January 2015.

Larry Yee

After a closing session of the convocation I joined Food Commons co-founder Larry Yee and board member Craig Pendleton on a drive to Larry’s home in Ojai where we were treated to Larry’s most gracious hospitality while sharing stories and meeting with local farmers. On Sunday morning Larry had me riding a beach cruiser to the local famers market and in no time I was behind a stall selling organic veges and flowers.

Ojai Farmer Steve Sprinkel

The market was pulsing with hundreds of people from all walks of life. Of note was the presence of SNAP vouchers (food stamps) being spent. The pairing of food stamps with Farmers Markets is such a great idea with benefits on so many levels. People who would otherwise not have the means or motivation to buy fresh local food now have reason to join the joyful fray at the markets and be uplifted by the social interaction along with an improved diet. No doubt policies such as these have contributed to keeping the the local food movement in the states alive and well.

Early Monday morning I was on a train back to Fresno for a couple of days to meet with yet another iconic Californian farmer Tom Willey who took me on a tour of the Abundant Harvest Organics operation that delivers over 4,000 boxes per week.

Tom Willey

Watching the packing line with around 40 people in a coordinated flow inspired some new ideas on how we can improve efficiencies as we scale. The main takeaway from this visit is that we can excel in any two, but not all three, of the following areas — service, quality, price. Abundant Harvest focus primarily on price and quality which means customers can enjoy organic food at conventional prices which appeals to price sensitive shoppers who are willing to make do without choice and convenience. In this context it became apparent to me that Ooooby is targeting the middle of the bell curve where service (which includes convenience and choice) and quality needs to be our focus. So what does that mean for price sensitive shoppers who want to support local? Are we being elitist by not having a focus on low price? Not so. Our model has a static 50% of retail going back to the growers which naturally keeps the retail price competitive without squeezing the growers which means we can put our attention on service and quality without fear of becoming a boutique outlet.

All aboard the Coast Starlight to Seattle!

Well what can I say! I thought California was a shining example of a region that is leading the way for local food, and it is! But it didn’t prepare me for Seattle, ground zero of the local food movement. To give some perspective, the statistic I heard was that of all the food consumed in the United States around 2% is consumed within 350 miles of where it is grown. In Seattle however that figure is a staggering 15%! Farmers Markets are prolific and very well patronised with thousands of customers pouring through. The local food scene doesn’t stop there though.

Many cafes and restaurants pride themselves on sourcing most ingredients from within the region and there are retail outlets exclusively dedicated to selling ready-to-eat local meals.

Then taking it to the next level there is a real life example of true backyard farming by a group called City Grown which is a farm literally patched together from small backyard plots around and about the neighbourhood including a section at a local community allotment called Marra Farm.

Getting down to business in Seattle has been a serendipitous experience. Timo, our man on the ground there has been connecting the dots over the last 4 months so by the time I arrived it was one positive engagement after another. Our first meeting was with Enrique and Brett. Brett was on the founding team of Amazon Grocery and now owns a business which curates and packs custom boxes of candies to be sold through Amazon. Visiting their packing line was like walking into a miniature version of an Ooooby Hub. The process is almost identical, the only difference being that the boxes are about 1/8th the size. Enrique is the marketing and operations manager for Brett’s business and, surprise surprise, is now on the Ooooby team bringing his expertise and local contacts to the table. Then out of the blue Kelsey, Timo’s sister, turns up and takes her place on the team to fill the customer happiness role. The enthusiasm and aptitude of this team is just what we need for lighting the first Ooooby fire in this great big land of opportunity.

As I departed from my last meeting with Timo, Kelsey and Enrique I spotted the bus I needed to catch coming down the road and the bus stop was about 150 yards away. Breaking into a run I felt a rush of excitement and gratitude for the amazing journey I had experienced so far when a man leaned out off a passing car and yelled “I believe in you! YOU CAN MAKE IT!!”

And make it I did.